TO: Mayor of Los Angeles City
SUBJECT: Water Shortage in Los Angeles, California
A severe drought, which hit California in recent years, has shown that the state’s water supply system is inefficient and unsustainable. Alongside the growing population and the global warming issues, it endangers the future development of local businesses and communities even in non-drought situations.
One of the core problems of California’s water system is a substantial imbalance of local water precipitation and demand for water within the State. While over 75% of the state’s water originates from Northern California, Southern California accounts for 75% of the total water consumption volume (Kaldani). The water supply system is based on the federal Central Valley Project (CPV) and the Californian State Water Project (SWP). Both projects are technically incapable of providing the state with an adequate supply of surface water. The storage facilities used in both subsystems were designed to cover the needs of 19 million people, i.e. approximately one-half of the current population of California (Kaldani). The state’s groundwater resources in some localities seem to be overused, especially in the time of drought, which creates substantial economic and environmental issues. At the same time, the Californian legal system causes problems for the effective management of underground water use. According to the state’s law, surface water in the state is a public good, while underground water constitutes a private good (Kaldani). Some environmental regulations present another problem for the water supply in California, which largely depends on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (often referred to as “The Delta” in the state’s press). The pumping of water from the Delta was recently restricted by a court decision aimed at protection of endangered fish species (Kaldani).
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The year 2014 was the third year with the lowest water precipitation level recorded in California (California Water Science Center). With its population of 3.9 million citizens, Los Angeles, located in Southern California, was among the most affected cities. In October 2014, the Mayor of Los Angeles, following the call of Governor Brown, announced the target of 20% decrease in the city’s water use by 2017. The Mayor warned residents that if this goal was not met, the city authorities would impose the relevant mandatory cutbacks on the residents (Garcetti 2, 4).
The Mayor’s initiative resulted in significant progress in the rationalization of water use in Los Angeles. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, Los Angeles consumed 113 gallons per capita per day (GPCD), which was approximately 13% percent less than the water consumption level of the previous fiscal year. In August 2015, water use in the city was by 17.4% lower than in August 2013 (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Announces…”). By 2016, the city residents and organizations have reduced the water use by 19%, i.e. they have almost met the target set for January 2017. In April 2016, the Mayor introduced new stricter measures aimed at water saving, including higher fines for the water waste (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Signs…”).
Although it appears that the water conservation policies of the Mayor do not provoke any widespread discontent among the population of Los Angeles, they faced some criticism, which seems to be related to the conflicts of interests between some groups of stakeholders. At the same time, the sustainable development of California and Los Angeles requires further efforts of the city administration and residence to ensure the efficient use of water resources, including the elimination of water waste.
The following sections of the current paper present some of the measures proposed and taken by the Mayor of Los Angeles to improve the use of water, groups supporting and opposing those measures, and the analysis of pro and contra arguments.
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On October 14, 2014, in his Executive Order No. 5, the Mayor of Los Angeles defined the following immediate mandatory actions aimed at reducing the per capita water use in the city by 20% within three years:
- Restriction of the irrigation of city buildings and streets to not more than two days a week;
- Restriction of the irrigation of public parks and recreation facilities;
- Turf replacement at municipal buildings;
- Defining some potential changes in the city’s Building Code to prevent overuse of water in new and repaired buildings;
- Increased rebates for the residential turf removal and the installation of rain barrels with piping and controls;
- Creating a new strategic communication plan to inform the city residents about the recommended and encouraged voluntary water conservation actions (Garcetti 2-4).
Apart from the above mandatory measures, Executive Order No.5 called for the following additional voluntary actions to be taken by the residents of Los Angeles to improve the use of water resources:
- Restriction of all outdoor watering from three days a week to two days;
- Replacement of turf lawns with the landscaping suitable for the local climate and require less irrigation water;
- Replacement of existing plumbing fixtures and appliances with low-flow ones according to the recommendations of the city’s Department of Water and Power (DWP);
- Ensure the covering of pools to reduce water evaporation (Garcetti 4).
