The Suits Are Making Moves: 3 State Decisions Shaping Our Water Future



Grandfathered-in Water Rights Holders
Are Being Told to Hold Their Hoses.

Days after we released our 101 dispatch on agriculture, a heated debate broke out in the San Joaquin Valley. That's because on June 12th, the State Water Resources Control Board told 100 of the oldest California farming properties that their water would be regulated just like everyone else's. Accustomed to drawing as much water as they’d like, owners of these lands are responding with impassioned pleas to return to business as usual.

California water rights holders are defined as either “pre-1914” or “post-1914,” in reference to the year California kicked off her cowboy boots and passed some serious water laws. Anyone who called “DIBS!” before 1914 were grandfathered-in with almost zero water restrictions—except in occasions of the most dire shortage.

According to the SWRCB, that occasion is now. But the VIP Farmers do not agree. These are big cash crop farms producing everything from cattle to tomatoes to grapes, and they claim for themselves huge economic importance worth the cost of water. They’re saying that water’s still out there, and that the state is responsible for handing it over to protect their business.

This debate will inevitably beg the question: can our environment support business as usual? Is cash more important than a river? Is that a really stupid question?



The SoCal Metropolitan Water District Expands Its Lawn-Crushing Cash Incentives.

After a hugely successful first year, the Metropolitan Water District has invested another $350,000,000 into more turf removal rebates for Southland water districts. Under Governor Jerry B’s restrictions, many of us have conservation benchmarks to meet this summer, especially in lawn-loving areas. (Check out this map to see how the restrictions will affect your neighborhood.)

Looks like NOW is the time to trade in your lawn for something a little more California-friendly. But before you call Turf Terminators and swap grass for gravel, may we suggest considering the greater sponge around you?

The real possibilities of a drought-tolerant green space are many. Gravel contributes to heat island effect, diminishes the usability of your property, and it looks like crap! Think holistic: If your kids play on your lawn, maybe you don’t need to rip it all out! Keep some for recreation, take out the excess, and plant diverse flora that benefit soil and recharge water into the ground.





Garcetti Unveils a New Plan to
Take LA to 50% Local Water Use.

Check out the pLAn to see a comprehensive and ambitious set of sustainability goals laid out by LA mayor Eric Garcetti this April. Scroll down to track the status and progress of coastal water quality, per capita water use, and the amount of locally-sourced water.

For that last stat, you’ll see that LA currently gets about 15% of its water locally. Garcetti wants to get to 50% by 2035 by way of retaining more stormwater that currently discharges into the LA River, building more water treatment facilities across the county, and funding large-scale stormwater recapture projects like the one in motion at LAX. This pLAn is so exciting, that the state is looking to possibly adopt it. Go LA!

Santa Barbara, CA

Santa Barbara, CA

Drought 101: Municipal Madness

So, we mentioned last week that California's water is managed by 400+ agencies, but how does one "manage" water anyway? Great question! We're not sure anyone fully knows the answer.

California Aqueduct. Kluft

In the West, our water gets moved around like our food. We import, aggregate, and distribute water over vast areas. Works great for tomatoes (well, not really, but that’s a different dispatch), but water by its very nature doesn’t fit too well into boxes.

How exactly did we go from the miracle of fresh water wells, to taps of imported water?

Well, California’s M.O. during its rapid development in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century was to expand and monetize—not so much calculate and sustain. Before too long, explosive population growth and the expansion of world’s most productive agricultural regions outgrew the available supply of local groundwater aquifers.

So by the turn of the century, department heads like William Mulholland (remember Chinatown?) took a leaf from our friends in New York City—who were piping in water from the mountains—and initiated projects that would bring in water in from the Sierras to the east. We set up an extensive system of ducts and canals, and before you knew it, whoosh! Fresh water flowed freely throughout California to farm oranges, build golf courses, manufacture clothes and bottle for consumption.

The Bureaucratic Breakdown

Once water flowed from the mountain snows, we simultaneously created a multitude of municipal water agencies to deal with the new infrastructure of spreading it around: wells, treatment centers, pipes of every size from arteries to capillaries to a faucet in every home. We compartmentalized our highly interdependent water cycle.

The main issue here is: pipes, channels, dams and reservoirs are astronomically expensive to maintain and the state’s many water districts cannot keep up with the system’s deterioration. It seems obvious now that the world’s most powerful erosive would, well, erode a long network of rudimentary pipes, but that didn’t seem to be the top priority for the 20th century West.

It’s easier to understand why we organized (or rather didn’t organize) our infrastructure when you imagine a time when we we had access to what seemed like boundless fresh water, and the natural resources of the planet seemed untouchable by human extraction (thanks for bursting THAT bubble, Al Gore.)

