In Los Angeles, a Neighborhood Changes, Adapting to the 5-year drought

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This is a story about how a neighborhood in Los Angeles is adapting to a long-term drought. LA (and California) is in a severe 5-year drought, worse than any seen since California became a state in 1850.

This has affected life in California, and people, businesses, and farmers are starting to learn to live with less water, and question,”What is next?” But deeper than this is the question, “What is the cause of this drought? What about global warming?” This long California drought may be looked on by history as the initial period of the great western "megadrought," worse than anything seen in the past 1,000 years.

As is usual for my posts, the kernel of this one began on my daily walk, with my camera along.

I am in Reseda, California, one of the towns in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of central Los Angeles. It is a middle-class neighborhood, like so many in "The Valley." On a usual day, one would have walked along any of the sidewalks past neatly manicured lawns and small landscaped gardens. In the early morning or early evening there would be water sprinklers working all up and down the street, keeping the lawns and foundation plantings green and healthy.

However, with the severe shortage of water in California in the last five years, the problem has become bad enough that the State has called for mandatory restrictions on water use for both home owners and farmers.

As I walk today, I am interested in the different ways people in this Reseda neighborhood are dealing with the drought.

The photos below are in the sequence I took them, so you see what I saw this day.

Some lawns are still islands of green. In better times, the strip of land between the street and sidewalk would probably be tended. Now it’s just dirt.

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The home below is still keeping the street-side strip minimally watered.

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Some lawns have been adapted for drought conditions. One usual way is with crushed rock and water-hardy plants set out in the rocks. This is a low-water-usage yard; the plants set are probably drought tolerant.

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A green lawn on a corner lot. A big expanse of grass.

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Ivy border, but dry and burned on top. Hasn’t been watered in a while, I think.

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The first of many yards I will see that are brown dirt. No water use at all. The shrubs at the edges look pretty bad, too. I think their adaptation to the water shortage is simply to stop watering the yard altogether.

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Another.

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And another.

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The Drought Problem

This drought is long term and widespread west of the Rocky Mountains. Here is a drought map (from NOOA) for September, 2015, showing how much of the western United States it covers.

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This severe drought condition is also at the root of this year’s Western fire season. You can see from the map below the big fires are pretty much where the big drought is.

Wildfire map, from National Geographic

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Back to the tour

Well-raked dirt. Very neat.

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Bricks. These need zero water.

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More spaced-out plants in a dry bed. I think these are roses though. They need water. They should install drip irrigation if they want to keep the roses thriving.

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A dry yard. Not neat, though.

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Then one so lush; everything is green. Wonder what the owner’s water bill is?

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Another view of the same house.

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The Los Angeles River

At one point in the walk I crossed the Los Angeles River.

This is the major river that runs through the area. Its history is one of frequent floods into the surrounding flood planes. These flood planes became populated as LA grew, so floods were a big problem. The river now flows through a concrete channel on a fixed course, which was built after a series of devastating floods in the early 20th century.

Here is an example of the water problem. This channel was constructed by the The Army Corps of Engineers to contain and control the flooding of the river. Now, if only there were some water …

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Now maybe there is one inch of flowing water in this small central channel of the once mighty river.

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Note that there is a plan to revitalize the river, by removing concrete and restoring the natural riverbed. The photo below is what they say it could look like (from Wired). Maybe this nice image is from a season where there is water in the river.

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Crossing the river and returning to the neighborhood, I continue to look at homes and yards.

This house has tile for a yard. No water for the yard, just the trees. Are the trees big enough to collect their own water? If the water in the soil dries out, do they die?

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The groundwater drying out is a problem for more than just lawns. Much of California’s underground water is used for agriculture. There are dire warnings for California, based on what happened already in Saudi Arabia. They squandered their groundwater and agriculture collapsed. It’s hard to water the crops with oil. See this story from Vox.

This is what the fields of Saudi Arabia look like today.

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So this local water problem is a small part is a much bigger problem. It is historic (from ThinkProgress, my bolding).

The snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains — which provides nearly a third of the state’s water supply — is the lowest it has been in 500 years, according to a new study  published in Nature Climate Change.

You read that right, the lowest snow pack in 500 years!

So, in response to this, California has set the tightest standard ever for state-wide water use. The goal was for a 25% reduction in water use. And, by approaches like these seen here, taken by ordinary people, the water reduction was over 27% for the state last June. See article here.

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Agricultural usage dropped too. (Photo From Fox News)

Back to the walk

This is what it means for the neighborhood now: another dry yard, with trees.

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And another.

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Clumps of plants set out in a dry yard.

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A lush yard in a house with a For Sale sign. Water use makes the house more attractive. (Maybe a low water yard would make it even more attractive to potential buyers, right?)

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But dry as a bone at the next house.

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Here is a green yard with blooming flowers and banana trees (which take lots of water). These used to be common, but from what I see today, they are less so now.

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A big driveway doesn’t need watering.

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The fenced yard does, though.

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The fenced yard with the fancy gate. Gotta keep it green to keep up the appearance, I guess.

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This is funny: a green hedge around a bare dirt yard. They don’t use much water for the lawn. What does it take to keep the green hedge alive?

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A dry corner lot. Compare this water usage with the one early in this post.

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Green yard, lots of water.

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Even the strip by the street is green.

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Dry lawn area. But there is a hose lying out, so they do some watering, maybe the shrubs. Some houses don’t even have a hose out in front.

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They are trying to keep it green, but limiting water. Dryer spots in the lawn.

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Plants and crushed rock.

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The low-water yard company, Turf Terminators, has a sign up, advertising for more business.

