When Will Los Angeles Run Out of Water? Sooner Than You Think

L.A. has two options: Pray for rain, or suck off Northern California's supply. Guess which one it's going to try first?
Somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming""

Los Angeles has been sleeping far too long. But the question is not when will it wake, but rather what it will do once it does wake and realize the water is gone.

"We are way better than Third-World countries with no water supply," explains California Department of Water Resources drought coordinator Wendy Martin, "but it will take a significant change to keep ours."

Martin is speaking of California at large, but the science is in and the climate crisis isn't hard to figure out. Water isn't a renewable resource, so that makes Los Angeles the state's parched yet still bloated problem.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the state's water reserves are nearly finished, which leaves California with two options: Pray for rain, or suck off Northern California's supply. Guess which one it's going to try first?

If you guessed both, you're right. Indeed, California will revive a decades-old plan for a statewide water bank that will flow water to where it is needed most. Right now that means it flows from Northern California farmers and others to agencies in Southern California, whose citizens have lately been engaging in Option Two rather than studying up on reality -- specifically, the geographical and environmental kind.

"We as a state entity looking out for the broader good," Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow told the Times, "are not going to allow somebody to have 100 percent supplies and be hosing off sidewalks while a community has no fire protection and poor-quality water to drink."

He may not have mentioned Los Angeles by name, but anyone who has ever read Day of the Locust or seen "Chinatown" could tell you that Los Angeles has always been a managed fantasy. Like its redheaded stepchild Las Vegas, it's a consumption and recreation oasis in the desert running on Hollywood simulations and immigrant labor, which is to say distractions from its more geographical reality.

It has water on its beaches, but rarely anywhere else. For that, it has drained someone else's supply for centuries. Which brings us back to the future of Los Angeles, whose Sierra snowpack will likely evaporate under the weight of global warming's changed game.

With declining snowfall and earlier snowmelts, there is nothing Los Angeles can do but borrow someone else's water and get its hyperreal and hyperconsumptive act together. "Los Angeles doesn't treat water like it lives in a desert," explains Martin. "Our director made it clear that we would not impact Northern California so Southern California could wash off their driveways. People who are participating in the bank will have to be forced to change their behavior."

Behavior modification is the only way Los Angeles can extend, but not prevent, what some scientists are saying will be a permanent drought for not just the sunshine-and-noir metropolis but also for most, if not all, of the American Southwest. Sustainability exercises and policies will go a long way to mitigating the desert's reclamation of its lands from Hollywood and Hummers, but the Dust Bowl had nothing on what's coming to California. And it's coming to stay.

"I don't know what permanent drought even means," admits Martin. "We have recorded the history of water in California for over 100 years, and that's nothing. We don't know where we are at. But what permanent drought means to me is that if we are getting drier, then we need to change the way we use our water."

Martin suggests the usual no-brainers: Short showers, low-flow everything, no lawns, total conservation, and so on. But these are all wonderful solutions in search of a population that cares. A recent sustainability forum attended by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. Department of Water and Power, Heal the Bay, and more was a wonderful outreach opportunity, with one all-important caveat: Attendance wasn't mandatory.

And therein lies California's problem, especially if it wants to prevent a NorCal/SoCal showdown over blue gold that could rewrite the state's borders. The drought that California, and especially Los Angeles, faces is a life-threatening crisis that has been treated like a cold. There is no corner of the city or state that it will not touch. If not treated immediately, it will start out as a serious pain in the ass, forcing citizens to alter their behavior and consumption with restrictive codes and financial penalties.

Then it will worsen, as the division between who gets water (the rich, the north) and who doesn't (the poor, the south) causes rampant itching and, as author Nathanael West predicted, lots of burning of lots of things.

Once malignant, it will force evacuations and realignments. By 2100, you will not recognize it. But even at this late date, I am watching the citizenry piss its water away, unaware of how it appeared in the first place. I see hybrids for sure, but also vacant mothers in empty Hummers.

I see water gushing into the gutters, carrying grime, toxins and other destructive chemicals into the sea, whose desalination remains one of Los Angeles' only playable cards on the hustler's table. I see extravagant lawns that are like gorgeously tended middle fingers to reality, which, like death and taxes always, has a way of winning in the end.

Most importantly, I see a public unready to accept the inevitable: That it lives in a desert, and that the desert is going dry with accelerating lethality. "I put this down to the myth of abundance that we all grew up with, coupled with a false First-World belief that technology can fix whatever goes wrong," says Maude Barlow, a water commodification and policy expert and the author of Blue Gold and Blue Covenant.

"We all learned long ago that water circles through the hydrologic cycle and we cannot destroy it, but this is patently false. Yet it is still held dear to our hearts. Now that the evidence is before our eyes, rather than changing our behavior, we trust that some modern machine will take care of us. We simply cannot come to think of ourselves as just another species that must adapt or die."

The good news is that eventually the planet takes care of these decisions for us if we don't act on them. Sustainability options are available, from the no-brainers mentioned by Martin to more ambitious exercises in solar development, water conservation and onward.

As the planet changes, so may its people, who have survived droughts and ice ages with ingenuity and hardiness. Indeed, the science of conservation is on the cusp of a cultural breakthrough, and the only thing that can stop it is, say, America nuking Iran or electing someone who will only push it harder down its destructive path. Which is why it is imperative that the United States, and its slumbering cities, get on the same page.

"What we are starting to see, and the science is supporting it over time," adds Martin, "is that the weather patterns are shifting and the trajectory is upward on continued diminishment. What we do know is that, because of the depletion of the aquifers, it will take a gully-washer to just get us back to square one. But we still abuse the resource, and we can't afford to do that anymore. People need to understand the true value of water. What amazes me is that it doesn't take much effort to do the right thing."

And that doesn't just go for the people, but also the politicians they elect to represent their best interests. And right now, that means taking control of what's left of California's water. The state will have to sooner or later, unless it wants to leave life's necessities to the stock market.

"The situation is such that the state may have to take control eventually of its water resources as a public trust, and allocate on a priority basis," counsels Barlow. "Water for ecological health of the system first, for drinking water and restricted daily use for citizens, water for local food production, and water for commerce and export last. As for water trading, I warn people against allowing it to become controlled by private brokers."

But you can't commodify what you can't capture, and the public and the brokers that rip it off won't have gushing taps forever. Again, behavior modification will only postpone the inevitable. Eventually, Los Angeles will walk off into the sunset a desert reclaimed. Like other desert cities, it may survive the transformative upheaval, but it will have to suck water from sand to stay alive in its current state. Water wasters might want to get to work on finding a new state. Of mind, if possible.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.