So now we find ourselves in a state that loses 228 billion gallons of water every year to a rudimentary piping system, and the policy-guiding sense of abundance has given way to an immediate need for change.

Flowing Together


The good news is, reform is on the minds of many. The drought emergency has brought these systemic inefficiencies to light (read: seriously, 228 BILLION gallons lost yearly), and the policy wonks are wrapping their heads around a redesign.

A recent report from leading LA organization Tree People (funded by LADWP and LA County Public Works) took a thorough look at our current system and thought through ways to incentivize cooperation and provide greater transparency to citizens. In the 30 page report, they prompt the region’s largest agencies to acknowledge that an effective water management bureau needs to be as interdependent as the water system it oversees.

The conclusion in a nutshell: Regional water agencies  need to shake their grudges, hang out with each other, and focus on stormwater capture as a vital part of sustaining our urban watershed. If they do, the possibilities could be huge!

Some of this collaborative work is already in place: TreePeople and Watershed Health have already coordinated to engineer better aquifer recharge points in the foothills of Sun Valley, and LA mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative now includes a Green Streets Coalition, bringing multiple water agency stakeholders together on a regular basis in an effort to make the urban landscapes just a little more spongy.

Long Story Short…

  • California’s founding fathers masterfully built a system that brought what seemed like limitless fresh water all parts of California.

  • The availability of water lead to explosive development of cities and farmland. However, the rapid development didn’t have our long-term interest in mind and has left us with outdated, dysfunctional systems, both in physical infrastructure and political organization.

  • On the physical side, our pipes need replacing and our sources need rethinking. We need to rely more on storm capture.

  • Politically, to get a more appropriate and sustainable water system, we need our agencies to work together and manage our water with a better sense of its interdependence.


While agencies re-evaluate and evolve, Angelenos and Californians can work to understand our impact, live in sync with our watersheds, and press forward on small changes that make more difference than you might think. Let’s go catch some rain!

Now that we’ve dabbled in how water is managed, next week we’ll need makes sense of how much water in California actually costs and it’s pricing structure. Water economics anyone?

The Latest

LA Getting no Owens Valley runoff for the first time since 1913

“That's how bad this drought is,” said LADWP Spokeswoman Amanda Parsons. “We've never kept the water in the valley before. This is unprecedented.”


$40-million stormwater project targets polluted runoff at LAX

“Millions of gallons of polluted stormwater runoff from Los Angeles International Airport will be treated and cleaned before washing into the Pacific Ocean or working its way into L.A.'s groundwater basin…”

Drought 101: The Urban Water System

If you’re like us, then the rain got your gears turning about our urban water system. We wanted to know where rain goes in a city and what implications that has for the rest of the ecosystem. What better place to start than the basics?

Behold, the Water Cycle

The Hydrologic Cycle   Credit 

The Hydrologic Cycle   Credit 

Fourth grade Earth Science anyone? Evaporation, condensation, and precipitation keep rivers and lakes full, little towns are dwarfed by rolling green hills and mountains, and everyone gets a sailboat! What a pretty picture!

But, no skyscrapers, tract housing developments, or asphalt in sight.
Not quite an up-to-date picture of the California watersheds most of us reside in.

So how do water cycles work in dense urban areas?
Let’s use Los Angeles as an example.

The Urban Water Cycle

In the idyllic verdant water cycle above, rain falls, some of it evaporates, some of it becomes surface runoff that flows into streams, lakes and oceans, and some of it seeps into underground aquifers as groundwater recharge. 

Here’s the thing about fresh water seeping into the ground: IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT. If anyone asks you, you can confidently tell them. Groundwater is like a water reserve to be used when there’s no more rain falling on the surface. Plus, if the groundwater is sucked dry, then we’ve got a real big problem, because it takes decades to replenish. Bottom line is we need to get more water in the ground now to save for later! Now in LA, when rain falls, almost all of it runs directly into rivers and streams, which flows straight to the nearby ocean bay. And thus, we get the characteristic Southland rainstorm: half an inch of water at 9am means a flood in the LA River by 10am and a small island of garbage settling in the Santa Monica Bay by noon. Meanwhile barely any fresh water has had time to seep into the ground. Not good.

In LA, Even Our River is Paved!

Los Angeles River

Los Angeles River

Why does so much of our rain flow right into the Pacific? Because we paved our watershed. In the rainy winters of 1930’s LA, we were looking for any way we could to get the sprawling river water out of the city as fast as possible. Flooding was a big problem. So to reduce flooding, the answer was, pave, pave, and pave. We even paved our river! Ironically, the only flood prevention more effective than accelerated, centralized drainage (i.e. the LA River) is the exact opposite: slow, widely spread reservation of precipitation. After all, non-paved soil not only acts as a filter to groundwater aquifers, it contains organic matter and root systems that absorb and hold water before releasing into surface streams, reducing the intensity of floods. 

