To Catch a Raindrop

By Judith Lewis Mernit

A January storm sweeps across the northern Pacific on the jet stream and hits Southern California with prodigious amounts of rain. It brings wind, too: bursts up to eighty miles per hour lop the tops off palm trees, waterspouts swirl, and a small tornado lifts catamarans thirty feet in the air. Here in Sun Valley, in the northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley, hail clatters so loudly on the windshield of Mark Hanna’s city-owned sedan that he has to shout over the din.

“Don’t open your window!” A rooster-tail wake splashes high over the door handles as Hanna makes a hard right turn around a flooded street corner. We let out a whoop. With the flushed and wholesome look of a man who’s spent half his life outdoors, Hanna, thirty-eight and a civil engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is the tall, blond, and super-capable guy you’d want piloting your raft on a wicked river trip.

“It’s the perfect day to get out of the office,” he says after I mention I’d worried the weather would bode ill for our tour of local watersheds. “This is the only way to understand the sheer magnitude of what’s going on.”
And so on we go, navigating roads where ancient streams now wildly reassert themselves, as the falling rain insists on taking historic paths out of the mountains, asphalt be damned. Only an inch of rain will fall today, but in drainage-challenged Sun Valley it’s enough to turn several intersections into turbulent brown lakes by midafternoon.

“The water that you’re looking at would all percolate into the ground if it weren’t paved,” Hanna says. “We wouldn’t even have generated much runoff into the Los Angeles River yet.” The river, when we passed it earlier, was running high, fast, and wild.

When the city paved Sun Valley’s streets in the 1960s and 1970s, Los Angeles County’s flood-control engineers had finished building the county’s networks of storm drains; they had neither the money nor the will for more. So while the rest of the city’s storm water flows swiftly into the ocean, Sun Valley floods.
“It’s like we’ve had the whole place wrapped in cellophane,” Hanna says, “and didn’t poke any holes for the water to get through.”

This phenomenon makes Sun Valley something of a storm-water laboratory, a place where environmentalists, forward-thinking engineers, and water managers have been able to experiment with what might happen if Southern Californians start looking at storm water as a dry-season resource, not a nuisance to rush out to sea. It also makes the working-class community and its rainfall-capture experiments newly, and urgently, important. “We’re incrementally chipping away at the urban layer here,” Hanna says, “because we really need the water.”

There is always too much or too little water in Southern California, which might explain why it’s always worked better to pretend we have no local sources of it. We can’t deal with its fickleness. Southern California’s history is one of water scarcity, to be sure, and of criminal water grabs—it’s still Chinatown, Jake. But it’s also a story of floods—of deluges that stretched from San Pedro to Compton and often determined where Southern Californians would live; of rivers that trickled along for years until a storm stalled over the mountains and sent a wall of water tumbling down, carrying boulders, tree limbs, and whatever property humans had left in its path.

After a month of rain in 1862, the Santa Ana River “rose up in billows 50-feet high,” in the words of one firsthand account, and took out the whole town of Agua Mansa (literally, ironically, “gentle waters”). Tropical storms during the El Niño year of 1905 blew out man-made channels along the Colorado River and brought back a prehistoric inland lake as the Salton Sea. The often-feeble and sometimes-mighty Los Angeles River crested after four days of late-winter rain in 1938 and washed everything—bridges, cars—straight into the ocean. That was that, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decreed, and 10,000 men went to work boxing up what was left of the river into a trapezoidal concrete channel that would whisk water off the edge of the continent and no longer threaten lives and homes.

What happened to the Los Angeles River happened to nearly every other natural streambed in the region. (The rare survivor, such as the Santa Clara in northern Los Angeles County, remains under constant threat of channelization as developers eye its flood plain.) Which left few places for rainwater to linger after a major storm, and still fewer sites where it could sink back into the aquifer so we could use it later.
The worn-out phrase “We need the rain” turns out to be crazy talk in Southern California when storm water goes straight to the sea. We need the snow that falls in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains and melts each spring to fill our far-away reservoirs. The ocean does not need the rain.

