When the LADWP uses paper water, not only does it affect Los Angeles residents, it also impacts utilities and residents outside of the city. 'Paper water' is water that “utilities claim they have access to, but is difficult or impossible to access for various reasons”.
When the LADWP claims to have access to more city owned domestic water than it really has access to, that allows the department to understate how much water it needs from the Metropolitan Water District.
Using paper water to prop up the perception of its domestic supply, the 2000 UWMP* suggested that the LADWP would only need to purchase and additional 3.53 million acre-feet of water between 2000 and 2015.
However the department was unable to follow through on its claims. Only 4 times in 16 years did the department meet its own projections. Over the other years it had to purchase 47% more water from the MWD amounting to 5.20 million acre-feet at a greater unit cost.
This is one of the ways that the department hides the water shortage in the EIR's that work their way through the planning process to shield development.
Obviously this practice would impact the MWD's operations to store surplus water as a hedge against drought in its Diamond Valley Reservoir and at Lake Mead.
*I used the 2000 UWMP because it presented a larger sample size of MWD purchases than later plans would. Later UWMP's use paper water similarly.
If there ever was a reason for the State Department of Water Resources to vet UWMPs that are submitted to it, this should be one of them. For 30 years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s practice of reporting water that it can't access has undermined public transparency, making it appear that the city water supply was well situated for growth. The city’s long, persistent drought is a result of this activity. Allowing utilities (LADWP is not alone) to report access to water they have no access to makes a mockery out of the so-called ‘Show Me the Water Laws’ and the State's water laws in general.
The practice threatens water supply because once development is permitted using fictitious future supply data, the predictable shortages appear which have to be followed by hard choices when other equally important users feel the impact and assert their rights. Who should make the sacrifice? Agriculture? Fish? Hydropower? The environment? Perhaps we should connect growth with water and make the cuts there.
Urban Water Management Plans should be clear and easy to understand and accessible to the public. When shortages are projected, the UWMP should also offer enough detail to decision makers and the public what the economic costs and access to water will be if development continues over the 20 year lifetime of the plan. More important than knowing there will be 611,800 AF/y in 2020, residents should be advised on how it will affect their monthly allocations and how much higher their billing costs will go up.
Today's Urban Water Management Plans are written in wonkish, 'members only' style that excludes public participation in its formation and approval of the document. The style also excludes the public from the planning process where it is ultimately used. I know that many planners and decision makers don't understand the document. They instead look to the singular paragraph in the EIR that says...
It’s bad enough that water utilities project far more supplies than they have access to which by definition is paper water. It's bad enough that using this imaginary water they always come to conclusion that every project requesting a WSA has sufficient water to proceed.But recently it became clear to me that are other forms of paper water that comes in large amounts as well. Paper water by definition is water the city says it has available to it, but it can never access because it’s being used by someone else within the state's water system.
In July I was asked by the Banning Ranch Conservancy to look at the Newport Banning Ranch water supply assessment as they prepared for a California Coastal Commission meeting on the project. Having reviewed quite a number of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power water supply assessments I knew the first place to look for paper water would be in found in the utilities projections. Over time I've suspected there were other areas where paper water could be found but L.A.’s sheer size made it difficult for me to validate those.
Reviewing this projects WSA was a good opportunity for me because it is more typical of WSA’s that are produced throughout Southern California and the city’s relatively small population also made it easier to see whether housing growth can contribute to paper water ‘surpluses’ under SB 610.
For a little background, the Newport Banning Ranch (NBR) project is a proposed 1,375 housing unit development in the City of Newport Beach that also includes commercial. The city’s water supply is quite a different from the City of Los Angeles's water supply in that groundwater clearly is a substantial portion of the city's water supply. Newport Beach does not have its own domestic ground water supply underfoot but instead it has four wells that are located are located about five miles away in Fountain Valley which are managed by the Orange County Water District. When ground water is in short supply the city buys imported water from MWDOC.