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Contrary treatments beside one another: The green grass here…

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…and the nearly dead grass next door, now dry with spots that are greenish.

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This yard has a combination of crushed rock for water savings and lush bits that use lots of water.

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A stony section.

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The central section is green, with small hillocks, like on a golf course.

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One green yard where the gardener has dug out the sprinkler heads, to make them work more efficiently. Still uses a lot of water, though.

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No grass under this tree.

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One more green lawn.

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This is next to a yard where no water has been given for a long time.

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Below, the house we were staying at in Reseda. This was a rental house and done for minimum care and upkeep, so no lawn.

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The looming Great Western Megadrought

This Great Western Drought is really just beginning. The most reputable scientists say that in this century, maybe starting in about 20-30 years will come a “megadrought” spanning most of the land west of the Rocky Mountains, and lasting for perhaps 30 years. This megadrought, they forecast, will be much worse than the Oklahoma Dust Bowl that destroyed the life of most farmers in the state during the decade of the 1930’s. My own grandfather lost his prosperous Oklahoma farm during this period, plunging his family from relative prosperity to poverty, from which he really never recovered.  The Washington Post article, California’s terrifying climate forecast: It could face droughts nearly every year, describes this very well.

During the megadrought, this will be a rare scene: Water flowing in an irrigation ditch (from Washington Post).

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Fiction writers perhaps can tell this tale better than most. There have been books written about this future. Most are apocalyptic in nature. A new book, Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, lays out a drought-blighted California of a near future. Quoting from the Think Progress review:

In Watkins’ future, the conditions of today have given way to a desertification so vast and powerful it’s almost sentient. The Sierra snowpack is depleted, the scant remaining water is protected by the National Guard and rationed by the Red Cross. A worst-case drought scenario has resulted in an unstoppable salt-sand dune sea, called the Amargosa after the first mountain range it subsumed. Despite the best efforts of technology, FEMA, and human stubbornness, the Amargosa is grinding away the inhabited Southwest in its wake.

In this near-future world, we meet Ray and Luz, two “mojavs” squatting in “Laurelless” Canyon. They are trapped inside withered California by closed borders, armed thugs, and above all, bureaucracy.

Now what? A Call to Action

What started as a walk through the local LA neighborhood led to a story of coming environmental disaster in the western USA. The great successes of 2015 in reducing water use will have to become a way of life, and further capabilities to use less water will have to be developed. Even with this, a probable megadrought puts life in the Western USA at great risk.

A worldwide political commitment to real substantive action is our main hope to mitigate the problem of global warming and the concomitant climate change. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is maybe the last chance to get a worldwide start on this process. Our president Obama has been doing much work internationally to see that this conference makes progress that is real. He says that there will be progress even though probably not yet enough. The conference objective is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world. This would be the first time this has happened.

Meanwhile what can we do, as individuals?

  • We can become aware of our own water use.
  • We can find ways to reduce our personal water use, like turning off the shower while we soap, and changing our planting and water use outside our homes, like shown in this article.
  • We can support our political leaders and demand they support real action.
  • We can support policies that encourage water savings, like water rates that penalize high usage; residential, commercial and agricultural.
  • We can encourage those close to us about the coming problems and the need to act in all these areas.

Will it cost too much?

One last point: Some businessmen and political leaders say that we cannot act because it would be to expensive. I read a recent study puts this idea to rest. A Cambridge University study counts a worldwide cost of 300 trillion dollars due to various impacts of climate change and sea level change. This is about what the entire world economy produces (Gross World Product, GWP) in four years. They calculate that the cost to prevent this is about 80 trillion, a bit more than one year’s GWP. Details of the study here. So, in rough numbers, for every dollar invested in prevention of climate change, four are returned. What business would not invest if the return is four to one? Conservatives demand that government be run more like a business. But what business would not make this kind of investment?

Is it past hope?

Well, the example of California during this drought period has demonstrated that people can change their lives and the way they use water. And this year’s Paris Conference will probably take real steps towards international agreements and laws to combat climate change. And the process of converting hydrocarbon energy systems with solar and wind power is happening faster than anyone thought possible (because these technologies have become so cost-effective, cheaper, in many cases, than oil or gas). One sign of this change in global energy use shows up in the falling price around the world of a barrel of oil. The price of oil is dropping because the worldwide demand for oil is dropping. So maybe there is a chance, maybe it is not too late. We need our political leaders to take this seriously, though, and take real action NOW.

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2 Responses to “In Los Angeles, a Neighborhood Changes, Adapting to the 5-year drought”

  1. Henri Chero Says:

    Dear Richard
    We connected in India where I lived close to you in Pondicherri three years ago.
    I live in Montreal Canada,and I spend my winters in a warmer climate.I follow your posts religiously.My first Guru was Ramana Maharshi.
    I know that you are now living in Mexico.I want to spend this winter in Mexico as it is closer to Montreal.
    How are you enjoying Mexico compared to Tiru India.Does your wife Carol also like it.
    I want to rent a house by the sea but have not found anything yet.I was looking north of Puerto Vaillarta a town name San Pancho.Any suggestions?
    Om shanti
    Jai Ramana
    Henri Chero

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      We enjoy where we are very much. It is not by the sea, but by the biggest lake in Mexico and near Guadalajara, a very good city. We know nothing of other places, nor much about rentals anywhere. We are in a pleasant place with friendly people. Not nearly the spiritual presence of a place like Tiruvannamalai, though. We are trying to gather some spiritual community by presenting Ramana Maharshi Self-inquiry satsangs. These is some small interest in these. But the ocean it is warmer. We are at about 1500 meters, so cooler weather year round. PV is only a few hours away. If you go there, then join us for satsang when you are here.

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