Nor does it need the bacteria, viruses, and fertilizers of urban runoff. In a natural watershed, water spreads out and moves slowly. Ultraviolet sunlight kills pathogens; riverbed vegetation eats the nitrogen and traps trash. Concrete channels, on the other hand, usher all these things quickly downstream. The ocean is mainlining urban bacteria.

The people who run the cities of Southern California have long recognized the importance of reducing ocean pollution from runoff, if only because the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to make them pay if they didn’t. (Although at times even the EPA needs a reminder: in 1999, the environmental groups Heal the Bay, Santa Monica Baykeeper, and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the agency to enforce its own standards at Los Angeles beaches.) Still, the idea of using storm water to significantly reduce the amount of water Southern California imports from the north was once an environmental goal, like gray-water recycling, that you couldn’t get utility managers to take seriously.
“Ten years ago, it was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ” says Rebecca Drayse, the director of TreePeople’s Natural Urban Systems Group. “You’d tell people we could use some of this water, and they’d say, ‘No thanks, we don’t really need it.’ ”

But that was back when Los Angeles still had a reliable supply of water coursing down far-away mountains and through the rivers that drain into two gravity-flow aqueducts—before it became apparent that the watersheds from which the city has traditionally taken its water, the Owens River, at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada, and Mono Lake, fifty miles upriver, could no longer withstand the consequences of those water diversions. The Owens Valley, whose river flows William Mulholland turned southward in 1913, converted to dust-clouded desert; Mono Lake became dangerously depleted and intolerably saline in the absence of the freshwater flows from four of its five feeder creeks, which the DWP diverted in 1941. A second aqueduct, which the utility constructed in 1970, took what was left of the Owens Valley’s groundwater. In the 1990s, the EPA identified dry Owens Lake as the single largest source of fugitive dust—small particles that penetrate deep into humans’ lungs—in the country.

At full capacity, the Los Angeles Aqueduct system carries 430 million gallons of Sierra snowpack runoff to Los Angeles every day, nearly 500,000 acre-feet a year. When the city’s annual water consumption peaked in 1986 at around 700,000 acre-feet, the aqueducts supplied close to 70 percent of the city’s water. But three years earlier, the California Supreme Court had already decreed that the “human and environmental uses of Mono Lake—as protected by the public trust doctrine” mattered as much as California’s water rights law. As the court explicitly intended, the landmark ruling cleared the way for a long series of decisions that would force the DWP to repair some of the damage done by its water grabs. In 1994, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the utility to begin restoring flows to Mono Lake’s feeder streams, a project that’s still in progress. And in December 2006, after more than a decade of broken promises and foot dragging, the DWP finally began the “rewatering” of the Lower Owens River.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Los Angeles. The ecological restoration orders were followed by the second-worst dry spell in recorded California history. Over the winter of 2006 and 2007, only half the average snowpack accumulated in the mountains; by 2008, key reservoirs around the state were depleted to 60 percent of capacity. That year, the confluence of ecological demands and drought reduced the eastern Sierra portion of L.A.’s water supply to 17 percent.

The utility has compensated by buying more water from the Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water from the reservoirs and aqueducts of the State Water Project, the Colorado River, and various other sources to the twenty-six cities and water districts in its cooperative. But those supplies are threatened, too: in 2007, a federal judge determined that pumping water out of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, from which California gets roughly half of its drinking water, has been killing the keystone fish species and destroying the Delta’s fragile ecology. The court ordered that both federal and state pumps at the mouth of the Delta slow down. Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a press release that Southern California has “lost the equivalent supply to sustain the water needs of a city the size of Anaheim for more than three years.”

Now when I ask Hanna whether displacing imported water with local sources is something people at the city utility are taking seriously, he emphatically answers yes. Not since William Mulholland and then-mayor Fred Eaton first schemed to bring water out of the mountains to make Los Angeles a metropolis have Southern California’s aquifers, in particular the San Fernando Basin—which extends across 169,000 acres of land—mattered more.

