Water Cops, Water Slides, And Water Pipes: L.A. Confronts The Drought

CREDIT: flickr/ Tony Hoffarth

The history of Los Angeles is tied up in water, and not because it has an abundance of it — just the opposite in fact. The city’s original powerbrokers controlled access to water flowing in from distant transport projects that irrigated crops and quenched the thirst of the rapid sprawl. Now, almost a century later, California is caught in an epic drought spanning the entire state, and Los Angeles finds itself at another turning point in its water-bound history. And there are boots on the ground.

On Monday, the L.A. Department of Water and Power (DWP) said it was increasing its staff of water-wasting inspectors from one to four in an effort to better patrol the city of four million. Even though the State Water Resources Control Board in California recently instituted statewide mandatory water restrictions that can result in fines of up to $500, the focus of these eight boots on the ground will be more education than punitive enforcement. This falls in line with the city’s policy to date: 1,400 reports of water violations have been reported this year through June and 863 warning letters handed out, but no fines given.

“The Water Conservation Response Unit will help remind customers about our watering restrictions and the importance of saving water, and enforce the ordinance in a friendly yet firm way,” said DWP General Manager Marcie Edwards.

Currently L.A. is in Phase 2 of mandatory water conservation. Watering more than three times a week is prohibited as is watering between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. or watering the lawn while it’s raining. Watering hard surfaces such as sidewalks and driveways is also banned except for sanitary purposes.

The warning approach has worked well before, according to officials, and with drought awareness especially high right now, public pressure in the form of drought shaming on social media is even taking place.

In a testament to the public’s heightened awareness over local water woes, an outcry has arisen over plans to bring a 1,000-foot temporary water slide to downtown L.A. next month. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition against setting up the “irresponsible” water slide had nearly reached its goal of 10,000 signatures. The slide would use between 12,000 and 16,000 gallons of water, which the company plans to treat and reuse. While this represents just a drop in the bucket of overall water use, it could send a powerful signal of the many forms water conservation and water-conservation awareness can take.

The “Slide the City” event is currently scheduled for Sept. 27, but must still be given the final go-ahead from the Los Angeles Public Works Department.

Temporary water slide or not, the city of L.A. has dramatically reduced water consumption per capita over the last 40 years, with the city using around the same amount of water now as it did then but with a much larger population to keep quenched, clean, and aesthetically pleased. At about 123 gallons per person per day, Los Angeles uses less water per capita than any other U.S. city with more than one million people. Recent mandatory restrictions and price increases have reduced water usage 23 percent since 2009.

L.A.’s water infrastructure has been pumping and storing water throughout these decades of transition and is in need of crucial repairs. Water leakage from pipes and other water infrastructure is a major source of wasted water in cities across the country. Last month a 2.5-foot water pipe ruptured in L.A., opening up a 25-foot sinkhole on Sunset Boulevard near UCLA and gushing over 20 million gallons of water into the surroundings, more than 1,000 times the amount of water that would have been used by the proposed water slide. It took the DWP five and a half hours to shut off water to the area, and the pipes still leaked even after that.

The DWP suspects that the break was caused by corrosion of the 90-year-old water main, with one DWP executive saying that “with a little effort, we could almost scrape the corrosion away and kind of rub a hole through the pipe.”

L.A. has about one million feet of pipes that are a century old and the public utility is replacing them at a rate of once every 300 years. DWP has received criticism for being inefficient and bloated, but in any case replacing water infrastructure is extremely expensive and invasive. In the meantime, there are other ways to keep cutting back as the drought cuts deeper.

“We suggest the most straightforward path in L.A. to proactively plan for a drier future is to install dual residential water meters, one for indoor water use, the other for outdoor water use,” wrote two water experts in a recent Los Angeles Times’ op-ed directed at the DWP. “The challenge is to maintain affordability for indoor use and to reform institutional cultures that stand in the way. Dual metering, with differential water pricing and increasing tariffs for outdoor water, would ensure that people will have affordable water for their daily needs while also increasing conservation. It would also ensure that indoor water pricing reflects family income.”