High and Dry
California currently has few options other than conservation in battling drought
By Jana J. Monji 04/15/2014
The thunderstorms that passed through the region at the end of February and the beginning of March may have caused traffic nightmares on local freeways, but the 5.40 inches of water that fell in Pasadena (5.72 inches in Los Angeles) according to the National Weather Service during those four days didn’t come close to making up for three consecutive years of drought. Yes, the percentage of annual rainfall has increased to 50 percent with the rains, but that’s a half-full glass that’s still half empty.
January was abnormally dry, marking only the fifth time since 1878 that no measurable rain fell in Los Angeles. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported late winter and early spring rains only brought the snowpack up from 27 percent to 32 percent of normal. The state is still in the middle of a drought, even if everywhere we look is green.
Pasadena is playing a major role in the search for answers to California’s drought crisis. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by Caltech for NASA , has partnered with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to monitor the state’s water resources, as outlined in a recent media briefing in Sacramento on Feb. 25. Three of the six participants were from JPL: Tom Painter, the principal investigator at the Airborne Snow Observatory at JPL; geologist Tom Farr; and Duane Waliser, chief scientist with the Earth Science and Technology Directorate. The other participants were Jeanine Jones, the interstate water resources manager of DWR, Forrest Melton, a senior research scientist with the Cooperative for Research in Earth Science and Technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, and Lawrence Friedl, director of the Applied Sciences Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
JPL scientists study Earth by “remote sensing,” using aerial sensor technologies to gather information from signals sent out by aircrafts or satellites. That includes NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which measures the depth of snow patches and the rate they are melting. Satellite radar mapping also provides data about ground sinking or subsidence due to decreased groundwater. You read that correctly: Ground sinking. Underground layers of water-bearing permeable rock are called aquifers. Instead of drilling for oil, Californians in places like the San Joaquin Valley are drilling for water and draining it from aquifers faster than nature can replenish the supply.
Unlike Texas and Kansas, California doesn’t regulate ground water pumping. That can be troubling, considering a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News reported that over-pumping in the past has caused areas in the San Joaquin Valley to sink in some places as much as 28 feet, posing a threat to bridges and canals.
Scientists at NASA will team with DWR, researchers at UC San Diego and others to analyze “atmospheric rivers,” which are narrow, low-altitude corridors of water vapor. Atmospheric rivers account for most flooding events yet also provide about 40 percent of California’s freshwater. Knowing how these rivers run will help scientists understand global water cycles. In addition, three of five new NASA earth science missions are designed to further research on the water cycle and will contribute to national water-related policy decisions.
The Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory joint project with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which launched on Feb. 27, will provide observations of rainfall and snowfall to answer questions about Earth’s life-sustaining water cycle, and thus improve water resource management and weather forecasting.
The ISS-RapidScat will launch in June to provide data on ocean winds in order to help track weather and marine forecasting and track storms and hurricanes.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) will launch in November to aid in the prediction of plant growth and agricultural productivity by improving short-term weather forecasts and long-term climate change projections. Scientists believe the data collected will improve scientists’ abilities to monitor drought, predict floods and manage how both impact people’s lives.
However, all this data collection will not help us this year, and not even next year. As Farr explained, these scientific studies will help in “closing the water budget in the future.”
Although he wasn’t a part of the panel, Dr. William Patzert, a climatologist at JPL, has much to say about what he calls “The drought that has been building since 2000.” Called “the prophet of California climate” by Los Angeles Magazine and a climate guru by the Los Angeles Daily News, Patzert is all about numbers.
“Even global warming skeptics believe in supply and demand, and that is the issue here,” Patzert explained in a recent telephone interview.
In Patzert’s opinion, the problem is not necessarily the lack of water, but the growth of the region’s population. In Pasadena, for instance, the population in 2010 had grown 28 times from the 4,883 in 1890, four years after incorporation. Patzert explained, “We get enough local rainfall to supply 3 to 5 million people,” but now there are nearly 20 million in Southern California, with the greatest growth occurring in San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties.
Making drought conditions worse is residential and commercial overdevelopment that has resulted in the creation of “heat islands,” or patches of heat-retaining concrete, cement and macadam, as well as poor water management on municipal and personal levels. Homes with sweeping lawns and high-rise residential and office buildings, shopping centers, parking lots and all the roads between them have created these urban heat islands. Without foliage that would normally grow in these areas, the areas just draw in heat that emanates from the ground.
