Not So Sunny: The Dreaded 'D' Word

Heal the Bay CEO Ruskin Hartley says that despite warm temperatures all is not sunny in Southern California.

I spent much of the past two weeks on the beach. While the rest of the country suffered through sub-zero temperatures, it remained a balmy 72 and sunny here in Southern California.  It’s been great as my family from the Bay Area and England was here for the New Year.  Each day we’d remark how glad we were that it had “turned out nice again.” Let’s face it, 72 and sunny is pretty much perfect. Christmas on the beach. Can you beat it? Really not.

But with the holidays a memory, it is time to get serious about what 72 and sunny means for us in Southern California and beyond. If dry weather persists, and with no rain in the forecast, we need to start thinking about drought.

Gov. Brown is starting to think the same, according to the head of the Department of Water Resources. When a drought is declared in Sacramento, it has cascading effects across the state. Crops die as previously irrigated fields dry.  Sprinklers are banned and lawns turn brown.  Native fish in our streams struggle as water is diverted.  Water quality suffers as discharge regulations are relaxed. The economy suffers as agricultural fields lie fallow. And we start counting the days until the raindrops fall.

2013 was a record dry year for the state. By some estimates, it was the driest year in California since records began, way back in 1849. In downtown Los Angeles we had 3.6 inches of rain, a tad drier than 1947 and 1953 when 4.08 inches fell.  To add some perspective, in 1849 the state’s population was about 50,000; in 1940, 6.9 million lived here. That rose to 10.6 million in 1950 and stood at 37 million in 2010. That’s less rain and a lot more people.

 It’s true that we have built a remarkable system to capture and transport most of the state’s water from north to south (while sweeping in water from the Colorado system to boot). We’re definitely getting better at using water efficiently here in California — after all, L.A.’s population has grown over the last 20 years and our water usage has not. But we have a long way to go. In California we use an average of 105 gallons per day per person. In Australia they have it down to 59 gallons daily.

The impending drought highlights the need to invest in our water infrastructure in California. But we can no longer assume it's just a matter of impounding and transporting water from north to south. We need to work towards a more resilient system. And resiliency has to start locally. We need to make investments to reduce demand and make California a world leader. We need to make better use of local water supplies by cleaning up and harvesting groundwater, sustainably. We need to recycle wastewater (300 million gallons a day out of Hyperion alone). We need to capture, infiltrate and make use of urban runoff, reducing stormwater pollution in the process.And then, and only then, should we shore up our ability to move water around the state to better match supply and demand.

Doing all of this is going to take bold leadership. We at Heal the Bay are ready. Are you?