Best Practices in Water Management: A Look at LA

The city of Los Angeles is home to 3.8 million people living in 469 square miles. It is the second largest city in the US, behind New York City (which has a population of 8.2 million people that miraculously live in 302 square miles of land).

During the last few decades, the City of Los Angeles has been working diligently, and has seen significant results, in the area of water conservation. According to data collected in March 2012, Los Angeles uses less water today than 40 years ago, despite a population increase of over 1 million people:

Source: LADWP

That’s a rather significant achievement.

So, how has LA done it?

Water use in the City of Los Angeles peaked in 1986. The following five years saw severe drought, and therefore water shortages throughout the city. In 1990, the city passed The Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance which established a list of water conservation actions that the city would enact depending on the severity of water scarcity at a given time. This ordinance was later amended in 2008 to make some of the measures mandatory at all times of the year – regardless of the current water situation – and expanded certain practices to the general public. The Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance places restrictions on specific actions including using water for landscaping purposes (watering lawns, trees, flowers, etc.), cleaning sidewalks with water, and serving water to customers in restaurants unless asked. The ordinance also prohibits residents to leave water leaks unattended.

Additionally, since the mid 1980s the city has been investing a significant amount of money in rebate programs to help ease the costs related to installing water efficient appliances, such as low-flow toilets and shower heads. According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), as of March 2012 over 3.5 million indoor water efficient devices had been installed under rebate programs.

In 2008, Mayor Villaraigosa launched a long term strategy for water conservation. The strategy, titled “Securing LA’s Water Supply”, aimed to meet 100% of new water demand by 2030. The plan implemented strict enforcement of The Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance, which had not been strongly enforced since 1992. This required a large awareness raising campaign in order to inform residents, restaurant owners and businesses about the conservation requirements listed within the ordinance. The Mayor’s strategy also included goals to increase the amount of recycled water “6-fold” within the city by 2019 and to implement storm water capture projects. Additionally, the San Fernando Aquifer would be cleaned up in order to better utilize the groundwater. According to the city, the “Securing LA’s Water Supply” strategy would reduce water imports by nearly 30% and would produce enough water to supply nearly half a million people by 2020.

According to a study conducted by the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Water Committee, in 2011 Los Angeles was rated one of five “model cities” within Los Angeles and Orange Counties regarding water conservation programs. These five cities, which also included Burbank, La Palma, La Verne, and Mission Viejo, were considered to have “the best number of water conservation measures” out of all the cities within the two counties.

Is this success transferable to other cities?

The Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Water Committee stated within their report that the programs enacted by Los Angeles City “provide a roadmap for the remaining cities in Los Angeles County and Orange County to more effectively conserve local and imported urban water resources for the future.” Given the relative success of Los Angeles City’s water conservation efforts within the last few decades, these programs and policies could be considered a best practice for other large cities that also face water scarcity and drought.

Other “dry” cities around the world should be looking into the inititatives implemented by Los Angeles to see what “best practices” could also be used within their own cities and specific contexts.

Water Conservation in the Future?

Although Los Angeles City is considered one of the best cities in the LA and Orange County region in terms of water conservation efforts, the city still has room for improvement.

The water conservation strategy enacted by Mayor Villaraigosa was considered “reasonable and achievable” by Mark Gold, president of the non profit organization Heal the Bay. Yet, since the plan’s inauguration in March of 2008, critics have noted that only a portion of the initiatives have actually been implemented. In a 2011 article written for the Los Angeles Times, Mark Gold states:

The city has made some major strides on conservation, in large part thanks to restrictions on yard watering and economic incentives for water-efficient appliances and machinery. But we haven’t really begun to implement major components of the plan because [Los Angeles Department of Water and Power] leadership hasn’t made them a high priority.

In 2011, the LADWP had not yet invested in the installment of the reclamation plants required to increase the amount of recycled water used in LA City “six-fold”, nor had they invested in the storm water capture programs layed out in Villaraigosa’s plan. The LADWP described these programs as “extras”; they stated that since they were not essential, “the City Council should decide whether to fund them.”

This lack of political will has meant that much of the opportunity for significant reduction in water demand in Los Angeles City has not been realized. With the estimated increase in population and possible drought problems due to climate change in the future, LA needs to re-think the importance of these initiatives and explain the long term benefits of these programs to citizens. These investments will create a more reliable water supply in LA and will help stabilize pricing. The water management legislation and rebate programs implemented so far have shown great improvements in conservation; however, the city should be more proactive in implementing the remaining portions of Villaraigosa’s strategy.

Los Angeles City vs. The Greater Los Angeles Area

When we talk about Los Angeles, we tend to think about the LA Metropolitan Region as a whole. Citizens of the region often live within one city, yet work in another city within the Los Angeles Area. Therefore, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area behaves more like a de facto city, rather than a de jure city.

De Facto and De Jure Cities in Urban Planning:

According to the publication Cities of Tomorrow, the de jure city is considered the “administrative city” that is limited to the activities within the clear, historic city borders. This contrasts the de facto city, which is defined as “physical or socio-economic realities which have been approached through either a morphological or a functional definition”.

In other words, de jure refers to the actual city of Los Angeles, whereas de facto refers to the entire “functioning city” of Los Angeles – regardless of the technical city jurisdiction that the area falls under. The de facto Los Angeles, in terms of the functioning, morphological city unit, can be defined as (what Los Angelinos know as) the “Greater Los Angeles Area”:


Click Image to Enlarge

The Greater Los Angeles Area includes parts of Ventura, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties. It is home to roughly 21 million people, living in 34,135 square miles.

With this in mind, it is important to think about the issues of water conservation as a de facto, rather than a du jure, issue. Given that the groundwater and aquifer sources for the region are the same, the problem should be managed by the region as a whole rather than simply considering the de jure boundary of Los Angeles City. According to Cities of Tomorrow, “such inter-municipal cooperation is the basis for the creation of the new, more flexible functional urban area governance entities”.

To create this inter-municipal cooperation, the Greater Los Angeles County region has begun to collaborate in order to “develop an Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (IRWMP) that focuses on water resource management while creating a platform for future funding”. The initiative encompasses several programs including initiatives to optimize local water resources, improve the quality of water sources, properly manage aquatic natural reserves, and reduce the region’s flood risk.

Initiatives such as the IRWMP are important in managing certain issues in the de facto Los Angeles. The IRWMP will help to ensure the water security of the entire region by guaranteeing that all municipalities are actively involved in water conservation and water quality measures. One de jure city in the Los Angeles region can not solve the problem alone.

With programs like the IRWMP, and the political will to back its initiatives, the Greater Los Angeles Area can make sure that the water resources in Southern California are properly managed and sustainable in the future.

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