When I dug into the Newport Banning Ranch WSA I found it was similar to the water supply assessments that are routinely produced by the LADWP. The Newport Beach water supply assessment relies heavily on 'paper water' to create a façade of surplus water just like L.A.'s water supply assessments. When reviewing the city’s sources of water supply, I found that they never met their respective supply projections and there was no chance that they ever would. 21 percent of the city’s projected water supply was water that the city didn't have access to. Hence it was ‘paper water.’
Growth’s Contribution to Paper Water
But there was more. What about housing that doesn’t trigger SB 610 requirements for a WSA? Failing to report cumulative housing construction would be another form of paper water. If a WSA doesn’t acknowledge that new housing has been constructed since the city’s Urban Water Management Plan was approved, the water demand from the unrecognized housing would be viewed as a unused water that is still available for new projects.
The Newport Banning Ranch water supply assessment was based on an increase of just 1,039 housing units over 20 years. That figure came from the city’s Urban Water Management Plan which in turn comes from the RHNA allocations that are imposed on cities. A subject that I’ve written about extensively here.
Right off the top, the NBR project's proposed 1,375 units exceeds the city’s 20-year water plan by 336 units meaning that new water supplies should have been identified in the WSA.
But that led me to the next question. Aside from the fact that the project is larger the city’s projected housing growth, how many units were built in the city since 2005 that did not trigger a water supply assessment? The answer was stunning.
In just five years the city’s rise in housing exceeded the UWMP's 20-year projected growth by 380% or 5,017 units and there was still fifteen years to go. The extent of this growth really surprised me. I didn't expect that growth could be so under-projected in a UWMP that it would decidedly tip the scale towards insufficient supplies in just five years. Shouldn't a water supply assessment capture this demand on water supply? I think so. You can't say your Showing Me the Water if your not disclosing the demand.
Not surprisingly, the water supply assessment didn’t acknowledge this new housing so this water could be viewed as an unused surplus. The project's WSA simply ignored the new housing. Had it acknowledged that the city had grown, it may have created pressure on the developer to find new water supplies. The Show Me the Water Law is supposed to link large projects to water supply. It should also assure that large projects are not be claiming to have access to water already that has already been committed elsewhere.
SB 610’s silence on projects that are less than 500 units effectively guts the law. The law only says that a WSA must include a ‘discussion’ of various elements of the water supply such as total projected supply during normal and dry years. The law doesn’t explicitly point out that the discussion should include housing growth that was not accounted for in the UWMP. Another weakness in the law is that it doesn’t have any regulatory oversight. This leaves it up to citizens to have to challenge water supply as it appears in an EIR.
The law should be expanded to require cities to keep a running total of new demand for recently approved projects that do not trigger a water supply assessment and incorporate that into all EIR’s. And while its keeping a running total of demand, it should also inform citizens on what that increasing demand will do to their monthly water allocations and rates.
This would give decision makers a little more information that might help eliminate any water shortage surprises should the increase in projected housing exceed the projected increase in the UWMP.
NBR’s other Imaginary Water
Aside from the WSA’s failure to mention new water demand from the city's ongoing housing construction, there were other problems with the Newport Banning Ranch WSA.
The WSA suggested that the city’s water supply would increase from 18,648 AF a year to 21,716 AF/y. This suggestion would lead the city's decision makers to incorrectly believe that supplies are increasing which would be sufficient for the projects proposed new housing. However a review of the city’s historical supply tells us another story. That there's little chance that the city's future supply will ever exceed 17,200 AF year-after-year or that it will ever see supplies exceed 19,000 Af in any one year.
What I found was that the total well water supply was not enough to meet the UWMP projected supply. Since 1990, OCWD groundwater allocations have been averaging about 72 percent. In the last 10 years that figure has dropped to 62%.
The WSA also suggested that during droughts when wells weren't producing sufficient supplies, the city would be able to make up for those shortages by purchasing imported water from MWDOC. The WSA even goes so far to state that MWDOC "was able to show that it can maintain 100% reliability in meeting direct consumptive demand under condition that represent normal, single driest, and multi dry years through 2030". However, the fact is that MWDOC doesn’t have enough water available for purchase to meet the city’s 21 percent shortfall even in wet years which is shown by the gap in the chart at the right labeled 'paper water'.