Executive Order No. 5 defined specific time-bound targets of water use reduction. On July 1, 2014, the water consumption in Los Angeles amounted to 130 GPCD. By July 1, 2015, the city administration planned to reduce the figure by 10%, by January 1, 2016 – by 15%, and by January 1, 2017 – by 20% (Garcetti 5). In case the city would fail to comply with the schedule, the Executive Order enabled the Mayor to introduce further mandatory water-saving measures. Such measures would include significant restrictions on the water use by residents, such as the prohibition of car washing outside commercial car washes and the prohibition of filling pools with potable water (Garcetti 5).
On April 27, 2016, the Mayor announced the successful fulfillment of the water-saving schedule and signed amendments to the City’s Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance. The amendments, effective from May 3, 2016, introduce higher fines for the water waste during drought periods and define measures aimed at encouraging the largest residential water users to reduce consumption (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Signs…”). The amended Ordinance will require DWP to assess the consumption of water by families belonging to the group of the largest users defined in the document as “Tier 4 users.” Making such assessment, DWP should find any cases of excessive water use and create individual water budgets according to the State standards (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Signs…”).
The Mayor also signed amendments to the city’s Green Building Code. They will take effect on June 6, 2016 and will require incorporation of mandatory water conservation measures into the design of any new or reconstructed buildings in all cases when the value figures of the relevant projects exceed $200,000. The new Building Code updates also introduce stricter requirements concerning the installation of plumbing fixtures and water meters (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Signs…”).
The success of the water-saving policies pursued by the Mayor and Administration of Los Angeles City is undeniable. It appears that the majority of the city residents approve the proposed water conservation actions and they receive mostly favorable coverage in the local press and nationwide. There are no serious critical comments on the restrictive measures concerning public and business water supply users. At the same time, the application of mandatory cutbacks and high fines to residents has been the subject of some controversy since the signing of Executive Order No. 5 in 2014. The following sections of the paper present the information on various stakeholder groups taking positions for or against the proposed regulatory measures.
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Groups in Support of the Proposed Actions
The recent vote in the Los Angeles City Council regarding the DWP’s proposal to raise electricity and water rates during the next five years demonstrated the level of public support of the anti-drought actions taken by the Mayor. In March 2016, the DWP Board, which consists of the Mayor’s appointees, approved a water rate plan stipulating annual increases needed for improving the water supply service. The price of water for an average residential customer will grow annually by 4.76%. The City Council approved the DWP’s decision by a 12-2 vote (City News Service).
The idea to increase the rates had gained support from environmental groups, leaders of the neighborhood councils, and some influential business groups, in particular from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce (City News Service). While a positive reaction of environmentalists was predictable, the support from neighborhood leaders in such sensitive item as rate increasing clearly indicated the general popularity of the Mayor’s anti-drought policy.
Such support may have two sources. First, most of the city residents are aware of the risks and threats of inadequate water supply and they are impressed by the success of the water conservation measures defined in 2014. Second, the current LA Mayor, Eric Garcetti, can count on the support from large groups, which benefit from his political positions on other societal issues and do not feel adversely affected by the water-saving actions. For instance, in July 2015, the Mayor of Los Angeles initiated an online petition in support of President Obama’s executive actions concerning immigration. The petition was supported by a large variety of local immigration advocacy groups, including the “Californians for Humane Immigrant Rights Leadership (CHIRLA) Action Fund” (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Launches…”). Even before his election as Mayor, being a member of Los Angeles City Council, Garcetti maintained good relations with labor unions and neighborhood groups, on the one hand, and the city’s business communities on the other hand (Dreier). The “Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action PAC,” which represents the interests of the working class communities of Los Angeles, participates in the partnership with the city administration aimed at offering more job opportunities to underemployed categories of residents (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Drives Effort…”). Therefore, the population groups, which traditionally support Eric Garcetti, include immigrants and low-to-moderate income communities. At the same time, the Mayor manages to maintain good relations with business circles. It should be noted that some of the city businesses can be directly interested in the broadening of their markets as a result of the water use restriction measures, such as, for example, artificial turf companies (Purdum).
