Untapped: Is Water Underpriced?


LA River view #1 Paving the river prevents floods but created an "inequitable landscape." Photo by Rodney Ramsey

Best known for chase scenes in movies, the concrete embankments of the LA River destroyed wetlands and disrupted migratory birds' flights when paved over in an effort to contain flooding. There are efforts underway to revitalize the 51-mile river running through the city. In fact, there's a world of water in Los Angeles, beyond the mythology of the movie, Chinatown, but like elsewhere, we're dumping it as fast as possible. In a packed auditorium at UCLA, this past weekend at the annual Festival of Books, a panel of authors and journalists gushed about water issues. Are short showers and turning the faucet off really a drop in the bucket? At the standing-room-only session, "Water: The Past, Present, and Future of our Most Precious Resource," had the audience salivating. "LA is not a desert," insisted author D.J. Waldie, referring to the water table in layers of alluvial fan underneath the metropolis, but you'd never know it. Looking out at the endless expanse of development across the sprawling basin, it's hard to believe there's water in them there hills and valleys but what's clear is that I need to get a rain barrel.


LA River view #2 "Looks like an outsize concrete sewer and is most famous for being forgotten," says river tour guide Jenny Price. Photo by JonDoeForty1 via Flickr

"Los Angeles is a laboratory to see if opportunities will be seized," said Steve Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, released in January, a survey of the geo-political advantages of harnessing water from Egypt's Nile to China's Grand Canal with a compelling argument to repeat historical successes. "We're at one of those pregnant moments of either failing to meet the water challenges or managing it in innovative and productive ways."

The NY Times writer, water blogger and commentator on NPR's "Marketplace" listed positive trends, like ecosystems being defended in the courts to zeriscaping. Examples included NYC purchasing surrounding forests to clean water instead of artificial means and Chicago's pervious concrete filtration as a smart paving system. The US has 8% of the world's water and 4% of the population, said Solomon, "Water could relaunch our growth."

A big problem lies in not capturing water. In LA, 80% of the rainfall is sent to the ocean and full of pollutants. Retrofitting the infrastructure isn't a sexy project that gets the public engaged, but it's essential to prevent our growing vulnerability, said Waldie, a public information officer for Lakewood, California, who wrote Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, about living in the world's largest suburb where bean fields were divided into small tract houses.


LA River view #3 Revitalizing efforts in Los Angeles at work. Photo by Al Pavangkanan

It all fascinated the group gathered. Jenny Price spoke rhapsodically about the abundance of nature to be found on the LA River banks. An urban ranger who gives tours of the river and wrote "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA" in The Believer, her book, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, poses different ideas about nature, looks in the "wrong places" for it, and exposes idealized views. Besides pollution, water imperialism is a problem, she says, and the revitalization of LA's rivers is a key to solving its water problems. "We don't need to import it 1300 miles away."

"We're living with mistakes and bad habits of the past," explained Michael Hiltzik, author of Colossus, the story of the Hoover Dam and how it provided an abundance of water and power that developed western cities like LA, Denver, and Salt Lake City. The dark side of these projects is the consequences to ecosystems of unlimited growth, not foreseen in the 1930s, but he also warned of romanticizing a pre-paved America and daylighting all dams. He suggests, "The cost of water is undervalued."

As water becomes scarcer around the world because of mismanagement, untapped strategies are critical, from capturing runoff efficiently and wetlands development to tertiary treatment of wastewater. "Our tap water passes through a lot of toilets in LA," noted Waldie.

More on water:
Blue Planet Run's Tips for Doing Your Part to Avert a Water Crisis
We Use How Much Water? Scary Water Footprints, Country by Country
Of All The Water in the World, Just 0.08% Makes It To Our Faucets

Tags: Books | Los Angeles | Rivers | Water Conservation

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