All Claims of Sufficient Water Supply Should Be Considered Suspect
The Newport Beach WSA isn't unusual. I suspect it's typical of water supply assessments produced throughout Southern California and maybe even Central California as well. The ‘Show Me The Water’ law requires that a water supply assessment be attached to the projects EIR when the project is 500 units or larger. While small and medium size projects do not require a water supply assessment, CEQA still has a requirement for an analysis on water supply in the Utilities section of the EIR.
The EIR merely has to refer to the local utilities UWMP to serve as an assessment for these projects. Whether the discussion of water supply is found in the WSA or the UWMP, there is a nearly 100 percent chance that the utilities water supply includes a substantial amount of paper water. All claims of ‘sufficient’ or ‘adequate’ water supply should be reviewed closely.
Today the LADWP sent out an agenda for an upcoming meeting of the LADWP Board of Commissioners. One of the agenda items on it was the NoHo West project Water Supply Assessment with a recommendation by LADWP Water Systems section for the Board to approve it. Like other WSA's this one is no different. The requirement for a water supply assessment comes from the California's 'Show Me the Water' legislation. This WSA like the other LADWP water supply assessments fails to do that.
Most urban water agencies like the LADWP have upended SB-610 and turned it into a pay to play permit that offers paper water to help approve projects for a fee. For $17,000 the department will produce a report full ofImaginary Water that will get your project approved.
At that price you should expect a very elaborate highly detailed report but in reality the LADWP provides a little more than 20 pages of analysis along with 160 pages of poorly rendered photocopies that have little relevance to the projects analysis except for what the city Planning department provides. That comes out to about $800 a page. The rest of the report is primarily a crude cut and paste job that offers no extra insight to the water supply for decision makers to base their decision on.
If we break down the NoHo West WSA into simple little segments it goes like this:
The first 21 pages of the WSA goes on to describe the 742 unit project that's also full of retail and office space. It estimates how much water demand the project will impose on the city and it feigns on how much the extra conservation the LADWP was able to negotiate out of the developer to reduce demand. Not surprisingly it ends with a conclusion that this projects 298 Af/y is accounted for in the City's 2010 Urban Water Management Plan even though its not. This is essentially where the analysis ends.
At page 22 the department inserts twenty pages of stale, highly inaccurate supply projections into the report and goes on to describe the city's water supply infrastructure, environmental constraints and conservation measures. All of this information is already available in the City's UWMP.
At page 51 the department inserts a letter from the City Planning Department that makes the request for the WSA. The Planning Department letter actually has more original material in the WSA than what LADWP contributes for its part.
At page 67 the department then inserts a few letters from the developers agent describing the various proposed alternatives for the project are inserted into the WSA.
$17,000 would seem to be an outrageous amount of money if it just ended there. So here the LADWP stuffs in a bunch of over copied, poorly rendered filler that adds little value to fatten up the report another 101 pages. None of this extra information provides anything useful for assessing whether the project might be an undue burden to the city's residents or if there really is sufficient water supply. In fact it may be a distraction meant to discourage the reader from seriously reading it and asking further questions during the approval process.
In this section we find what might be the most copied court judgement ever, the City's groundwater adjudication which claims what rights the city has to San Fernando Groundwater Basin. This document has little relevance to the NoHo West project. Its presence serves to give the reader the impression that the department has its act together even though it failed miserably in delivering what groundwater it claims it has to the city residents.
Then we get to page 88 for the obligatory piece of CA water code that requires retail water agencies like the LADWP to produce a water supply assessment for projects that are 500 units or larger just in case those projects are not accounted for in the city's UWMP. Despite the legislations name however, the LADWP doesn't really show us or the Board of Commissioners any water. Just paper water.
