Opinion: Don’t Flush El Niño Down the Drain

Posted October 14, 2015 by The Argonaut in Columns

Record rainfall can help end the drought — unless we let it all run out to sea

By William Hicks

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 60% chance of above-average rainfall in Southern California during the first three months of next year, but it won’t be enough to bust the drought if we let it all go to waste Image courtesy of NOAA

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 60% chance of above-average rainfall in Southern California during the first three months of next year, but it won’t be enough to bust the drought if we let it all go to waste
Image courtesy of NOAA

Why are the most valuable things the least valued?

We’ll spend our most valuable commodity — time — at a job we don’t like, using up hundreds of hours to earn thousands of dollars for things we really don’t need.
At the same time, the air is free, although we wouldn’t last minutes without it; and water is still cheap, although we wouldn’t last days without that.

Why don’t we value these things? Because when we think something is limitless, we take it for granted — time, air, water. But fresh water isn’t limitless. Only 3% of the water on Earth is fresh water. Since 1913, Los Angeles has had water surging in, due to the efforts of people like William Mulholland, who brought drinking water from the Owens Valley. Before that people relied on groundwater and rainwater.

Well, now we’ve come full circle. Our need for groundwater and rainwater has returned.

Since 2013, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been working on a Storm Water Capture Master Plan in the hope of doubling or even tripling its rain-capture capacity over a period of 20 years.

That may seem ambitious, but storm water capture and water recycling systems currently account for only 10% of L.A.’s water resources, compared to 86% in Israel. Avrahm Tenne, head of desalination at Israel’s water authority, recently told Southern California Public Radio that he would blame America’s drought problems on hodgepodge water management.

“There is no central management of the water sector in the United States — not even [individual] states!” he said. “Nobody is responsible for the water sector.”

DWP may beg to differ with Mr. Tenne on this, but water is too important a commodity for people to rely solely on others to handle it. Back in July, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Senior Water Scientist Jay Famiglietti wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Times that Southern California had only 12 to 18 months of available water left, barring some major snowfall up north this winter.

That should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up! And it begs the question: Why does DWP think that we have the luxury of 20 years?

Will El Niño 2015-16 offer enough snowfall to save us? Nobody has a crystal ball, but some NASA scientists say the rains could mainly hit Southern California, which wouldn’t provide the kind of Northern California snowfall we need to quench the state’s thirst for years to come.

Which basically means that we would be on our own.

If you own property in Los Angeles, install gutters and rain barrels ASAP to catch that precious rain.

There’s always that landowner who has multiple properties but won’t spend a dime on them unless he or she is forced to do so. You want to shake that person and say, “Hey, your property needs some attention! What are you saving for, a rainy day? Guess what: the rainy days are coming.”

Please don’t be that kind of landowner.

This is believed to be California’s most severe drought in some 1,200 years, and we are expecting our biggest rainstorm this winter after 17 pretty dry years.

L.A. gets an average of 15 inches of rainfall per year, while El Niño could bring up to 30 inches in just a few months, according to an accuweather.com forecast.

A single storm in Los Angeles County can send up to 10 billion gallons of water rushing straight into the Pacific Ocean.

By my math, if every home in the Greater L.A. area had rain barrels, we could collect around 138 billion gallons of water from El Niño, which would buy us 276 more days of water, and
then 138 days for every year thereafter ad infinitum.

So dip into your bank account and get those gutters and rain barrels in place, Mr. Stingy, if for no other reason than to save money on your water bill.

Here in Marina del Rey, people are fixing their roofs, but I don’t see any rain barrels. I do see a few rain gutters here and there for practical reasons. According to a neighbor here at Mariners Village, several parking garages in the marina flooded during the last El Niño in 1997-98, the biggest (so far) in recorded history.

You can let the bank hold your money and invest it in whatever it is they invest in, or you can take responsibility for your own money, your own home, your community, and get those rain catchers in place — not because the city is requiring you to do so, but because it is the right and smart thing to do.

Let’s invest in our homes, offices, and local economy.

In North Africa, the Malibu-based nonprofit RainCatcher is harvesting rainwater in East Africa to provide clean drinking water to people who’ve really never had any. They’ve been doing this for a decade.

“There is no shortage of water given by nature,” says RainCatcher founder Mark Armfeld, “only a shortage of water being received efficiently by us.”



    Thank you, William. It’s about time someone started shouting about this emergency.

