These guys have water on the brain

jc-mg-200-names.jpg"The guy's got water on the brain," Jake Gittes's assistant Walsh says of Hollis Mulwray in "Chinatown." And, yes, we suffer the same affliction these days. A recent USC/LA Times poll was greeted with a headline that seemed to speak volumes and portend little in the way of good news on the water front: "Californians want water issues fixed but not enough to pay for it."

A closer look at the data is revealing. The first thing that becomes apparent is that this attitude is of a piece with the dissatisfaction of Californians with how things are going in general and with government in particular. Half of the registered voters polled agreed that they felt "things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track" in California. Only around a third said they think "things in California are going in the right direction." The rest said they didn't know.

A 63 percent majority said the water situation in California is a major problem, even a crisis, and another 21 percent said it is a minor problem, with only 10 percent saying it is not a problem at all. Although most were satisfied with the water that comes out of their taps, they were still concerned about having clean water and enough of it at home. About half were concerned about the cost of water. And most have reduced their water use indoors and outdoors. But only about a quarter have replaced lawns with drought tolerant plants. And voters were evenly divided on their willingness to pay more now for a more reliable, long-term water supply. While voters rank a reliable supply of water as the most important goal, keeping costs down comes next, above conserving habitats.

Here's the rub, though. Most voters favored a proposal to raise money by issuing a bond to pay for water improvements throughout the state, as well as a plan favored by Governor Jerry Brown to build tunnels to carry water south through the Delta and restore habitat there. But when they heard the cost of these proposals, many changed their minds and a majority said it was not worth the price. LA voters were not much different from voters statewide in this regard.

There are some interesting signs that younger voters tend not to change their minds so readily when faced with investing in the future, with the majority of voters 18 to 29 remaining in favor of the Delta plan and water bond even when faced with the cost. But opposition to spending money now to fix our water systems for the future increases with the age of voters. And that is going to make these big-ticket items a tough sell at the ballot box. Leaders statewide and locally have a lot of explaining to do if they hope to convince voters that money will be well spent on these big fixes. (JC)

* * *

But this fall is the 100th anniversary of the LA Aqueduct and the 75th anniversary of Hoover Dam, so people with water on their brains are thinking big these days. Mayor Eric Garcetti recently kicked off a "One Water Leadership Conference," which brought water wonks from around the country to downtown Los Angeles. In his speech, Garcetti quoted former LA mayor, Frederick Eaton, who said, "Something radical must be done." The year was 1900. Garcetti said that now, over a century later, "Something radical must be done."

Garcetti has made sustainability one of the overarching themes of his administration, using a triple bottom line approach. LA has the potential to solve challenges with water supply and quality, he said, but the solutions must provide economic development and an improved quality of life as well. These points were underlined at another recent event by Rick Cole, former city manager of Ventura and Garcetti's new deputy mayor of budget and innovation.

Garcetti speaks with pride about the city's successes on Proposition O (the $500 million municipal stormwater pollution abatement bond that he co-chaired), water conservation (our use of only 123 gallons per capita per day puts LA at the top of the list for water conservation among major cities in the United States), and the new low impact development ordinance that requires all new construction and redevelopment to capture and use or infiltrate nearly all runoff generated from storms that drop up to three-quarters of an inch of precipitation.

But the mayor says we need to do more. The city's new green streets efforts need to grow dramatically. The residential rain barrel program needs to go citywide in order to capture up to 800 million gallons a year for water use. The city needs to expand its use of gray water and capture some of the 30 billion gallons per year of urban runoff in the region.

Garcetti asserted that investments in green water infrastructure could provide tremendous economic benefits. He estimated that every billion dollars in investment would lead to over $2 billion in economic growth and 16,000 jobs.

LA's new mayor made it clear that the city needs to get a lot better at integrating water management--wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater--for a more sustainable future. What happens next in LA and the region, however, will depend on potential water rate increases, a street improvement bond, and funding for better local stormwater management. Will LA voters support these fixes when they know the price?

At the state and local level the answer will depend on how well voters understand the short and long-term returns on these public investments in our future. (MG)

More by Jon Christensen and Mark Gold:
Previous blog post: The damndest cold man ever caught
Next blog post: Day 100
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed

LA Observed on Twitter