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Scott Houston: “We are Already Seeing the Consequences of 1 Degree Celsius of Global Warming”

Special To Topanga Journal

Did you circle October 1 on your calendar? It wouldn’t surprise me if you did, given the environmental savviness of the average Topanga resident. For those of you who may have missed its significance, October 1 marks the new water year, that is, the day California re-starts annual precipitation measurements.

Beach Crystal Bruce Ticianelli
Beach Crystal Bruce Ticianelli

What’s harder to miss is the evidence that climate change is real, is accelerating, and that it demands our action now. Catastrophic storms—most recently, Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle—are coming faster and more furious than ever. Paradoxically, dry areas are becoming drier. Just a few weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meeting in South Korea, warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2040, intensifying droughts and poverty.

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree Celsius of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” the IPCC said in its report.

Melted Polar Ice Caps by Simon Matzger
Melted Polar Ice Caps by Simon Matzger

Closer to home, the California Department of Water Resources noted that for the water year just ended, the statewide snowpack was just 58 percent of average by April 1—a steep decline from the previous water year when snowpack reached 159 percent of average. In addition, much of Southern California ended up with half or less than half of average rainfall. The Topanga area (as recorded in Woodland Hills) saw only 5.98 inches of rain, 34 percent of the normal rainfall for the water year. That made it the fourth driest year on record (2006-2007 was the driest, with only 5.14 inches of rain recorded), according to the National Weather Service. Also, as you’re well aware, the state was besieged by record-breaking wildfires during the dry 2017-2018 water year. All of that shows that California is warming.

And while it’s true that most California reservoirs currently have near- or above-average levels of water, the well-established shift toward a warmer climate with diminished snowpack means that we cannot rely on such abundant reservoirs.

Water Glass by Bruce Ticianelli
Water Glass by Bruce Ticianelli

That’s why it was encouraging to see Governor Jerry Brown earlier this year sign into law legislation establishing statewide water efficiency standards. Senate Bill 606 and Assembly Bill 1668 strengthen the state’s water resiliency in the face of future droughts with provisions that establish lower per-person water use goals, incentives for water suppliers to recycle water, and requires both urban and agricultural water suppliers to set annual water budgets and prepare for drought.

It’s hard to legislate considerate behavior, I know. And it can be frustrating when you, as a thoughtful Topangan, have embraced the muted greens and browns of your xeriscape garden only to see folks in neighboring communities drowning their fescue lawns with potable water. 

Still, I implore you to try. As we encounter the effects of climate change and growing, economically developing populations, we must advance a more diversified approach to water supply reliability that takes into account regional natural assets, such as groundwater basins and seawater desalination, and supplemental systems that include reservoirs, stormwater capture and recycled water. The costs of inadequate water supplies are steep for today’s highly condensed urban areas and are simply not an option.

California is working to adapt to changing conditions and rapidly becoming a model for the kind of balanced water storage and conveyance systems that other cities, states and nations need.

As you may know, about two-thirds of our state’s precipitation falls in the north while roughly two-thirds of our population resides in the south. That means California must rely on an intricately plumbed network of reservoirs, aqueducts, pipelines and pumps as well as out-of-state imports to supply water to major urban centers, agriculture and industry. A major earthquake or failure of a dam or levee could have a profound impact on the water supply to regions hundreds of miles away. In addition, the two major sources that feed the aqueduct systems, the Colorado River and Northern Sierras, are themselves strained by climate change, causing swings in their annual reliability.

Black and White Iceberg by Little Visuals
Black and White Iceberg by Little Visuals

Faced with these vulnerabilities, California has set out on an urgent path toward ensuring water security not only for today’s users and conditions, but for future users and conditions as well. Agencies across the state are implementing new techniques and technologies in an effort to diversify supply portfolios to include not just traditional reservoir surface storage, but also underground aquifer storage, stormwater capture, recycled wastewater, and brackish and ocean water desalination where viable. None of these prescriptions alone is a silver bullet. But combined they offer reliable and flexible sources of supply to meet long-term needs. The focus is on resilience and sustainability, and we are looking to other countries, such as Israel and Australia, that have faced similar challenges for lessons learned.

One area in particular in which California and local agencies such as the West Basin Municipal Water District, where I have served on the board of directors since 2014, have made great strides is water reuse—recycling treated wastewater for irrigation, industrial use and groundwater recharge. The drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the development of West Basin’s world-renowned Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in Los Angeles County. The facility recycles some 40 million gallons of water per day and distributes it through a network of more than 100 miles of distinctive purple pipes.

Where West Basin is unique is that it produces five types of recycled water that are specific to the needs of our customers. They include:

•Irrigation water: sewer water that has been filtered and disinfected for industrial and irrigation use, such as golf courses, street medians, and office and shopping centers

•Cooling tower water: sewer water that has been processed to remove ammonia for water to run boilers and convey heat to cooling towers

•Seawater barrier and groundwater replenishment water: sewer water filtered by microfiltration and reverse osmosis membranes and disinfected for use in maintaining a barrier against seawater intrusion and augmenting local well water supplies

•Low-pressure boiler feed water: sewer water filtered by microfiltration and reverse osmosis membranes for use as low pressure boiler feed water

•High-pressure boiler feed water: sewer water filtered by microfiltration membranes and passed through reverse osmosis membranes twice for use as feed water for high pressure boilers.

The use of recycled water during the 2012–2017 historical drought helped insulate West Basin from mandated conservation cuts by the state and allowed our customers to continue normal operations in the midst of severe drought. Today, working with our contract operator SUEZ North America, we continue testing new recycled water technology that will benefit the entire water industry and are in the process of expanding the plant’s capacity to produce additional recycled water, further improving drought resilience and lowering dependence on imported potable water.

None of us can fully predict how much precipitation the new water year will bring. But computer modeling suggests that while there’s a 33 percent chance of above average rainfall for parts of Topanga Canyon this winter, Southern California—as well as vast swatches of the Southwest—will see a lingering drought. Regardless, there literally will be no sea change that will make Southern California lush and green anytime soon.

Where does that leave us? Like it or not, it leaves us where we were before—only now it’s more critical than ever. So we must all do our part to confront the challenges of climate change that includes continued water conservation and efficiency, as well as water reuse methods that provide secure water supplies while countering the erratic precipitation patterns we now face.


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