LOS ANGELES — It’s been four years since a protracted drought had Southern Californians taking four-minute showers and turning off the tap during tooth brushing.
Now, with no rain forecast for the foreseeable future and fires once again raging in the southland, the prospect of another drought is looming large, along with its implications.
Downtown Los Angeles' average rainfall for November is 1.04", but it only received .04" this year, according to Spectrum News 1 Chief Meteorologist Robert Santos. December's average rainfall is 2.33", but it’s gotten off to a dry start with no sign of rain through the first two weeks.
“It is definitely not the best news for anyone in the water management business, but the expected dry season coming up isn’t necessarily abnormal anymore,” said Sabrina Tsui, manager of resources development for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Precipitation has been below average six out of every ten years, so in a sense, it’s normal to be below normal.”
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a persistent drought throughout the winter in the western half of the country due to a weak Southwest summer monsoon season and near-record-high temperatures. Whether that’s the start of a multi-year trend similar to what happened from 2012 to 2016 is unknown, but “the region is in much better shape to deal with it now than it was back then,” said Demetri Polyzos, resource planning team manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The regional wholesaler provides water for 26 public agencies serving almost 19 million people living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. And right now, the MWD is storing the most water it’s ever had: 3.2 million acre feet – enough water to serve 9.6 million households for a year. Heading into the 2012 drought, the MWD had 2.7 million acre feet of water in reserve.
Polyzos credits Californians with maintaining good water use habits they developed during the last drought. Consumer water demand has been “at historic low levels,” he said. “That is helping, and that’s exactly what we want folks to do rain or shine: do your part to use water wisely. That allows us to manage through multiple dry years should that be the case.”
It isn’t just shorter showers and full dishwashers that are keeping California’s water coffers full. Appliances are more water-efficient. Many customers are also removing their lawns, helping to reduce the 50% of residential water use that is typically outdoors. The LADWP says its customers have replaced 50 million square feet of water-hogging turf with water-sipping alternatives since 2010.
“We’re assuming people aren’t going to be replacing their turf with real grass again,” Tsui said. “That’s a savings that’s going to last.”
Compared with the rest of the nation, California routinely experiences wild variations in hydrologic conditions, vacillating between extremely wet and extremely dry weather, not only from year to year but from one part of a season to another. The trick is to capture the water when it’s available so it can be used when it isn’t, and to cultivate more local sources.
"Last December was the wettest in 10 years, then we had a historically dry January and February, and March was wet again," said Chris Orrock, information officer with the California Department of Water Resources. "The good thing we have going on in California is that 2019 was a very, very wet year but more importantly a very cold, wet year, so we had some places they got 50 feet of snow, and that snow stayed around for a long time and melted really slowly, which allowed us to capture more for storage."
Like many Southern California water agencies, MWD has spent the last few decades increasing and diversifying its storage capacity so the region is less reliant on the whims of the weather and longer-term impacts of climate change. Since 1990, its storage capacity in reservoirs and groundwater banks around the state has increased 1,300%.
Water flow in the Colorado River, which supplies water to Los Angeles through the MWD, is projected to drop as climate change heats and dries the region. Between 2000 and 2014, the river flow had already averaged 19% below its 1906 to 1999 average, due in part to higher temperatures. According to a 2017 study from the Colorado Water Institute, the river’s flows could decline up to 35% by 2050 and 55% by 2100.
“If you can create more local supply, you insulate yourself from what’s happening in those far-away lands,” said John Kennedy, executive director of engineering and water resources for the Orange County Water District.
Serving the northern half of Orange County, the OCWD receives some water from the Colorado River that it stores in a groundwater basin that is also supplied with local rainfall and water from the Santa Ana River, which includes rainfall, snowmelt, and treated wastewater from upstream water users.
At the end of the last drought, in 2016, that groundwater basin was “relatively over drafted,” Kennedy said. But over the past four years, the district has filled it back up. He said the OCWD is “in excellent condition right now, so if we are at the beginning of another drought cycle, we’re ready for it.”
Kennedy said it would take three years into another drought cycle to start seeing measurable drawdowns on reservoirs. “People should feel pretty comfortable with the water agencies,” he said. “They’ve done a lot over the last two to three decades to be able to store more water and to be able to recycle more water.”
The OCWD has long been at the forefront of recycled water. It is currently recycling 70% of the wastewater generated from household activities such as bathing, dishwashing, and laundry, and will be close to 100% in just a few years, Kennedy said. LADWP also has a goal of recycling 100% of its wastewater by 2035.
Like many SoCal water agencies, OCWD is planning more than 20 years ahead to ensure it has enough projects creating water to meet demand. By 2040, Kennedy said, “we will have recycled pretty much all we can.”
The next major project the OCWD is considering to increase its local water supply is an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach that “would bring more certainty to our water supply and reduce how much imported water we need.”
In the near and mid-term, local water managers agree the water supply is in great shape, despite SoCal's current dry conditions.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the status of the Orange County Water District desalination project. The errors have been corrected. (December 10, 2020)