Then we get to the biggest chunk of this cut and paste job because the report is still pretty thin. The Metropolitan Water District should get royalties on these 86 pages each time it shows up in a WSA. Oddly, this half of the WSA's 180 pages comes from the very agency the City says it doesn't need much anymore and it's going cut 50% of its purchases from. The MWD contribution is guaranteed to put any bureaucrat asleep since it's mostly devoted to bond money and negotiations with other water agencies to keep our reservoirs full. They are full aren't they?
Despite the $17,000 price tag, it's money well spent for the projects developer. Even after two and a half decades of falling water supplies and emergency drought ordinances, that $17,000 buys them confidence that the LADWP will identify just enough paper water to usher their project through. How good is that!
L.A.’s recent drought has been going on far longer than the statewide drought. California’s last drought was declared in 2008 and ended in 2011 and another declared in 2015. L.A’s drought was declared in 2008 and was never rescinded. So why has L.A.’s drought been so persistent and growing by the day? This brings on another question we should ask is how does the city reconcile the endless approvals of new construction during a persistent drought?
The short answer to both is that in order to provide evidence of sufficient water supply for projected growth, the city’s UWMP (Urban Water Management Plan) has been reporting that is has far more water available to it than it can get. Every UWMP from 1990 till now has projected supplies that exceeded 700,000 AF but when we look back at DWP records from 1990 to 2004 we find that the city’s total supply averaged just 627,000 Af/y. Since 2005 the average has fallen even further to just 590,000 Af/y. Simply put, the DWP has never met their projections and that has steered us head-on into a drought.
When DWP officials are asked why they haven’t met the projections cited in the UWMP, using a little spin they tell you that conservation efforts reduced demand and they didn't need to import as much as projected.
This routine answer however is disingenuous since the projections include future growth and clearly the DWP hasn’t met that expectation given today’s restrictions on water. The 1985 UWMP set the city’s baseline water at 175 to 176 gcpd (gallons per capita daily). This number reflected the current level of water to residents, businesses, and industry, it included various conservation programs such as low-flow hardware devices and left room for projected population growth to 3.41 million by 2010. At this level the city cited that it would be able to meet the demand with a very reachable water supply of 667,300 Af/y.
In 1990 however, the city’s population increased faster than the population projections that were cited in the earlier plan. Population projections in the new plan were now 14% higher and in order to maintain a similar per capita supply level and still meet projected growth, the plan’s total demand and supply projections jumped 13 percent to a not so believable 756,500 Af/y by 2010.
In each of the subsequent plans from 1995 to 2010 would continue to cite available supplies over 700,000 Af/y and as high as 799,000 Af/y.
So now the city was confronted with two conflicting demands. The first would be to provide enough water from a now shrinking supply that once averaged 680,000 Af/y and has now fallen to just over 610,000 Af/y and still meet the city’s need. The second was to show that its supply was growing and that it would be sufficient for continued growth.
In an attempt to solve the first problem, the city’s 1995 water plan would have to ratchet down the per capita rate to 150 gallons per day to lower the total demand otherwise we would seen demand in excess of 875,000 Af/y. However even 150 gallons per day wouldn’t be enough over the short term and the city would also have to implement more draconian methods to lower the per capita further by imposing an Emergency Water Conservation order on single family residents and reducing residential billing unit allocations.
The second problem to show a growing water supply over the long term to meet the city’s growth ambitions would require a little sleight-of-hand by the DWP using ‘paper water’.
Paper water by definition is “water that an agency says it has available to it, but its water that is difficult or impossible to access.” and paper water can be measured by the gap between what an agency says it has available to it, and what it eventually gets. The wider the gap, the deeper our problems.
California’s water laws require that planning agencies, and developers show evidence of current and future water availability for their project. EIR’s and water supply assessments all rely on the projections cited in the UWMP so there is a great deal of pressure on the DWP to show that the water supply is growing, where the supplies are coming from and how much. If the water plans did not show evidence of future water availability that was sufficient to match population projections this could greatly hamper the approval of their projects and possibly stop them cold. In fact some cities in California today have stopped issuing water meters to new subdivisions for residential because they have no surplus of water.