However, the Mayor’s water conservation policies face some opposition in Los Angeles.
Groups in Opposition to the Proposed Actions
The increased fines for overuse of potable water and imposed changes in landscaping can provoke the dissatisfaction of the house owners from the wealthy communities and, consequently, such measures would be against the interests of the realtors operating in the relevant neighborhoods. Such attitudes may be a factor contributing to the formation of political opposition to the actions taken by Governor Brown and Mayor Garcetti.
Some politicians have criticized the restrictions imposed on the use of water in urban areas as excessive in the situation when the agricultural sector accounts for 80% of the State’s water consumption while giving 2% of California’s gross state product (Purdum). Several prominent political figures are lobbying alternative anti-drought solutions based on taking more water for Southern California from the Delta in the Northern part of the State. Such idea has its supporters among both Republicans and Democrats. For example, republican Kevin McCarthy proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act and some other environmental laws to soften the limits for using the Delta’s waters. According to the opinion of Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the drought is the result of too strict environmental regulation (Purdum). There were also rumors that Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein worked over a bipartisan bill, which would allow supplying more water from the Delta to the areas suffering from the drought. However, afterward, presumably under pressure from environmentalist groups, she denied having such intention and voted in Senate against the bill proposed by Kevin McCarthy, which was passed by the House of Representatives (Purdum).
In 2016, when the water precipitation began rising, several water districts asked the State Water Resources Control Board for a substantial relaxation of the current anti-drought restrictions on water use, arguing that the hydrological conditions improved and California had enough water to resume the usual consumption (Stevens). Approximately at the same time, the Mayor of Los Angeles signed ordinances introducing new water use cutbacks and fines. Los Angeles DWP officials expected that the first fines would appear in the middle of the summer and would be used for financing the conservation programs (Stevens).
David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic known for his conservative political opinions, expressed another view on the water deficit problem. He suggested that massive immigration in the recent years has increased the population of California by approximately 10 million citizens since 1990, which played its role in the current water shortages (Planas).
There are also some personal remarks in the press concerning the Mayor of Los Angeles. For example, one observer pointed out that the Mayor’s official residence, Getty House, used 2,100 gallons of water per day, which was five times higher than the consumption level for the average local house. Such irresponsible use of water took place despite the turf removal from the front lawn of and planting a low-water garden (Purdum).
The above review of different opinions on the causes of the drought and the measures to be taken shows that the opposition to water-saving actions taken by the Mayor expresses the views of the Los Angeles City residents minority. However, this opposition appears to represent the interests of some wealthy and influential conservative groups, which disagree with the Mayor’s policies on a broad specter of issues. It may create some obstacles to the proposed actions, especially when the fines and rates rise and this year’s presidential election campaign enters its final phase. For instance, both anti-immigration rhetoric and environmental regulation issues might be used to mobilize Republican voters against the Mayor’s initiatives. The next section critically assesses the opposing views.
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Analysis of the Proposed Solution
The opponents of the anti-drought measures in California use mainly two different sets of arguments presented in the above section of the current paper. First, they argue that the proposed and taken actions do not properly address the causes of critical situation with water supply. Such alleged causes include excessive federal environmental regulations, inefficient water use in the agricultural sector or massive immigration. Second, there is an opinion that the drought is over or nears its end and, therefore, the mandatory water consumption cutbacks on the residential water use are no longer necessary.
The first group of arguments may have or have not some grounds at the State or national level. However, the Mayor of a city cannot resolve problems linked to the federal environmental laws or take decision on the redistribution of water resources between different geographic regions or between agricultural production and city users.
As for the relation between immigration and water deficit in California, such opinion is highly controversial. David Frum estimated the number of new immigrants who came to the State since 1990 at 10 million. However, some other calculations based on statistical sources show that only approximately 3.7 million of new immigrants arrived in the State during that period and the relevant demographic change had no significant impact on the consumption of water in urban zones (Planas).
