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Andy Lipkis

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There's a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza

Posted: 01/30/10 02:32 PM ET

The rains that have fallen in the past couple weeks have given Los Angeles a reprieve from the severe drought of the past three years. In a search for long-term solutions, last week Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (38th district) convened a hearing of the House Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee in L.A..

Those in attendance heard testimony about a diversity of approaches. But they didn't hear much about a critical solution that could be scaled up quickly and cheaply, go far to meet our urgent water needs, and create jobs to jumpstart our economy. That solution is rainwater harvesting.

Despite L.A.'s recent abundant rainfall, experts agree that the drought is far from over. What's more, these rains didn't help L.A. as much as they could, because there's a hole in our bucket. Every time it rains, the City leaks billions of gallons of rainwater, literally throwing it away, right out to sea.

It's not only water that is hemorrhaging. We spend billions of dollars and a substantial amount of California's electricity importing L.A.'s water supply from dwindling distant sources. Making things worse, we also spend tens of millions more cleaning up pollution that's carried to the ocean by rainwater that falls on the city's over-paved landscape.

While we may ultimately have to build some expensive and environmentally risky mega-projects such as dams and desalination plants, it makes sense to first cork the bucket. We can plug this leak with two steps: 1. Significantly increase the amount of rainwater captured locally, thus decreasing our need to import water; and 2. Adapt our landscapes to be more water efficient while also providing energy savings, food, and climate change protection.

Los Angeles and other neighboring cities are already piloting small rainwater harvesting programs. However, just this month, a group of water officials and scientists from Australia visited Los Angeles to show how they've successfully dealt with their much more severe drought crisis, and, by implication, how our pilot projects can be quickly scaled up to address our own emergency.

In Australia, water agencies first enrolled residents in sharing the mantle of being water managers. After providing education, incentives and tools, they achieved astounding results. Australians in drought-stricken cities have reduced their water consumption to an average of 30 gallons per day. Compare that with the average 176 gallons per person per day consumed by Southern Californians.

Parts of this approach aren't entirely new. L.A. succeeded in lowering water use significantly starting in the 1990s when the city and the Metropolitan Water District paid residents to swap out their wasteful four gallon per flush toilets with ultra low flush models that use less than half as much as water. As a result of this and other conservation measures, we use nearly the same amount of water today in L.A. than we did 30 years ago, even with a million more people living here. But we need to do far better.

The Australians have followed our lead and have gone far beyond. They've helped pay for people in major cities to install rainwater tanks--cisterns--on their properties. In Queensland, Australia's fastest-growing state, about 20 percent of the population has installed rain-catchment tanks since 2006. According to Dave Griggs, director of Australia's Monash Sustainability Institute, "Urban storm water is a large untapped source of water generated close to where it's needed... In most Australian cities, as much water falls on that city as the city needs."

Here's one local example. At TreePeople's 45-acre Center for Community Forestry in L.A., an underground 216,000 gallon cistern filled completely for the season after last week's storms and will now provide much of the irrigation needed for its four acres of landscaping for the next year. Imagine if there were cisterns in nearly every park and parking lot, residential lot, and school campus all over the city.

At a time when all levels of government are urgently seeking ways to cut their spending, stimulate the economy and create jobs, the manufacturing and installation of cisterns and the retrofitting of urban landscapes can be a source of local green collar jobs and do much to stem the waste of dollars and resources.

Let's cork the bucket and use the savings we gain. The dollars we save by not importing, throwing away, and cleaning up so much of L.A.'s water supply can help pay for voluntary rainwater harvesting and landscape retrofits on every appropriate parcel of land.

Too much of the past weeks' rains have been thrown away. Let's not waste any more water, money, or time.