So where do we find the DWP’s paper water? With a little digging into the city’s past and current water plans we can find it in literally every category of the city’s water portfolio in literally every water plan.
Paper Ground Water
Our first stop to find paper water is in the DWP’s groundwater projections that are cited in each of the UWMP’s approved by the city between 1990 and 2010. The accompanying groundwater chart shows us a 79,500 Af/y gap between what the DWP says it would have to meet the city’s growth and the actual amount of groundwater the DWP had access to.
For example if we look at the groundwater projections in the 2000 UWMP, groundwater was projected to contribute 133,000 Af/y by 2010. However the average amount received between 2005 and 2014 was just 66,431 Af/y creating a 56% deficit of what they projected. This 56% is what we call paper water because these same conditions arise in each of the other water plans approved by the city. 36% of the groundwater projection cited in the 1990 UWMP was paper water. 51% of the 1995 UWMP’s groundwater was paper water, and in the 2005 UWMP it is 39% paper water.
Over 24 years this paper water would represent about 1,088,000 AF of water that the DWP said it would have to meet projected growth but over time it would never receive.
The city never stood much chance to meet these projections. Growth, fueled by paper water is at the center of blame. LAStormwater.org states that the city captures just 27,000 Af/y of storm water a year to recharge the underground storage. This low rate is attributed by ULARAwatermaster.com to the city’s built-out growth which has impeded the capture of groundwater because so much permeable soil is paved and built over. The Upper Los Angeles River Area Watermaster reports that most of today’s groundwater recharge comes primarily from LA Aqueduct and Metropolitan Water District imports. Further restricting groundwater pumping is that many wells were found to be contaminated in the mid 2000’s and had to be taken out of service.
Paper Recycled Water
Our next stop where we find paper water in is the DWP’s Recycled Water projections. Urban Water Management Plans between 1990 and 2005 all projected rapidly growing recycled water supplies that later would never be realized.
The Recycled Water chart shows a huge gap indicating that up to 91% of water supply the city claimed it would have access to for future growth is just paper water.
In one example the DWP projected in the 1990 UWMP that the city would have 32,800 Af/y of recycled water by the year 2010. This number like all projections would be used as evidence of future growth by planners. But this water would never be realized. The actual average reported yield between 1995 and 2010 was just 2,921 Af/y which was 29,879 Af/y below what was promised. This 91% deficit is our paper water.
We find the same results in each of the other recycled water projections of plans that would follow. If we look at the 2010 projection in the 1995 UWMP, 84% of the 29,000 Af/y that was supposedly available ended up as paper water. In the 2000 plan, 75% of the 18,400 Af/y projected for the year 2010 ended up as paper. In the 2005 plan 65% of the 16,950 Af/y projected was paper water.
Over 24 years this would represent at least 384,096 AF of paper water that the city said it had access to as evidence that it had sufficient supply for projected growth but it never received that water.
Oddly, the DWP’s latest 2010 plan appears to be doubling down on paper water by citing that it will have 59,000 Af/y available to it by 2035. Already it looks like the first milestone in 2010 of 20,000 Af/y will be missed by a large margin which further demonstrates how that L.A’s drought and growth are built on paper water.
Paper Aqueduct Water
The city owned aqueducts have been our primary source of water since 1913 but in recent years it has also become the UWMP’s largest contributor of paper water.
Even though the aqueduct’s projections in each plan would fall incrementally due primarily to environmental mitigation, the percentage of paper water would increase from 38% during the 1990 UWMP reporting period to 54% by the 2005 UWMP reporting period.
In this example, if we look at the 1995 UWMP, aqueduct water was projected to be 360,000 Af/y which included surpluses for future growth. But that water never came down the pipe. The actual total reported supply was just 217,258 AF/y between 2000 and 2014 was 142,274 Af/y below what was promised. This meant that 43% of the projected total was paper water.