Which brings us back to Sun Valley. By the time Los Angeles County finally scraped up $42 million to build those long-sought storm drains in 1997, Congress had extended the Clean Water Act to include “nonpoint” pollution—dirty water that isn’t discharged in one spot by a single offending industry, but drips and flows throughout a watershed. The untreated runoff from the eighty-four coastal and inland cities that share the county’s separate storm water and sewer system—along with its permit for discharging that runoff into the ocean—would soon move into the EPA’s crosshairs. Another storm drain system would only compound the problem.

So Andy Lipkis, founder of the nonprofit TreePeople, proposed a different idea: he, along with other environmentalists, persuaded the county to drop the storm drain plan and put the money toward building systems that would mimic nature, not battle it. Close to a decade later, the Sun Valley Watershed Stakeholders Group, a coalition of government agencies, business interests, and nonprofits, including the city and county of Los Angeles, unveiled its first significant achievement: Sun Valley Park, a two-acre plot of recreational green space, where storm water collects and percolates into the earth before recharging the groundwater basin with enough water to supply sixty families for a year.

“The soils in Sun Valley are the best in the city for groundwater recharge,” Hanna explains as he veers north up Tujunga Avenue—another roadway temporarily reclaimed as a river today by the laws of fluvial geomorphology. “As the water comes out of the mountains, it carries sediment. And as it starts to hit less-steep gradients, the larger particles are left behind.

“In this area we’re close to the foothills, so the gravel dropped out. When you get down to Ballona or to Long Beach, anywhere closer to the coast, you have the fine sediments dropping out.” If you want to store water in an underground basin and draw it out later, it’s best to have a basin filled with big chunks of rock where there’s plenty of space for the water to flow through.

“The best place to put water in,” Hanna says, “is the best place to take water out.”
Those soils have also made Sun Valley a good place to mine aggregate, and the open pits those operations leave behind are excellent for water storage. The DWP and the county have a joint project in the works to turn one, the Strathern pit, into an expansion of Sun Valley Park. The pit will store water under walking trails, a garden, and a couple of soccer fields.

“We look for multibenefit projects,” Hanna says. Even a city plan to tear the asphalt off roadway medians and reconfigure them as groundwater-recharging bioswales will provide bird habitat in native vegetation. Hanna admits that trash will collect in those swales. “But that’s kind of where you want the trash. Because now someone can go in and pick it up, and it won’t end up contributing to that island of garbage in the middle of the Pacific.”

“The gyre?” I ask.

Hanna laughs. It’s in part due to Captain Charles Moore’s discovery of the continent-size garbage patch swirling in the northern Pacific Ocean that the public even knows what people like Hanna are talking about. “That’s right,” he nods. “The gyre.”

“All we hear now is, ‘We need every last drop of water we can get our hands on. So how do we do this? Help us do this,’ ” TreePeople’s Drayse says. “There’s been a 180-degree shift.”

In October 2008, TreePeople agreed to work with the city toward a shared agenda of finding more ways to capture storm water for reuse, including incentives for homeowner-installed cisterns and rain barrels, and retrofitting more Sun Valley gravel pits. Building on work begun by the late Dorothy Green, founder of Heal the Bay and the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, Drayse and Hanna spent “untold hours,” as Drayse puts it, working with seventeen agencies and nonprofits on an exhaustive study of storm water’s potential. Published in a report by the Watershed Council, the ten-year study found that the three major watersheds of the Los Angeles region lose an average of 601,000 acre-feet of storm water to the ocean in a year. A new region-wide retainment program could recharge the groundwater with two-thirds of that. Combined with the estimated 194,000 acre-feet that already finds its way into the groundwater each year, that’s enough to supply close to four million people with 130 gallons per day for a year. (Considering that DWP customers now use around 146 gallons per person per day, Hanna considers 130 gallons a reasonable conservation goal.)

