After four years of drought it has come to this: California’s politicians are trying to convince Los Angeles residents to drink treated sewage. “Toilet to tap” is no joke. The idea was floated during past droughts but foundered on the fact that recycled water would mostly go to working-class homes. That it again is being considered is symptomatic of the doomsday frenzy now gripping the state.
The panic began in April when Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the slope of a mountain bereft of snow and ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water use. “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day—that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Brown said with imperious sanctimony. He reinforced the point by threatening water wasters with fines up to $10,000 a day.
Los Angeles, of course, is naturally a desert. But thanks to modern engineering, the city has had plenty of water since 1913, when William Mulholland completed his 223-mile aqueduct from the Eastern Sierra. “There it is. Take it,” he said, as water began cascading into the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles beyond. Today, the spillway is bone dry, not because there’s no water, but because 90 percent of what little water remains is being used to grow food or protect the environment.
Nobody really seems upset that California’s farmers use 41 percent of the state’s water yet face few restrictions. Twelve gallons of water to produce a head of lettuce isn’t so bad when it comes in the form of a Cobb salad at the Polo Lounge. At the In-N-Out Burger chain the Double-Double still rules, despite its taking 450 gallons to produce a
single beef patty.
More problematic is the 46 percent of California’s water that goes to keeping certain fish happy. In 2007, a federal court limited the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to protect a two-inch fish called the delta smelt. Liberal environmentalists in San Francisco applauded that ruling since the water otherwise would have gone to Southern California. They also support a recent State Water Resources Control Board decision to release water from Sierra reservoirs so that steelhead trout and salmon in mountain streams can reach the delta more easily.
“The policy is breathtakingly stupid at both the state and federal levels and is being administered by ideological zealots who can’t be reasoned with,” says Republican congressman Tom McClintock, who represents the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
McClintock warned of a looming crisis last year, but environmentalists refused to listen. Their attitude changed two months ago, however, when another group of conservationists asked a federal court to dismantle a Yosemite dam that provides water to 2.6 million Bay Area residents. The lawsuit alleges that the dam and canals that send water and power to San Francisco deny the rest of the state the recreational and aesthetic enjoyment that only a wild and scenic river can provide.
Ironically, California has an exceptional record when it comes to water conservation. L.A.’s water usage hasn’t increased in over 30 years despite the addition of more than a million people. More than 1.3 million inefficient toilets have been replaced thanks to a rebate program sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The program was so successful that the city continues to save more than 14 billion gallons of water each year—enough to fill the Rose Bowl about 56 times.
After years of assiduous water conservation, saving an additional 25 percent will be almost impossible. But that hasn’t stopped citizens from submitting thousands of ideas. One person suggested the state invest in biodegradable towels that don’t require washing in water. Another proposed covering reservoirs to prevent evaporation. My favorite: placing laudatory bumper stickers on unwashed cars that proclaim the motorist a drought-busting hero.
Hundreds of people suggested augmenting the number of privately owned desalination plants along the coast. Environmentalists largely quashed the suggestion by warning that brine resulting from the reverse osmosis process will harm marine life when put back into the ocean.
One project still going ahead is a $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad, which by 2020 should produce
7 percent of the water used by San Diego County’s three million residents. The Boston company that is building the facility hopes to inoculate itself against future criticism by having an Israeli company manage it and hiring former Marines as employees.