Just before Christmas last month, something remarkable happened in Santa Monica. For the first time in decades, our city produced enough water from local sources to meet its total demand. It happened for just a few days during last month’s rains — call it a Christmas miracle maybe — but it’s significant and what it says about our future is worth further examination.
On Dec. 20, 21, and 22 rain deluged our region. The storm that week contributed to the wettest December on record in 119 years. During that time, many residents and businesses in Santa Monica turned off their outdoor irrigation, and our overall water consumption dropped.
Those events happened to take place at the same time City Hall undertook a 14-day test of its new Arcadia water treatment facility. That facility, funded by a legal settlement against oil companies that polluted our local groundwater, is scheduled to come online permanently next month. When it does, the city will return to its historic groundwater production level of roughly 70 percent of annual demand.
Ribbon-cutting on the Arcadia plant will be a milestone on our city’s pathway to sustainability, and last month’s brief period of self-sufficiency serves to show how close we are to achieving a truly impressive goal.
For almost two decades, Santa Monica has purchased the vast majority of its water supply from the Metropolitan Water District because of the local groundwater pollution. Most of that water comes from two sources: the Colorado River in the east and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the north. Severe, prolonged drought on the Colorado and a shorter, but significant drought in the Delta, combined with over-pumping, have caused a near collapse of those ecosystems.
In the case of the Delta, as recently as 1986, more than 750,000 Chinook salmon swam to sea past the Tracy pumping plant, which pumps water from the Delta to Central Valley farms and Southern California homes. Last year, fewer than 5,000 salmon made that journey. Over two of the last three years, the fisheries collapse on our river systems led to the closure of salmon fishing statewide, costing the state’s economy thousands of jobs and over $500 million.
Still, two-thirds of Californians get some or all drinking water from the Delta. The health of the Delta is critical to us all. On the Colorado, nearly a decade of drought is painfully clear in the rings on the side of Lake Mead. Multiple extensions have been added to the pipes that draw water from the lake and if water levels drop much further, Hoover Dam might cease to generate power.
Just because it rained last month, we cannot stop thinking about how we address our water supply. Drought is always around the next bend in California. In fact, this year’s weather is dominated by a very strong “La Nina” condition, in which cooler ocean temperatures contribute to dryness in California and elsewhere. Eighteen of 22 recorded La Nina periods produced below-average rainfall. Maybe December will be the pattern for our whole winter, but chances are against that happening.
That is the case in Australia. The floods there have grabbed headlines and concern around the globe. Last week, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and I hosted a delegation of Australians who were visiting to learn about our city’s approach to water supply and stormwater. Those delegates described a continent that is the canary in the coalmine of global warming. After 14 years of drought nationwide, floods now rage in the east. But notably, for Western Australia, a state five times the size of Texas, 2010 was its driest year on record. More than simply a story of drought, climate change is proving to be about increased variability and risk.
All this goes to say that we must reduce our reliance on imported water. In fact, as Southern Californians and Santa Monicans the only rational response to the variability and risk in our water supply is to reduce our reliance on imports. Fortunately, thanks to our City Attorney’s Office holding polluters accountable and the success of our water resources manager in building our Arcadia treatment facility, we now have an opportunity to do just that.
The Santa Monica Environmental Task Force considered our water supply picture in September and passed a motion requesting the City Council to adopt a goal of complete self-sufficiency on local supply by 2020. We are tantalizingly close — next month we will be producing 72 percent of annual demand locally. State law already requires us to reduce supply to 80 percent of current demand.
If we go the extra yard and become self-sufficient, not only will we reduce our environmental footprint, we will save our water users millions of dollars. Imported water is 60 percent more expensive than local water. And consider that the vast majority of December’s rainfall washed off our landscapes and into the ocean creating a tremendous lost resource.
At this Tuesday’s City Council meeting, I’m requesting that we take action on a study session to examine the recommendation from the Environmental Task Force. Many of my colleagues on the council have expressed support for the concept. Now we need to find the tools to get us to the goal.
We can make our Christmas water miracle of 2010 last more than three days. It can be our gift for generations to come.
Terry O’Day is a Santa Monica City Council member and executive director of local non-profit Environment Now, dedicated to preserving California’s natural resources.