Forbes: Why Does California Let Billions Of Gallons Of Fresh Water Flow Straight Into The Ocean?

LA has the capability to truly be livable, resilient and water-secure if we work together, and TreePeople is proud to partner with the people to make this vision a reality. We can adapt in the face of our changing climate, but we must support enabling policies while also being change makers in our own homes. Read on to see how in my interview with Ashoka for Forbes below:

A Q&A with Ashoka Fellow and urban water expert Andy Lipkis

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that California is in the midst of a severe multi-year drought. Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown, standing on a dry Sierra meadow that’s normally buried under many feet of snow this time of year, made an historic announcement requiring mandatory 25% reductions in water use statewide.

But what if the state is missing an enormous opportunity to make a dent in the drought and become more resilient to inevitable future ones?

Enter Andy Lipkis, social entrepreneur and founder of Tree People, the Los Angeles-based NGO that’s transforming the urban landscape in L.A. and pushing for creative, cost-effective solutions to California’s growing water problem.

I caught up with Andy recently and asked him to shed some light on the current drought, explain the potential of rainwater harvesting, and give us all a dose of optimism during these dire drought days.

A man fishes in Folsom Lake in Folsom, California, U.S., on Thursday, April 9, 2015. California regulators approved additional statewide restrictions on water use as the record drought gripping the most populous U.S. state enters a fourth year. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ashoka: What is the biggest misconception about the extended drought in California and why is this problematic?

Andy Lipkis: The biggest misconception is that it doesn’t rain in California. The fact is, it does rain, even in Los Angeles and southern California. But we throw away most of that water because rather than collect it, we let it drain into the sea.

It’s problematic because it causes us to look at solutions that are inappropriate for the city, the state, and for long-term sustainability. For example: there’s a growing drumbeat about desalination. But it’s well known that this won’t solve the problem, and it’s extremely expensive and energy intensive.

Why make freshwater when we could collect the water that falls from the sky? Even on the driest year in recorded history in 2013, it still rained 3.6 inches in Los Angeles. An inch of rainfall in L.A. generates 3.8 billion gallons of runoff, so you’re talking about more than 12 billion gallons of water that could be captured, but that flows within hours down our concrete streets and into the ocean. There’s enough rainwater to be harvested to produce 30-50% of the entire city’s water needs.

Ashoka: What does harvesting rainwater actually mean?

Lipkis: It means capturing and then treating the water the flows off our roofs and down our streets each time it rains. There are a lot of ways to do so, including by removing concrete and replacing it with permeable earth to soak in the water like a sponge. And homes and businesses can install rain bins and cisterns to hold the water for later use.

A living case study is Australia, which went from the second largest per-capita water user in the world (behind the U.S.) to one of the most efficient, in large part through a concerted effort to install millions of cisterns across their cities in just about five years. Melbourne was able to get 35% of all its homes to install cisterns. The same thing is possible in Los Angeles and any city in California.

Ashoka: Skeptics of the Governor Brown’s mandatory reductions argue that we won’t make a dent until we deal with agricultural water use, which accounts for up to 80% of statewide use. Are they right?

Lipkis: They’re right that farming practices need to be improved and that the ag sector needs some reforms. But in a way these are two different conversations: on the one hand, everyone needs to bring their water use down; on the other, we need to be smarter about collecting the precious water that does fall in our state, and we need to do so in ways that don’t damage entire ecosystems like we did to the Owens River valley.

When you capture rainwater locally, you’re reducing how much you have to pump in from other parts of the state, and that saves money and electricity. Moving water is actually the single largest use of electricity in California!

Ashoka: If this is such a promising solution, why aren’t more people talking about it and demanding it?

Lipkis: Well, there hasn’t been a big industry to promote it. The dam builders and the desalination proponents have lobbyists and big advertising capability. But this is what we’ve been working on: get people to see what they aren’t seeing, bring in stories from places like Australia, and pull together water leaders from across the state to get behind this.

One of the big challenges is that people usually approach problems in silos and conceive of single-purpose solutions. For example, some people are racking their brains to import more water into the city especially in dry years like this one. Meanwhile, there are others working on the problem of flash flooding (which will be more common as extreme weather events become the new norm) so they’re simultaneously building ways to pump water out of the city when it rains. And then still others are thinking about water pollution and what to do about that.

When you look at each problem in isolation, then your solutions are going to be short-sighted, not to mention expensive. But when you bring together the folks spending billions on storm drains with those who want to provide clean water for residents, then you get to multi-purpose solutions that are much smarter and that can actually save us money.

Ashoka: There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there and as a native Californian it’s hard not to feel anxious about the future of the state. Can we end on an optimistic note?

Lipkis: Absolutely. There’s reason to be optimistic because these ideas are starting to catch on. The Mayor of Los Angeles just announced this week a commitment to get Los Angeles to source 50% of its water supply locally. Meanwhile, city council members Mike Bonin and Felipe Fuentes just got ‘green streets’ legislation approved that will require any new road or repair to an existing road to include a way to trap and treat groundwater—a huge step forward. And at the state level, for the first time ever, our water bond included $200 million for rainwater harvesting.

Finally, this summer we’re going to build the country’s first smart water grid in Los Angeles, complete with electronic monitoring and remote control systems.

There is no shortage of workable solutions. We just need people to come together in partnership and take the blinders off.

By Andy Lipkis

Andy Lipkis is a practical visionary who has dedicated his life to healing the environment while improving the lives of individuals and communities. He founded TreePeople in Los Angeles in 1973 at age 18 and continues to serve as its President. Andy has spearheaded an approach using trees and forest-inspired technologies to make cities sustainable while mitigating floods, drought, pollution, and climate change. Called “Functioning Community Forests,” it is being demonstrated in L.A. as a model for cities everywhere.