Would "Lose the Lawn" solve the City of Los Angeles's water problem? Throughout the state the crescendo to eliminate residential lawns has grown louder among water boards, agencies and political leaders. In Los Angeles, a partnership between the Metropolitan Water District and the DWP will even pay residents $3.75 per square foot to convert their lawns 'drought tolerant' landscape with arguable curb appeal.
"Californians should water enough to save their trees, but should let their lawns go the way of all mortal things."
Felicia Marcus - Chairwoman Water Board
So given the following extreme example, how much water could the city save if every single family home throughout the city participated in the program and killed off their lawns? And what would the long term benefit be to residents?
According to the LADWP, the 627,395 single-family residential homes it serves used an average of 144.88 HFC (hundred cubic feet) of water during the 2013/2014 water year. The same year 764,402 multi-family residential homes used an average of 96.42 HFC.
In our example we'll ignore other patterns of usage between the two types of homes (residents per household, etc.) and simply assume that the difference is entirely landscape and cut the single family home demand to 96.42 HFC just like multi-family households.
By 'Losing the Lawn' we find the city would at most reduce water demand by 69,805 Af/y or 12%. The actual reduced demand would most likely be much lower.
Benefits are only temporary
Outside of finding a way through this statewide drought there is no real long term benefit from turf removal for the residents of the City of Los Angeles.
The main beneficiary of the reduced demand would be the Metropolitan Water District since the city would be buying less water from the agency each year. If the MWD could store this water and build up reserves that would be a good thing for all. However it will most likely will be a combination of storing some of the water and selling the rest to its other member agencies.
As for the city and it's residents, L.A.'s continued growth enabled by the departments heavy reliance on paper water would quickly wipe out all of the savings within ten years. The city's 2010 UWMP projects the demand will increase by 60,000 Af/y in 2025 and by 86,000 Af/y in 2030. Nearly all of this increase will be multi-family residential so effectively residents would be trading their homes lawn for density.
Since we can expect that the city's real water supply will remain flat, growth will assure that the city's future supply would be as tedious after the lawns are gone as they are today.
This graph shows the City of Los Angeles's history of 'paper water' since 1990 and the actual amount of water it has been able to obtain. Paper water is the gap between what the city anticipated it would need for it future growth versus the amount of water it actually received. The projections appear in the city's Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) which is published and approved by the city council every five years.
The city uses paper water along with real water to demonstrate that it has sufficient water supplies for the thousands of medium and high density projects going through the planning process. As time goes by however the city has not been able to access that water which has created a severe deficit resulting in a drought. Despite not having access to this water, each new water plan continues to anticipate levels of water supplies that it clearly has no access to.
Residents caught in the middle of this vicious drought/growth cycle and have been forced pay for this policy with higher utility prices, enforcement actions, and lower property values.
Part IV in a series describing L.A.’s water supply problems, the drought and the policies that produced it.L.A.'s PAPER WATER
Urban Water Management Plans of 1990, 1995, 2000, & 2005 had all projected huge demand requirements and provided us with solutions on how it would met. However, as each superseding UWMP was approved, it left behind a growing legacy of plans with a history of projections that were never met. Over time, it became apparent that this is not simply a miscalculation but likely an intentional effort by the city to mislead the public using ‘paper water’.
Paper water is water that utilities claim they have access to, but is difficult or impossible to access for various reasons. You can't drink paper water or cook with it but you can make lots of promises with it.
The 2009 California Water Plan Update describes such a scenario in an article titled Water for Growth (E. Hanak/PPIC) stating that "A majority of utilities reported considerable normal-year surpluses, both now and 20 years hence, raising the possibility that many are banking on “paper water” for their margin of comfort."
Generally the City of Los Angeles hides its supply shortage behind promises of water that it could never actually deliver on such as groundwater, recycled water and LA Aqueduct water.
One very typical example where paper water was cited would be the massive Playa Vista development that was approved in the early 2000's. The project's water demand which was based on the 2000 UWMP stated:
"LADWP anticipates annual water demand within the Department’s service area to increase by 2010 to between 718,000 AF (in a normal year) and 761,000 AF (in a dry year), which represents a demand increase of 5.7 percent to 12.1 percent, respectively, between 2002 and 2010.This increased demand in water use is accounted for in LADWP’s Final Year 2000 Urban Water Management Plan Update, and LADWP has identified various means and options for securing adequate water supplies to meet the needs anticipated for 2010, as well as through the year 2020. Ref: EIR No. ENV-2002-6129-EIR"
However the anticipated annual supply of 718,000 AF never materialized by 2010 nor did the 757,000 AF promised by 2015 as shown in Figure 1 at the right.
In 2010 the city water supply was 25% below the projection cited in the Playa Vista EIR at just 540,229 AF and it fell even further behind by 2015. The average yearly supply of 617,645 af/y between 2000 and 2014 was 23% below the projections 2015 projection. Neither aqueduct water, groundwater or recycled water projections were met.
The promise of up to 799,000 af/y of water cited in this EIR is what we would call ‘paper water’. It's this promise of water that contributed to the approval of the project but it was water that can never be had.
This particular development is not an isolated situation. Literally every project in the city that has been approved since 1990 cites the inaccessible water in the city's UWMP. Prior and subsequent UWMP's also projected supply levels that could not be achieved. The 2005 water plan cited 705,000 AF this year and up to 776,000 AF by 2030. Even the current 2010 UWMP has similarly projected supplies in excess of 710,000 AF by 2035.
The City of Los Angeles has not been able to produce water supplies in excess of 690,000 AF since 1989.
Smaller Projects Benefit by Paper Water
Large projects with 500 units or more are required by SB-221 to obtain written verification that long term water supply is available for the project. This written verification goes into a tedious analysis of the projects demand and then always comes to the conclusion based on the UWMP's paper water that "adequate water supplies would be available to meet the estimated water demands of the proposed developments..."
The thousands of smaller projects with 499 units or less that are winding their way through the planning process are exempt from this formality. They need only cite the current UWMP which includes all existing and planned future uses of the city's water supply then come to the same conclusion that "that adequate water supplies would be available to meet the estimated water demands of the proposed developments..."
To date, literally every project approved since 1990, both small and large projects alike have been the beneficiary of paper water but it hasn't benefited residents.
Paper Water may be Political Cover
The city's most recent 2010 UWMP greatly lowered projections but that had not stopped or slowed down the approvals of large or small projects alike. The reason why could be found in a statement made by the DWP back in 1990 saying that approving projects is ultimately a "political decision to be decided by the Mayor and the City Council". So it's likely that the water departments insistence on such large water supply projections year after year is to provide political cover to for approving all of the developments making their way through the planning process.
In the 2009 California Water Update, the article Water For Growth alludes to that by noting "...even in jurisdictions with municipal water departments, elected officials may take a shorter-term view of resource adequacy than area residents do. If—as is often asserted—land-use authorities are aligned with predevelopment forces, they may be inclined to favor growth, even if it means higher costs (or a loss in property values) to the community down the road."