The urban planners of the 1930s were set on expanding population and cementing (quite literally) a new grid to control a destructive force of nature. What was not considered was the wrench this would throw in our natural water cycle, and the immense barrier it would create for the natural recharge of underground water.

Long Story Short…

The natural balance of our water system requires an open exchange between rain, surface water, and groundwater. The urban landscape has disrupted that exchange. Pavement shirks water quickly into flooding channels and does not retain or recharge. Rain in a drier climate needs to soak in and seep, not flush away. So, we’re looking to better use our local water, soak our soil, and recharge our aquifers.

What do you think, can we make LA into the next sponge city? We think so.

But, before we can dive into that dream, we must understand how water is allocated by the state’s water districts. Did you know 85% of Southern California's urban water is imported? And that a system of over 412 cities and water districts each manage their own little piece? Next week, let the exploration of the geopolitics of water in California begin! 



A watershed is an area of land that drains to a common point. If the LA River is a drain, then its watershed is the sink, which is mostly the San Fernando Valley and everything along the LA River.

Surface Runoff
All water that flows above ground into a larger body of water (i.e. the Pacific Ocean) and does not recharge into the groundwater.

Groundwater Recharge
All the water that permeates the Earth’s surface and eventually makes its way into our subterranean water supply (i.e.. groundwater).


In Combating Drought, LA Should Follow Israel’s Lead Jewish Journal

“In Israel, more than 80 percent of all municipal sewage is reclaimed and reused…"

California Drought Shaming Diagrammed Vanity Fair

“Turns out just about every water hog in California is busy shifting blame. Confused as to whom you should hold responsible this week? We did our best to sort it all out.”

California Poppy

California Poppy

Small Talk: It Rained!


Thursday May 7th — Friday May 8th 


Angelenos pulled their sweaters back out this week as a February-style chill swept through Southern Coastal California, bringing with it more than just a sprinkle of water. Typically in May we say goodbye to rain and hello to the marine layer, which will return next week. And temperatures are usually on the rise this time of year as the sun shines for most of the day, though this week our favorite star was given an unexpected break from his usual routine.

So who are these ominous grey clouds and why did they pay us such an irregular visit?

Well, this fun winter-like weather pattern comes to us all the way from Alaska. A storm developed up there earlier this week and held on as the jet-stream pushed its way down the Pacific coast. It picked up some moisture from the warmer-than-average waters off our coast and dropped it over land. Finally, this storm dumped some nice rain and snow in the central part of the state (most affected by the drought), then it continued down to us!

We should all feel very blessed for this late season plumb of moisture. What does it mean for the drought? Let’s take a look at the numbers.


Nearly all of LA county saw some rain!
Between 0.10-0.75 inches fell last night starting around 8pm, with some areas seeing rainfall rates of 0.25 in-0.5 inches an hour (if it rained that rate for an hour, that’s what it would yield). That’s a solid amount of rain for some places. We’re talking millions of gallons of water falling over in some neighborhoods! The amounts vary and are localized, because the rainfall with this storm was associated with small cells (thunderstorms, think dark grey fluffy clouds). Also, areas of the San Gabriel mountains saw closer to 1 inch or rain with elevations above 6,000 feet getting several inches of snow (6” close to Big Bear!).

What if We Captured it?

So, it rained about 0.25 inches in Silver Lake (everyone’s favorite neighborhood). We used this equation to measure rainfall per sq/ft in gallons collected, and determined (assuming everyone has approximately 1000 sq ft of rooftop), that in a neighborhood with 10,000 homes (about as many as there are in Silver Lake), rooftops alone could’ve captured 1,125,000 gallons! That’s a little more than 28 gallons per resident of Silver Lake, which is 1.5 months of drinking water per person. Now there you have it!           


59 — 66 °F

48 — 54 °F 

0.10 — 0.75 inches
(areas around LAX and south of Downtown LA saw more).


With moisture in the soil, fire danger has decreased for now. The drought continues, but we’ll take any wet stuff we can get.


Most of the storm has now passed and we’ll warm up a bit over the weekend to near average temperatures, peaking around 75 on Sunday then cooling off again next week. There’s even a chance of rain in the forecast for next weekend! We’ll keep you posted as the forecast develops, but hopefully it’ll be time to up your rain barrels and/or stick your succulents outside.


Drought 101 : Understanding Our Climate

“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”   —Joan Didion

Thank you for joining Saturate.

We wanted to begin our exploration by gathering some context. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be presenting you with Drought 101, a breakdown of everything you need to know about our water landscape.