    That NOAA chart is obsolete now. Only a couple of days ago a NASA climatologist announced that “there is no longer a possibility that [this El Niño] storm will whimp out. It’s 100% for sure, too big to fail.” That means we are almost certainly looking at the wettest rainy season ever recorded in Southern California.

    Are SoCal authorities listening?

    As you say, people should do whatever they can to capture rain water on their own properties, of course, even if it’s only to reduce their water bills. But I want to know where the urgency is to collect water on a large scale. Where’s the WPA-like determination to build emergency reservoirs and catchments ASAP?! We had years to do it, and now only a couple of months. We have to get on it NOW. It should be a major public works project of the highest State priority. Is our drought not a major emergency?

    We are surrounded by mountains with endless numbers of deep ravines. Why aren’t a dozen small dams being built? Yes, I know, a few animals would be displaced and a campground or two may have to relocate. But again — is this not an emergency?

    If nothing else, erect gigantic water tanks next to the L.A. River (or over it) and pump out the water when it floods so it doesn’t all just flow into the sea and be wasted. It can be cleaned/filtered later.

    And what about desalination plants? We have the largest body of water on the planet sitting right at our doorstep. There are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of such plants functioning efficiently around the world. Where are ours?

    I don’t hear that a single thing’s being done, as this record rainfall approaches closer every day.

    I’m tired and frustrated by seeing millions of gallons of fresh water flooding through our streets and into storm drains, lost forever, while authorities sit around with their thumbs up their ——-. Where’s the Depression-era will and determination to build infrastructure to face this challenge? Too big a project to tackle? No money? Most of Pacific Coast Highway was built in just a few years during the cash-strapped 1930s. And how about Hoover Dam?

    Meanwhile, as I’ve been urging for decades, we need to have a serious discussion about growth. We wouldn’t have to skip showers and let our lawns go brown if we hadn’t invited in millions of new residents in recent decades. Sure, developers want to make money and it’s a free country. But how bad does it have to get before we wake up and apply some common sense?!

      William Hicks

      Well said, Ken. I specifically targeted homeowners because, quite frankly, addressing the city or county is like turning the Titanic, while individually most homeowners have no excuse not to install several rain barrels on their property. Combined, all of these homes can add up to far more than what the city or county could capture, not that they shouldn’t be as well. I basically targeted the readers with the hope that they can feel empowered to do something within their control. If we can also influence the city or county to do more, then even better!


    Thanks, William.

    I would never have guessed that a couple of barrels of rain water collected by each homeowner (equivalent to what — maybe five bathtubs worth?) could possibly surpass the billions of gallons that would be captured by a series of dams in our local mountains. Where does it always rain most when these storms roll in? — In the mountains and foothills.

    While collecting rain water in barrels at home is of course a logical thing, it’s only short term, good for exterior use, watering plants. It can easily be depleted after only one or two waterings with an average-sized yard. You can’t connect a hose for distant hand-held watering, or even washing a vehicle, because you’ll likely be holding the nozzle higher than the water level in the rain barrel, which means you won’t have any pressure. Because of inherent pollutants running off your roof and into the barrel(s), you can’t use it to water a garden with plants intended to be eaten. All sources warn that the collected water is not for drinking, bathing or even washing clothes, without a cumbersome filtering/purifying process, even if one could overcome the challenge of getting that water pumped into the house. The CDC says that such collected rain water must be filtered, disinfected and tested regularly before use indoors.

    Thus, I have trouble seeing private rain barrels as having much more than a very minor impact on L.A.’s massive water needs, even if every single home went to the expense of purchasing and installing them.

    I don’t mean to denigrate rain-barrel water collection; it’s always sensible to have a stash of emergency water on hand, even if it must be filtered and disinfected if necessary. But to my mind, the long-term solutions, as “Titanic-like” as they would be, are big DWP projects (dams/reservoirs, tanks, desalination) that will serve L.A.’s millions on a consistent, practical, standardized basis, with municipal tap water that is dependably filtered/purified.

      William Hicks

      I agree with your DWP comments 100%.

      When I said “far more” I was referring to the 8 billions gallons that DWP currently captures in an average year, and which it wants to double or triple in the next 20 years to 16-24 billion gallons. Since the average home can capture 650 gallons of water for every inch of rain, and there is an average of 7 million homes in the greater L.A. area, then that equates to 4.55 billions gallons for every inch. If L.A. gets an average of 15 inches per year, then that would be 68.25 billion gallons per year. If this El Nino produces 30 inches of rain in just a few months, then double that number to 136.5 billion gallons; and this number doesn’t even include all of the office buildings, hotels, schools, etc., so you could probably even double that number to 273 billion gallons if we included those, which would more than cover L.A.’s current need of about 182.5 billion gallons per year well into the following year.