The shift in the city toward local water supplies isn’t simply about hydrologic cycles and court decisions; some of it comes from the lofty water values that H. David Nahai, the DWP’s recently displaced general manager, brought with him to the utility. Nahai came from more than a decade on the Regional Water Quality Control Board, where as chairman he presided over a peculiar kind of theater: representatives from inland cities, protesting any restrictions on their storm drains, would deliver emotional presentations worthy of modern tea partiers, and Nahai would struggle to reel in the $300-an-hour lawyers the county had hired to fight clean-water regulations by filibuster.

Nahai was, by most accounts, squeezed out of the DWP job after two years of solid conflicts, among them a fight over stricter water-regulation rules with San Fernando Valley homeowners—the same San Fernando Valley homeowners who in the 1990s launched a campaign against recharging the aquifer with recycled groundwater. (The irony is that Orange County Republicans now own that particular innovation.)

Even with Nahai’s departure, though, the conservation rules stay. Gone are the days of washing the driveway with the garden hose or watering the lawn in the middle of the day. Despite a report blaming water rationing for last year’s water-main breaks, lawn sprinklers now only have 15 minutes on Mondays and Thursdays to do their work.

The rules are part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Water Supply Action Plan, a blueprint for obtaining supply for the city’s projected annual increase in demand—100,000 acre-feet, or what 200,000 households use every year—from local sources. Also part of the plan is an effort to rehabilitate that San Fernando Aquifer. Industrial contaminants such as hexavalent chromium and trichloroethylene have infiltrated the groundwater; as a result, the entire aquifer has been declared a Superfund site. While the EPA orchestrates the $1 billion cleanup, Jim McDaniel, the DWP’s senior assistant general manager in charge of the water system, says the utility “will go after the responsible parties to pay for the groundwater cleanup—the industries responsible for the pollution out there.” An EPA report describes how one company, the Burbank-based All Metals Processing Company, allowed chromium, cadmium, and cyanide to run off its site ten feet from a storm drain.

The water-supply angle may give this plan a better chance of succeeding than earlier city measures that placed a higher value on water quality and open space. “It’s really hard to quantify water quality,” Hanna admits. “If you go into a meeting, and you say, ‘The water quality’s really going to improve, and we’ll have more green space,’ it’s like, ‘Well, that’s great, but how much is it going to cost?’ But if you walk in saying, ‘We’re going to capture enough water in this park to supply sixty families of four for a year’ ”—as Sun Valley Park’s basin does—“it’s easy to quantify the costs and benefits: we pay money for water.”

Mark Hanna’s first job at the DWP was with the restoration group for the Mono Lake Basin, where for three and a half years he helped figure out how to replenish that region’s streams and protect its fragile habitat for fish and other wildlife.

“It’s a wonderful place,” he says, “a protected ecosystem, an absolutely pristine water supply.” When he looked for a place to go next, he thought, “Hey, if there’s a place that needs some good improvements to its urban environment, what better place than Los Angeles? I looked at the groundwater group that manages the surface flows in this area, and thought, oh, you know, we’ve gotta rip up the concrete—we need to get water into the ground by pulling up the concrete.

“Then I saw a spreading ground in operation, and I thought so that’s how you get water into the ground! Those spreading grounds are operated unbelievably well. They’re the mother-ship facilities of our groundwater recharge program.”

Spreading grounds are a series of basins diked off by berms; when one basin fills, water flows into the next. Three-thousand acres of spreading grounds currently replenish the Los Angeles region’s groundwater basins every year. Since the early 1950s, the DWP has owned the land known as the Tujunga Spreading Grounds adjacent to the Tujunga Wash, where storm flows would naturally converge after pouring out of the steep San Gabriel Mountains. In the modern engineered and flood-controlled landscape, the water is collected first at Big Tujunga Dam, and then metered out to the spreading grounds depending on how much water can safely percolate beneath the soils. Just to the west, water collected behind the Hansen and Pacoima dams is metered out to two other Valley spreading grounds, owned by the county. Until recently, the flows at both the Tujunga and Hansen spreading grounds were literally monitored by hand.

“People would be running around out there, slipping in the mud, pulling boards so the water would gush into the next basin,” Hanna says, “and then they’d have to close it off and run over and open the next gate.”

