The soft path out of LA's financial mess

Path at watershed demonstration schoolTo find its way out of the current financial crisis, the City of Los Angeles will have to do more than just trim jobs. The city must reorganize itself under enormous fiscal pressure to save hundreds of millions of dollars, even as the services it provides to protect the safety and health of its citizens are more needed than ever.

This much is well-known. What has gone virtually unnoticed are the roots of this crisis in environmental mismanagement. Waste and duplication are unwittingly built into the very structure of our city government, costing us hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Water provides the best example.

Los Angeles grew up along the Los Angeles River, which once flowed year-round. As the city grew, buildings were erected and streets were paved. Paradoxically, two threats were created: too much water creating floods, and perpetual water shortages, because the rainwater that once soaked into aquifers and sustained a flow of water to the river, was now being rapidly - and dangerously - swooshed to the ocean.

In the l930's, to protect the region from flooding, a fateful decision was made to concretize the river and route all stormwater to the sea via massive drains. And in the same era of heroic engineering, the decision was made to import water from hundreds of miles away via massive channels. As a result, the city now pays an enormous bill for water importation, as well as for flood protection to maintain the system, not to mention the prospect of enormous fines for polluting the Santa Monica Bay with run-off waters.

Because we split our water supply problem from our water over-supply problem from our water pollution problem, we created separate agencies. These now compete against each other for funding to maintain and expand their separate infrastructure systems.

Given the costs, the continuing, urgent shortages of water, and the clear public distaste for spending more money, it's vital that we find a new way to do this. Fortunately, some city leaders have begun to see the wisdom in rainwater harvesting, understanding that rain is not so much as a nuisance as a viable, cost-effective source of water supply.

Every inch of rain that falls on Los Angeles generates ten billion gallons of water, water that is mostly thrown away. At the same time, up to nearly 70% of residential water use in Southern California goes to irrigating our landscapes. Put those two facts together and it's clear that harvesting the rain - in combination with adapting our landscapes to be highly water conserving - makes perfect sense.

Theoretically, every parcel of land can harvest rainwater. Imagine rooftop collection systems, for rainwater as well as solar, on every building in our city. Not only would that make us more water-independent and relieve pressure on the overburdened Bay Delta and Colorado River, but it could literally save lives in the case of a major earthquake that dramatically cuts our imported water supply.

A shift so substantial may seem impossible, but such changes have happened. Cities across Australia, facing a similar drought for the past decade, have managed to lower their water use to just 30 gallons per person per day (compared with an average of 200 per person per day in Southern California). Angelenos use no more water today than they did twenty years ago because of concerted conservation and education effort initiated during LA's last drought. In February, LA's water use dropped to a 31-year low. And we can go much farther.

If we step off the grey "hard path" of building ever more costly engineered fixes - such as dams, canals, and desalination plants - we can save money, help restore the ecosystem and the priceless services it provides, create sustainable jobs, and make it possible for every urban resident to participate.

As we demonstrate at TreePeople, communities and government agencies can work together to restore nature to our city environment at a fraction of the cost for government to do it alone: planting trees, unpaving concrete and asphalt, putting in drought-tolerant plants and mulch, reworking the landscape to harvest rain at homes, in neighborhoods, parks, schools, commercial and industrial areas. All these work elegantly together in what we at TreePeople call the functioning community forest.

The functioning community forest, if implemented at a city-wide scale, would provide environmental, economic, and social benefits that go far beyond any engineered solutions. They would significantly improve LA's water supply, air pollution, public health, and carbon emissions. And, government, if organized to manage the ecosystem properly, could substantially reduce waste and duplication and impact now-spiraling budgets.

Simply investing more in government and technology, in the hope that it will solve things for us, will not get us out of our environmental or our financial mess. It's by activating communities and nature, and working in partnership with government, that we can find a route to an abundant and healthy future.