In the absence of power to influence directly the policies of the State and those of federal authorities, the Mayor of Los Angeles should act within the scope of the mayoral responsibilities. Therefore, if a city suffers from drought, its Mayor must use all available powers to achieve the efficient use of limited water resources. At the same time, the city administration cannot ignore the opponents’ opinions. It seems useful to participate in any open discussion aimed at improving the State’s water supply systems, including the possible redistribution of water and balancing cutbacks in rural and urban areas.
Regarding the idea of softening water conservation measures when the water supply situation improves, such point of view contradicts the concept of sustainable development and does not take into account the global trends, local situation, and risks specific to California and Los Angeles. California is a relatively dry state. According to Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe from the University of Southern California, “We are a desert and should have remained a desert” (Purdum). Therefore, the State is subject to the high risk of droughts. In this respect, Los Angeles is especially vulnerable. The city has seismic zones and uses water transported via an aqueduct from Eastern Sierra (Purdum). Consequently, if the aqueduct is damaged as a result of an earthquake, the consequences will be catastrophic. There are also non-negligible risks connected to the global warming threatening the mountain snowpack, which is one of the principal sources of potable water to Los Angeles (Garcetti 1). In addition, as David Frum has stressed, water is a finite resource in California (Planas). Therefore, the principles of sustained development require the maximum effort to spare water. Therefore, Los Angeles has no alternative to the long-term policy of water conservation irrespective of the situation in the given year. Therefore, the Mayor’s water-saving policies appear to be reasonable and adequate. They proved to be very efficient and at present, for over a year, the city has been meeting its water use targets ahead of schedule.
The city administration makes sustainable effort to address the issues arising due to inequalities in water use by auditing the consumption of water by households and creating water budgets for individual properties (Office of LA Mayor, “Mayor Garcetti Signs…”). Besides penalizing large water wasters, Los Angeles DWP draws the public attention to those individuals who continue consuming extensive amounts of potable water during the drought period. City residents mostly approve such practice (Stevens).
A few critical comments on the minor inconsistencies of these measures, such as the high level of water consumption in the Mayor’s official residence, do not constitute any substantial political issue. At the same time, such criticism could be a sign of some flaws in the Public Relations Department of the city administration. The Mayor should pay more attention to personal contributions of the municipal officials to the implementation of the adopted policies. In the time of drought, they must perform exemplary actions demonstrating the best practices of water use and the highest level of social and environmental responsibilities.
Summarizing the above analysis, one can conclude that the anti-drought policies defined by the Mayor of Los Angeles are sustainable and well-grounded. Since 2014, the city administration has been successfully implementing these policies. The Mayor managed to gain support for the relevant actions from a broad coalition of communities and businesses. At present, the opposition to the Mayor’s water conservation measures does not seem to be strong. However, the opponent groups are influential and may start acting more actively as the presidential campaign gains momentum. In the current situation, it appears advisable for the Mayor to continue following the same policies, while leading an open dialog with the opponents and paying more attention to promoting best practices by personal example.
For the fourth consecutive year, California has been suffering from drought. The most vulnerable regions are cities and counties located in the southern part of the State, including Los Angeles City with a population of approximately 3.9 million. In 2014, Governor Brown called for reducing the per capita water consumption by 20% within three years. On October 14, 2014, Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, supported that action and signed the relevant Executive Order No.5 setting the target of 20% water use reduction for the city. The Mayor requested the city residents to make a voluntary effort to achieve the defined goal and announced the intention to introduce mandatory cutbacks on the water use by households, if the target would not be met. Despite some criticism, the city authorities have been successfully pursuing the policies defined in Executive Order No. 5, and the majority of residents seem to support the Mayor’s action. Irrespective of the changes in water supply situation from the sustainable development perspective, the maximum effort to reduce the consumption of potable water is an undeniable necessity. It is especially important for California, a state with a fast-growing population and a complex water supply system exposed to considerable short- and long-term risks.