The 2000 UWMP projected aqueduct supplies to be 321,000 Af/y through to the year 2020. However to date the average supply has been just 210,132 Af/y meaning that 45% of the projected supply was paper water. The 2005 UWMP would look worse. It projected 276,000 Af/y through the year 2030 but the supply beginning with its reporting period has been just 173,393 Af/y meaning that over half of the water projected in this plan, 54% was paper water.
Over 24 years this would represent at least 1,863,000 AF of paper water that the city said it had access to as evidence of a growing supply but it never received to this date.
Paper MWD Water
It’s hard to describe MWD water as paper water since most of the DWP’s projections for MWD water were greatly under reported from what was actually received. Typically when the City of L.A. fell short of water which was most of the time, the MWD would step in to fill in as much missing supply as it could. But water is a zero-sum resource and if you take more than your share of water, you’re taking it from another agency. There are limits to what the MWD could supply and history suggests that 423,000 Af/y was L.A’s limit.
MWD water can be described as paper water because each of the city’s UWMP assures that any shortfall of city owned water would be made up by MWD water which is a promise that can’t be met. That is promise made to planners more than it is to the city’s residents.
This category is a new form of paper water that was just introduced in the 2010 UWMP. In past years, the term conservation applied to water supply that was already received by the city and the value attributed to it was measured by the reduced number of gallons per capita. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the DWP originally allocated about 175 gallons per capita in the 1985 and 1990 water plans which includes residential, commercial, government and industrial uses. The city’s conservation programs since then have reduced this to 141 gallons per capita using primarily Tier pricing and low-flow hardware devises. More recently it included so-called “turf buy back” and enforcement measures. In its simplest terms, ‘conservation’ is the ability to stretch out a given supply.
The DWP in 2010 decided to turn this idea on top of its head and count conservation as a source of supply that adds to the city’s total supply. This appears to be another attempt to produce more water on the ‘books’, but water that in time will not be accessible. The 2010 UWMP appears to be suggesting that the city will receive 14,180 Af/y of new water by 2015 and up to 64,368 Af/y by 2035.
This is another new category to the UWMP. Transfers may also turn out to be another form of paper water since water transfers from other agencies is solely dependent on them having surplus water which is in doubt these days.
Most of the agencies the city could bargain with also depend on the SWP to supply them water. The SWP has been seriously cutting back allocations to their customers which includes the MWD.
The 2010 UWMP projects that it will receive 40,000 Af/y through the Neenach pumping station. Only time will tell if this is a viable and reliable source of water.
Overall the amount of water the city promised for future growth and did not meet is staggering. Each UWMP would follow a familar pattern. The first of the five year milestones would be adjusted relatively close to the current supply level and in the following 10, 15, and later milestone years, paper water would contribute to ‘unlikely to be reached’ levels of supply.
When we look at the 1990 UWMP for example we find that the total annual water supply projected by the year 2010 was 756,500 Af/y but the actual supply that came in during the scope of this plan was just 624,283 Af/y. Paper water represented 17% of total projection given the shortfall of 132,217 AF per year. The 2000 UWMP would raise the projections astronomically to 799,000 Af/y but as actual supplies came in, the average so far to date is just 617,645 Af/y thus producing a deficit of 181,355 Af/y per year.
Over 24 years, this would represent 4,352,000 AF of paper water that the city said it had access to as evidence of a growing supply but it never received to this date.
From the standpoint of development and the planning department, paper water is a good thing because the EIR’s, WSA’s and smaller projects that fall below SB-221 reporting requirements can all be assured that whatever their demand is, it will “fall within the available and projected water supplies” over the 20 to 25 year scope of the plan they are citing. Whether the city falls into a permanent drought is irrelevant to the approval process but it has huge repercussions elsewhere since the unmet demands means that the water must be found elsewhere when conservation isn't enough. These demands might be met by fallowing farmlands in the South San Joaquin valley or eliminating their supplies altogether forcing them to drive wells deeper to meet their shortfalls.
From the standpoint of residents however, paper water means higher utility bills, lower tier allocations, and lower property values for the unlucky homeowners who have high density built behind their yards but worst of all, it means the city's water supply is no longer reliable.