Last year, the county, with financial support from the DWP, upgraded the Hansen facility so that all those functions can be controlled by an operator at a computer in a warm, dry office. At the same time, county engineers deepened the basins to store more water, and reduced the number of basins from seventeen to six. “By removing those intermediate levees,” Hanna says, “you give yourself more storage capacity.”

The Hansen sites currently max out when water in the Tujunga Wash channel starts to flow at a rate of about 1,500 cubic feet per second—the speed and volume of the water that comes down Class III rapids on the American River. After that, they have to pull up the gate that restrains the flows, and let all the water run into the storm channel to the ocean. “If they leave it in the path of the flow,” Hanna says, “the gate will start to vibrate so hard it’ll rip off its hinges.” The final phase of the project will involve installing a rubber inflatable dam, which can be adjusted based on the water level, and withstand the force of the water.

Similar plans have been drawn up to improve the Tujunga Spreading Grounds. With $25 million for design and construction, the city can expand the infiltration rate to capture another 8,000 to 12,000 acre-feet of runoff every year. “It’s where our heavy lifting is,” Hanna says. But he stresses that spreading grounds don’t obviate the need for smaller storm-water capturing technologies dotted around the city.

“I liken it to power plants,” he says. “You’ve got a big—I don’t want to say coal-burning—but say a big natural-gas-burning power plant, that’s going to give you your mother lode of electricity. But then if people put solar panels on their houses, that’s called distributed generation.”

In the same way, he says, individual low-impact development projects—rain barrels on single-family homes, swales in parks, permeable median strips—spread the work of storm-water capture through the region.

“You’re talking about the most widespread distributed every-drop-counts kind of project,” he says. “You can even extend it to whole city blocks.”
With the storm still raging, Hanna guides us through yet another inundated street, one that would have been a natural storm channel were it not for its asphalt coating. Hanna looks down a few alleys that have turned into streams—tributaries of the major thoroughfares—with less horror than hope: “By July we should have a revised set of standard plans for the city that will include designs for infiltration in alleys,” he says. New alleys and those in need of new pavement will be covered with a material that allows water to filter through.

“We’re coming up on Elmer Avenue,” Hanna says. “Forty acres drain into this one spot.” There’s a dog in the street. “I hope he can swim.”

Almost six years ago, a woman named Suzanne Dallman went to work as the manager of storm-water programs for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. While working on her PhD in urban planning at UCLA, she set out to find a block in Sun Valley to retrofit, house by house—not just to stop the flooding, although that was a significant part of the plan, but also to involve the residents in a renewal project that educated them about the geology of the place where they lived, in the shadow of a mountain range, in a watershed that drains into a major river, atop a groundwater basin that supplies 11 percent of their city’s drinking water.

The outreach was a success. By the time the Watershed Council, with the help of the county, TreePeople, Pomona College, and several other agencies, secured the funding to begin the project, not a single resident of the Elmer Avenue block Dallman had chosen opposed the project. Not even the one who had to sacrifice his brick walkway so workers could install a culvert. As I look out the window of Hanna’s car, the bricks of the old walkway lie in pieces on the boulevard, surrounded by street barricades. Orange cones, caution tape, and black tarps border the small front lawns of each tidy house. The street never had sidewalks; storm water flows would have eroded them too fast.

“They tore up the entire street,” Hanna says, “then filled it with gravel and put these huge distribution culverts underground so that storm flows will go into that storm drain right there.” He points to a cut in the curb. “It will fill up the gravel basin underneath the roadway and percolate it into the groundwater table.
“It’s not done yet, obviously. But this is your perfect picture of what a low-impact community would look like. You can see that the driveways have metal grates across them, so flows coming off of people’s roofs, off their driveways, will go into those grates.”

