Drought will become the norm by mid-century as the planet warms

This story is part of a Long Beach Post multi-part series, “Close to Home: How climate change is shaping the future of Long Beach.” For the full series, click here.

In a sea of grassy lawns in Long Beach’s Rose Park neighborhood, Susan Moffett’s yard is a drought-tolerant retreat dotted with lavender, rosemary and pink-flowered abutilon plants.

Originally from the Midwest, Moffett grew up with suburban green lawns, but as a landscape designer, she said drought tolerant plants are the necessity in Southern California.

“A lot of people don’t realize the magnitude of our water shortage,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to conserve water.”

One particularly perilous effect of climate change is the fact that Southern California is expected to become much hotter and drier in the coming decades.

Rainstorms will be less frequent but more intense, leading to flooding and increased stormwater runoff. Regional temperatures could rise four degrees in the next 30 years, melting snowpacks and further reducing the state’s water supplies.

If Long Beach doesn’t prepare now, the city could see critical fresh water shortages by mid-century.

That was the message in a study released last year as part of the Long Beach Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. The city-wide effort last year featured a series of public workshops on how Long Beach can prepare for climate change. A final action plan is expected to be approved by the City Council later this year.

Conservation is key

As far as the city’s water situation, officials are working on projects large and small to help conserve the precious resource, said Chris Garner, the Long Beach Water Department general manager.

“Conservation is a way of life in California and that’s going to be our mantra going forward, not just in drought years but every year,” he said. “It’s conservation, conservation, conservation.”

Garner said the city is now working on a water resource plan that will be a blueprint for future conservation. They’re currently figuring out what works, and what’s still too expensive.

Desalination, for example, is costly and inefficient for Long Beach, he said, but the technology could improve in the future.

Another hurdle is recycled water—only about 7 percent of the city’s supply comes from recycled sources. Garner said the city will eventually need to expand its recycled water lines, but for now, buying imported water is cheaper.

Long Beach still remains largely dependent on imported water. About 40 percent of the city’s water supply comes from the Colorado River and Sierra Nevada watersheds, but those sources could be drastically reduced in the future due to climate change, he said.

While Long Beach has a good supply of groundwater, which makes up about half of the city’s supply, that source could also fall short in the future due to rising temperatures and evaporation.

“It’s something that definitely worries me,” Garner said. “That’s why we’re going to invest as much as we can in our local wells. Right now our groundwater is our cheapest source.”

Garner said the city will need to come up with innovative ideas to become less reliant on imported water. But overall, Long Beach has done well with conservation, he said.

While the population has jumped 40 percent since the 1950s, the city uses roughly the same amount of water as that time period thanks to conservation efforts.

In one big project this year, the water department is in the process of switching out every water meter in Long Beach for “smart meters” that can detect the tiniest leaks, Garner said.

“These new meters are so sensitive they can even tell when someone flushed their toilet, so we hope it will be an eye-opener for people to see how much water they’re using,” he said. “Every little bit counts.”

Sustainable landscapes

The city is also continuing its “lawn-to-garden” program, offering residents up to $6,000 in rebates for converting lawns to sustainable landscapes.

More than half of all water use goes toward landscaping in a typical California home. With the ability to reduce water use by 70 percent per square foot, sustainable landscapes will become more important to offset drought and extreme heat conditions caused by climate change, according to a city report.

Moffett, who owns Dirty Roots Gardening, said she has many clients who are taking advantage of the city’s $6,000 rebate. While in the past people may have viewed drought tolerant landscaping as unattractive, Moffett said customers are often surprised to see the range of beautiful, Mediterranean plants that are drought tolerant.

The yards can run from very low maintenance to those that require a little more effort.

“There’s a plant for any situation,” she said.

Susan Moffett on her home’s front porch overlooking her drought tolerant garden. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Big conservation projects

Some of the larger projects in Long Beach involve capturing stormwater, an effort that will become more vital as the region experiences fewer but more intense rainstorms.

Billed as one of the first of its kind in size for a city, the Long Beach Municipal Urban Stormwater Treatment (LB-MUST) Project is set to be built on the Los Angeles River south of Shoemaker Bridge.

The $30 million project will use underground pipes to capture and treat stormwater runoff that would normally be lost in the Los Angeles River. The water can then be used to preserve and restore coastal wetlands.

Melissa You, a stormwater compliance officer with the city’s public works department, said the project is still in the design phase.

In another major project, Los Angeles County is currently building large galleries underneath the Long Beach Airport to capture runoff from surrounding Signal Hill and Long Beach streets.

Once completed, the project will be able to capture more than 33 acre-feet of stormwater, which can be cleaned and used to recharge local groundwater. One acre foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons, which can sustain two average households for a year.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the country’s largest supplier of treated water, is examining the impacts of climate change on major sources such as snowpacks and rivers, said Brad Coffey, who leads the agency’s water resource management program.

Coffey said the agency is part of a Drought Contingency Plan to conserve the Colorado River, which supplies about 25 percent of the water used in Southern California. The river has already seen its flows drop dramatically and its supplies are expected to further decrease as temperatures warm.

The plan, a massive collaboration between the seven states and various water districts that depend on the river, will work to boost storage levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell and prevent reservoirs from reaching critical levels.

In other preparations, Coffey said, the agency is investing in more water storage and incentivizing businesses and homeowners to change the way they use water outdoors.

“Moving forward, water conservation is largely going to focus on residential and commercial outdoor use,” he said. “If we work to transform our landscapes, we’ll use much less water in the future.”

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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