Welcome to California, You’ll Love the Weather.

The climate west of the Sierras can be perplexing to non-native Californians, and few of us can truly call ourselves natives. Even if you were born here, chances are you imported a perception of climate norms developed by the greeting card aisle of Walgreens.

Out here, our climate has its own unique rhythms. We can only adapt to life out west if we begin to live in step with our ecosystem—so let’s understand it. Get ready to have way more interesting conversations about the weather.

It’s a Mediterranean Climate!

Most of California’s population enjoys what the Koppen Classification System calls a “Mediterranean Climate.” This includes your friends in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and basically everywhere west of the Sierras. This zone is typically understood as having two distinct seasons: dry, warm summers, and a wetter winter. However, despite a defined wet season, statistically, at least a drop or two of rain falls in coastal California every month of the year. Temperatures vary, but typically aren’t drastically different from winter to summer. And everyone that lives here knows it can be cool and foggy on the 4th of July and hot as hell on Halloween.

Add to that a ton of micro-climates along the coast, and you get a complex climatic zone.

None of this is weird or abnormal—it’s just different. And holiday calendar be damned, the extreme cycles of our climate last much longer than 365 days.

It Can be Pretty Extreme.

For those of you who haven’t lived in California for more than 5 years, listen up!

First, it is important to note that in a Mediterranean climate there are nearly as many dry years as there are wet.

The last 4 rainy seasons have been extremely dry, and that’s an understatement. So when you hear Los Angeles transplants say things like, “It LITERALLY never rains in LA!”, it’s best you respond by asking them when they moved here, and if they remember getting drenched in 1997-1998, soaked in 2004-2005, and flooded in 2010-2011. They most likely won’t.

Let's look at Los Angeles as an example. The average rainfall in the LA area varies, but typically ranges from 15-20 inches depending on your microclimate (remember, we have a lot of them in California, even within the same county). Some communities of the nearby San Gabriel mountains can receive 4 feet of rain in one year! That’s a decent amount of rain, considering Las Vegas typically receives less that 4 inches per year and Lima, Peru quite literally gets ZERO. However, all of those numbers are average rainfall, which is aggregated over 100 years of seasonal weather data. So, digging into it a bit more will really help us understand drought. In 2006 it only rained 3.21” in LA, yikes! And, the last four years have yielded well below average. It may seem like it rained a bit this winter, but it was still pretty weak in comparison to the average.

And it’s also been wet before too, very wet! Since around 1900, many years have yielded well above 25 inches of rain, with some winters dumping close to 40 (more than NY and Chicago usually get). Remember 2010? Now that is serious water!

So that’s a small sigh of relief. But, there’s still a little something called climate change.

What About Climate Change?

Yes, it’s real. Though nobody really (fully?) knows exactly how it will specifically impact our ecosystem moving forward. And it doesn’t completely render our past climate trends obsolete. Most climatologists agree that due to climate change, California and the American West can expect significantly less snow, and what snow does fall, will fall at higher elevations.

While we can’t assume that wet years will be plentiful, we can expect more rain at some point. And we want to think constructively about the wet years.

Bottom line, we cannot count on the snow to keep our sinks running, which is the foundation of our current water system. It’s time to quickly move into the 21st century and adapt to capture more rainfall.

Long Story Short…

So, to review, here are the take-aways: 

  1. We live in a Mediterranean, semi-arid climate in California. 

  2. Many years are very wet and many are very dry. 

  3. We rely on snowfall, but climate change means less snow for California and the West, so it’s time to adapt.

How Can We Live More In Step with our Ecosystem?

Now that we’ve accepted our California climate, we want to understand how to the most of the water that falls. In our next installment we’re going to showcase Los Angeles’ miracle of a storm drainage system that allows over 10 million people to live with little fear of flooding (aka The Los Angeles River). Many of you complain that you don’t want LA to turn into the dry-scape of decorative gravel, twiggy trees and cactus of Las Vegas (no offense Vegas). We get it, it’s nice to have a little green, and we can have plenty of it with what rain we get. We just can’t let it all flush to the ocean 30 minutes after every downpour. Until next week, here’s to our water!


Why Does California Let Billions of Gallons of Fresh Water Flow Straight into the Ocean?

“The biggest misconception is that it doesn’t rain in California. The fact is, it does rain, even in Los Angeles and southern California. But we throw away most of that water because rather than collect it, we let it drain into the sea.” —Andy Lipkis, TreePeople

Wedge of Warm Seawater Known as 'The Blob' Blamed for Marine Havoc

“I think we may be shifting from a cool, dry phase to a warm, wet phase, which is usually the drought-buster.”
—William Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.