In a different world, the Elmer Avenue project would have been finished by now, its yards neatly manicured with native vegetation, its curbside rain gardens slowing and sinking the storm flow. But Watershed Council programs manager Edward Belden says that state money from a 2002 water bond was abruptly cut off when the state went nearly bankrupt last fall. “That set us back nine months,” he says. This meant that the residents had to cope with a torn-up street from November to July. “They were incredibly understanding of the situation,” Belden says. “That was impressive, and it wouldn’t have happened just anywhere.” Promised funds have only recently begun trickling in again.

For the rest of the city’s residents who want to do something to mimic Elmer Avenue, there is still the matter of Los Angeles’s city building codes, which have long prohibited retaining water on site for fear—a realistic fear—of accumulated water eroding foundations.

But on January 15, the city’s Board of Public Works approved a low-impact development ordinance that, once adopted by the City Council, will require every new or redeveloped property with four or more residential units, and every new commercial property, to capture, infiltrate, or reuse up to the first three-quarters of an inch of every rainstorm. Residents building new single-family homes will get to choose among several options for caching rain, including diverting the spouts that funnel water from the roof into a rain garden, installing a rain barrel, and cutting their concrete driveways with grass strips.

It’s part of an effort “to weave nature back into the urban fabric,” says Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels. “Because, as we’ve learned in the twenty-first century, nature has a pretty impressively elegant way of taking care of problems on the right kind of scale.”

Daniels, a lawyer and former Heal the Bay activist who later served on the state Coastal Commission, says the ordinance includes revisions to the city’s building codes that Department of Building and Safety “green expert” and engineer Osama Younan drew up with his staff.

There are challenges: Will permeable asphalt stand up to heavy truck traffic? How do you square requirements for accessible sidewalks—the kind you can roll wheelchairs over—with the desire for curbside rain gardens? How will public health officials regard a rain barrel that, poorly managed, can become a breeding ground for West Nile-spreading mosquitoes?

“There are a lot of competing interests,” says Daniels, who, after her appointment by Villaraigosa in 2007, put together a Green Streets Committee to encourage collaboration among city, county, and state agencies toward overcoming such obstacles. “Before, there was a lot of thinking about just keeping water away from people.” As the explicit mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flood-control projects performed only one task: they controlled floods.

The new rules will encourage projects that create open space and habitat, cleanse runoff, and capture rainfall while also protecting places like Sun Valley from floods.

In addition, the rules will streamline what once was a time-consuming trial. “Up until now,” Rebecca Drayse says, “everything has been a variance. It’s been incredibly difficult to move forward. But things are easing up.”

Still, there’s nothing yet in Los Angeles to compare with the activity in Santa Monica, which last year redesigned a street to handle the rain of not just a three-quarter-inch storm, but of a Class 5 hurricane. Low-impact development rules have been on the books there since 1992. Los Angeles had to have a water crisis before it began to catch up.

“Planning is not progress,” says Mark Gold, the executive director of Heal the Bay. “Implementation is progress.” And so far, he says, too many of the high-minded ideals of Los Angeles’s water planners remain in the larval stage. “That the mayor and David Nahai came out with their water plan for DWP two years ago, a plan that included storm-water capture, recycling, and more conservation—that was great. That was a new day for Los Angeles. But you can’t say that progress has been significant until you see what gets built. The city has made tremendous strides in the area where they’ve always made tremendous strides—conservation.” And conservation does not create a supply, it just reduces demand.

Exactly how much of the city’s water supply could local sources supply if we started managing our water right? Before it was polluted, the San Fernando Valley aquifer supplied as much as 30 percent of the city’s drinking water, and it could rise to that level again. At first, the low-impact development ordinance will net only a tiny fraction of the water the city imports, but every quarter-acre that comes unpaved has the potential to collect another 100,000 gallons of rain in a year. By 2030, that could add up to 150,000 acre-feet—a year’s worth of water for a million conservation-minded people.

Local water could count for even more if Los Angeles would finally embrace what other Southern California cities are exploiting with great success: water recycling. Water from El Segundo’s Hyperion Treatment Plant gets recycled for Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and El Segundo in the West Basin Municipal Water District, which for the last five years has supplied recycled water to half of its customers, including the thirsty Chevron Oil refinery nearby. Orange County in 2007 inaugurated a facility to supply a half-million homes with previously used water.

