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…”