Further limiting water retention abilities, to protect residential areas, “We engineered for flood control to move water out to the ocean as rapidly as possible,” Patzert explained. Because “the Los Angeles River has been concreted from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific,” we “lose 80 percent of the water that falls.” Our flood control system is “not a water-catching system.”
Yet, even though Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency, Los Angeles and Pasadena have voluntary conservation measures in place, but no mandatory water conservation efforts are being required.
If one drives north along Interstate 5, he or she will see land that is brown and crops that are dead or dying. In contrast, Pasadena and its surrounding areas are still green.
“The present landscaping creates drought because it is thirsty and Southern Californians need to move away from drought creating landscapes,” Patzert said.
Patzert said part of this is historical. “People from the East Coast came and brought their lifestyles”: lawns, gardens and golf. “The height of absurdity is the plethora of golf courses in the Palm Springs area, which has an average rainfall of five inches a year.”
According to GolfLink.com, California has 1,140 public and private golf courses. The Palm Desert courses are listed as the No. 1 golfing destination in California, with San Diego second, Los Angeles fourth and Palm Springs tenth.
In addition, Patzert commented that these courses are often overwatered, making them a “great place to pick mushrooms.” Breaking away from our infatuation with English gardens and tropical rainforests is an important step toward water conservation, Patzert believes. Heat islands are cooled by “overplanting them with trees,” usually non-native trees, and the trees are often watered by a lawn sprinkler systems.
Moving away from lawns and water-greedy landscapes is something that everyone can do now, Patzert believes.
According to a recent report on KPCC FM, outdoor landscaping accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the residential water usage. Lawns use 50 percent more water than other plants, according to the Pasadena Water and Power Department. Water and Power and other water agencies offer turf removal rebates for commercial, institutional, residential and multifamily water customers.
Local golf courses are tearing up turf as well. The Pasadena Star-News recently noted that Brookside Golf Course has removed 22 acres of turf in a manner that will not impact the playing. The Associated Press reported that at the state level, five bills are being introduced to protect members of homeowner associations, apartment projects and housing cooperatives from retribution and fines for letting their lawns die during a drought and would prevent the ban or prohibition of water-wise plants.
Water wars, it appears, have already started. In March, the city of Sierra Madre accused Arcadia of stealing groundwater from the East Raymond Basin, according to a report in the Star-News. That’s the same aquifer from which Pasadena draws 41 percent of its water. The Raymond Basin covers about 40 square miles and is managed by the Raymond Basin Management Board with 16 purveyors drawing from it.
In 1937, the city of Pasadena took Alhambra and other Raymond Basin users to Superior Court in the first basin-wide adjudication of groundwater rights in California. The Arcadia and Sierra Madre battle is based on a 1944 California Supreme Court decision that divided the Raymond Basin into East and West.
Pasadena imports 58 percent of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The remainder comes from neighboring water agencies. For these reasons, drought in Northern California has serious implications for Pasadena.
The US Drought Monitor rates the whole state of California under drought conditions, with Los Angeles and Pasadena rated D3, or extreme drought. That’s one step away from the highest rating of exceptional drought — and California hasn’t even entered its traditional dry season.
A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle looked at two separate tactics for resolving the California drought dilemma — storing or conserving. Water storage is something that may help Californians in the future, since the rainy season has ended.
Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board voted to increase storage of recycled water for future use in a local groundwater basin, potentially saving more than 4.8 million gallons of imported water a year.
The board allows the Water Replenishment District’s Montebello Forebay Groundwater Recharge Project to increase the percentage of recycled water used on the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River spreading grounds from 35 percent of the water mix (imported, storm water and recycled water) to 45 percent.
The spreading grounds recharge groundwater in the Central Groundwater Basin, which provides 40 percent of the total water supply in Los Angeles. The change will make up for the lack of storm water runoff during the drought and save money that would be used to purchase imported water to make up for the loss of runoff that normally heads out to sea.
The project uses extensively treated recycled water from the Los Angeles County sanitation districts, along with storm water runoff and imported water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project, to recharge the aquifer. Significant to this project, a portion of the river flow that would eventually be discharged to the ocean is now captured and stored in the ground for future drinking water use.
For 2014, however, only conservation and the use of recycled water is available to provide for California’s immediate needs as we plan for a future in which drought may be the norm.
For more, visit drought.ca.gov. For more on ways to conserve water, visit saveourh2o.org.