Los Angeles, however, is working on yet another study of the technology. “They’re so afraid of going through the ‘toilet-to-tap’ battle all over again,” Gold says. The term was coined by San Fernando Valley Councilmember Joel Wachs, who used the phrase to stop a water-recycling facility that would have supplied water to the East Valley. The project should not have been controversial because it risked no one’s health: used water would have been pretreated at Van Nuys’s Donald Tillman plant and poured over the Hansen Spreading Ground, where it would have been infiltrated into the Valley’s vast basin, cleansed by the same natural process that filters all the water in the world.

But Wachs prevailed, and the Tillman plant still operates as it did in 1985, recycling water for irrigation and local lakes, but nothing more. “It’s frankly an embarrassment for the city,” Gold says.

“The momentum on water issues slowed to a crawl when Nahai left,” Gold observes. Nahai was replaced in October last year by S. David Freeman, who had run the utility from 1997 to 2001, after serving in the Energy Department under President Carter and greening up the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. As acting general manager for the DWP until he stepped down in April, and deputy mayor for energy and the environment before Nahai resigned, Freeman fixed his sights on getting 40 percent of the city’s power from renewable sources by 2020, and hoped to put plans in motion to build a solar farm at Owens Lake.

It’s too soon to tell what the appointment of the utility’s new interim general manager, Austin Beutner—who agreed to a $1 salary for his initial six-month term—means for the city’s water supply. But Beutner, a former Wall Street trader who worked on the city’s economic side, is a businessman. And with the cost of imported water from the north—once expensive enough at its pre-Delta crisis rate of around $500 an acre-foot—nearing $1,000 an acre-foot, it may be a good business decision to exploit local sources first.

A low-impact development ordinance isn’t enough, Gold argues. “The elephant in the room is retrofits. Nobody is talking right now about requiring anything on existing development.” And the city’s low-impact development ordinance has not even kicked in—the City Council won’t even consider it until summer. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County, which still sends lawyers into hearings to fight regulation, passed a similar ordinance two years ago. It’s a more conservative ordinance, with rules adapted to the specific geology of each project site. “But they passed it,” Gold says. “The city’s is still in progress.”

Not long after Hanna’s rainy-day tour, after weeks of intermittent poundings by what the Weather Channel calls a “parade of storms,” the slopes of the San Gabriels give way in mudslides. Torrents of debris-choked sediment clamber down suburban streets, faithfully depositing more valuable gravel in the Sun Valley basin. Some of the spreading grounds have to be closed when the mud flows carry too much ash from the summer’s Station Fire to safely percolate into the basin. They’re also getting full: water from the Hansen Spreading Grounds can spill over into the nearby Bradley Landfill—another use for Sun Valley’s soils. And at the Tujunga grounds, water can push air through the Sheldon Arleta landfill, pushing methane gas up into neighborhood schools.

Yet high on the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, at the TreePeople headquarters in a city park on Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland drives, a 216,000-gallon cistern completed two years ago captured enough water last year to irrigate four acres of landscaping, gardens, and trees from March to October. The cistern ran dry just as the first of the winter storms rolled in.

And down the hill toward the Valley, along a stretch of waterway Los Angeles County restored and named the Tujunga Greenway, hawks have begun to return among the riparian sycamores. The water that’s redirected from the street to replenish the wash is only a trickle—one to two cubic feet per second, two acre-feet per day.

“But if you do that year round, that’s 700 acre-feet,” Hanna says. “Enough to supply water to 3,000 people.”

A small gain, for sure. But, Hanna insists, “it’s significant.” When you live in a city looking for water, every drop counts.

*As this article went to press, Mark Hanna decided to leave LADWP to join Geosyntec, an independent engineering firm headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. From the company’s Los Angeles office, Hanna will continue working on the restoration of natural systems that replenish aquifers and capture rainwater throughout the Western U.S.

This article was originally published in Slake No. 1. To read all of the stories from that issue, purchase or subscribe at shop.slake.la.

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