      Of course it boils down to personal storage, filtration, and recycling systems, which do exist. Grey-water systems alone recycle water via pumps to toilets and garden hoses. Water from showers/baths and sinks can also be filtered for toilets and hoses. I think that it needs to be a “blitzkrieg” approach from both the personal and public sectors, because as you said, it is an emergency!

      Keep in mind that most of L.A. is covered by structures and streets. The private sectors could cover most of the structures, while the public sector would cover the mountain and street runoff.

      Again, the rain barrel idea is to give the average guy some control and something to do in the private sector, while not only saving water but also helping to reduce flooding in their local neighborhoods. By the way, DWP is offering rebates for rain barrels purchased, up to $75, I believe. You can go to their website.

      Also, organizations like raincatcher.org does offer rain-catching and filtration systems. Ideally, a cistern would be installed under the house, building, parking lot, or yard where hundreds or thousands of gallons of water could be stored, filtered, and recycled throughout the house and yard. They built cisterns under houses in the old days in Europe and the Middle East to catch rainwater before aqueducts, reservoirs, and plumbing. That was their main source of water back then.

      In a lot of ways, we need to get back to the basics and stop relying on centralized control of everything, not to take anything away from your common sense ideas! It’s time to encourage and empower the private sector to take its power back.


        I see where you’re coming from and how you’re getting some of the optimistic numbers. I’m looking at it from perhaps a more “realistic” side, I guess. Practically, you’re never going to get more than a small percentage of homeowners to purchase and install rain barrels unless there is a greatly increased incentive program, media blitz (“blitzkrieg approach,” as you say), public shaming, you name it. L.A. residents have depended on municipal water for over a century, and to overcome that inertia would be a monumental challenge. Not that it’s impossible, just perhaps unrealistic. That’s why I promote the large, government (tax)-funded water collection projects I mentioned over individual, random private attempts that are fraught with challenges (filtration, disinfection, pumping and so forth).

        I realize that one decent rain storm, running off a typical home’s roof, will flow along rain gutters and fill a rain barrel or two in no time. But once that rain stops, we often go many months without a drop. Let’s say it’s two weeks after a good rain before you want to water your lawn and plants again. One watering easily uses half or all of a single barrel. If you have two barrels, now you’ve been able to water your yard twice in a month. But that’s it. Your barrels are empty, and there’s still no rain coming for several more months. I just don’t think it makes that much of dent, in the big scheme of things.

        Installing a series of numerous rain barrels would begin to make a difference, but how many homeowners will do that?

        That’s why we need the dams in the mountains, massive catchments beside the L.A. River, and desalination plants. I agree that, in theory, people should be proactive, self sufficient, and always have a reserve of life-sustaining water on hand. But I don’t understand why there is no government urgency to build the infrastructure necessary to really solve the drought problem in a substantial, dependable and consistent way.

        Now, if the large cisterns you mention could be built under every new L.A. home and business, under yards, etc., that would go a long way to providing significant extra water storage. But I’m still not sure that that water wouldn’t be used up in relatively short order. It rains much, much more in our local mountains and foothills than it does over metropolitan L.A. and the beach areas. So, for the most efficient capturing, in my view, we need those dams built in the mountains and/or pumping stations and tanks to get all that running water out of the River before it’s lost in the ocean.

          William Hicks

          I agree, Ken, which is why I wrote the column about desalination. Ideally we could trust our local, state, and federal governments to do the right thing, but unfortunately they are too busy catering to special interests and such. I’m not giving up on them, I just decided to write a column directed to the people this time. I just don’t think that we should become too dependent on government for vital things like water and food distribution, even though in a perfect world government would manage and distribute those things effectively because it has the resources to do so, as you indicated.

          At this point, I wish I knew which were more “realistic.” It only takes a homeowner picking up the phone and calling a contractor, whereas it’s a whole process to get government to build a dam. The column was more about empowerment than trying to be a realist, but I do appreciate your involvement. You may want to consider putting your comments into a letter and sending it to several local and state officials. Perhaps they will respond. I don’t believe that they are doing nothing, it’s just that they and the media are not necessarily good at marketing their efforts.

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