The mayor’s record on water conservation

Posted on | June 20, 2013 | 8 Comments

LADWP water use table. Source: LADWP

In the carrot and stick approach to encouraging water conservation, the tool has been carrot as the City of Los Angeles sees off an old mayor and ushers in a new one. The environmental lobby Climate Resolve recently congratulated outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an e-mail blast by exhorting Angelenos to “Look at the record. Today, Los Angeles uses 20% less water than a mere three years ago.” In a companion text that fleetingly appeared on Climate Resolve’s website, the record became even more impressive. “Today, Los Angeles is using 20% less water than just two years ago.”

I admire Climate Resolve, not least for its cheerleading for the best of good causes, but both claims seemed incredible, so I checked them. According to the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, there has actually been a rise in consumption in the last two years. However, and this is genuinely impressive, there has been 17.58% reduction since 2007. According to the DWP, the baseline was set in 2006-7, one of driest years on record, because that was the time when Mayor Villaraigosa called for voluntary conservation. By my own analysis, dramatic savings clicked in after 2009, when the Los Angeles City Council passed a mandatory two-day lawn watering ordinance. The savings then slipped in 2011-12 after, as city councilman, LA’s mayor-elect Eric Garcetti led the upending of the two-day ordinance in favor of a three-day system.


8 Responses to “The mayor’s record on water conservation”

  1. John Fleck
    June 20th, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    Emily – That drop between 08-09 and 09-10 is striking. To what extent might the Economic Shitstorm also have played a role, as well as the lawn rules?

  2. EmilyGreen
    June 20th, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    John, good point. I’m sure record evictions and repossessions beginning in 2008 also played a large part in the sudden drop. However it really can’t be stressed enough what a good job was done by then DWP general manager David Nahai implementing the two-day ordinance or how its unpopularity led to the mayor’s firing of him. Nahai’s successor, David Freeman, stuck with the 2-day rule, and its unpopularity helped the mayor also fire Freeman when the city council rebelled over much-needed rate hikes and insisted on a rate payer advocate, whose appointment delayed the hikes. Ironically pipe bursts were blamed on pressure fluctuations from the two-day rule (kind of like the legendary Superbowl half-time flush) and not deferred maintenance caused by the city council dragging its feet on rate hikes. Years of data on bursts showed that mains broke at no greater frequency under the two-day rule than any other time; in fact they broke a bit less frequently. The outdoor conservation drive lost focus as the new three-day rule was implemented after the Garcetti-led city hall revolt, but clearly is still helping. Garcetti partnered with Valley Republican Greig Smith to overturn the ban just as Garcetti was launching his mayoral campaign; a nice bit of pandering to the San Fernando Valley and the first of many swipes at DWP and its union in the subsequent campaign. The union wars are outside my remit, but the bashing of the 2-day rule played out longer than it should have because of a great rain year in 2010-11, but successive medium to lousy water years since then have led to a new rash of DWP initiatives, including recently renewed $2/sf rebates for removing lawn. Now, lo, Villariagosa was a great leader. He did an outstanding job appointing Misters Nahai and Freeman; the subsequent record looks chaotic and feckless to me.

  3. Chris Brooks
    June 20th, 2013 @ 8:40 am

    Emily – I’m sure the conservation efforts of the city have played a role in this but I think there are also broader forces at work. Look pretty much anywhere in the West (and many places elsewhere) and you will see similar trends in water use over that period. Some of it is structural, some is behavioral, and some is just plain economics. Residential water demand in Tucson is currently at 1995 levels, despite significant population growth. Water bills have gone up over that time, a lot of newer housing stock with water-conserving appliances was built, and yes the economy tanked for a few years. But the decline has been fairly steady since the late 90s and continues to this day. It’s great that LA is reducing water use, but I would hate to see anyone resting on their laurels too soon.

  4. EmilyGreen
    June 20th, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Hi Chris. Interesting; Yes, there are lots of things driving reduced water consumption. It’s the specter of LA’s dry season run-off that makes me suspect sprinklers are responsible for huge amounts of waste. Some say as much as half; it very much varies by neighborhood. And, yes, I agree, we are far short of where we need to be to justify the kind of slavish praise that the mayor received. And that kind of premature congratulation is even dangerous. Apart from being wrong, it read like cheerleading whose chanters hoped if they claimed something was happening, we’d make it true. Who knows, it may work. Or it may leave us thinking “mission accomplished” and planning on some new lawn out by the parkway.

  5. Alec Mackie
    June 21st, 2013 @ 6:14 am

    I can add some more data that points to economic recession cutbacks for water particularly by industry – flows at the wstr treatment plants are down about 10% since 2008, maybe a bit more. The best savings we can get is to encourage LA and LB residents to rip out their lawn and get $2 per square foot, replace w LA native plants. Las Vegas demonstrated turf removal is the biggest water saver by far.

  6. BMGM
    June 23rd, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

    Excuse me for jumping in late to the discussion; I just got back from a week long camping trip in the Sierras (very low stream flow!).

    > flows at the wstr treatment plants are down about 10% since 2008, maybe a bit more

    But doesn’t Alec’s data show that reduction of indoor water use accounts for slightly more than half of the total water savings? How can we extrapolate from that to say that turf removal is the largest water saver?

    Given that most Angelenos are renters and don’t control their landscaping, shouldn’t we take a two-prong approach to encourage all occupants to change indoor behavior and property owners to relandscape?

  7. EmilyGreen
    June 23rd, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    Good points Alec and BMGM; My guess that the most dramatic drop in water use came from the original, tough sprinkler ordinance was that the most dramatic savings happened when the ordinance happened, not before. If water treatment inflows dropped 10% that is meaningful, and I’m grateful for Alec for pointing it out, but it doesn’t account for a 10% drop in total usage, but indoor use. Water waste on turf is not a purely home-owner driven problem. In fact, most apartments and many businesses generate huge amounts of sprinkler run-off. Think of the gas stations with strange little parcels of turf around the edges and sprinkers routinely generating over-spray. Turf rebates are given to commercial properties and home owners; in fact, Rec & Parks was talking about applying for DWP rebates to re-landscape City Hall grounds after Occupy. It also accepted free turf from the Scotts Co. The first one’s always free. So nice to get such smart comments. Thank you both.

  8. Chris Brooks
    June 30th, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    I’m a big proponent of outdoor conservation first, then indoor. The growing importance of reclaimed water as a renewable resource should be a significant driver for future conservation efforts. Cut back on the water that only gets used once until there is very little left to squeeze. Then make sure you get all the toilets replaced.

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