El Niño: Cities Ready to Save on a Rainy Day

In today’s guest blog post, Santa Monica College student Yasi Razban examines how local cities are preparing to take advantage of much-needed rain.

Feb. 3, 2016 — El Niño 2016 has arrived but much of the rain water that Southern Californians were hoping would ease the water crisis has gone to waste.

Heavy downpours earlier this year saw almost an inch and a half of rain falling at LAX – a new daily record. And this is just the beginning – warmer than usual ocean temperatures mean this El Niño is set to top the big one of 1997.

“An average 1-inch of rain from a storm can create about 1 billion gallons of runoff in L.A. County stormdrains. That’s about 120 Rose Bowls’ worth of dirty water that goes into the ocean,” says Dana Murray, Heal the Bay’s Senior Coastal Policy Manager.

Seems criminal for a state suffering through a five-year drought, that when much needed rain finally comes, it gurgles into stormdrains and heads straight out to sea. Especially as this El Niño is predicted to dump most of its precipitation in Southern California.

This exposes our biggest infrastructure problem.

Murray says 75 percent of California’s water storage infrastructure is located north of Fresno. Los Angeles County designed a stor water drainage system back in the 1930s built specifically to cope with our Mediterranean climate where rain falls almost exclusively during the winter. The end result is almost continuous paved-over surfaces from the mountains and foothills rimming L.A. County, through city streets to the beaches, creating what’s essentially a big concrete bowl tilted towards the ocean. What seemed like great planning then isn’t doing us any favors now.

The prolonged drought means every drop of available water counts so California is scrambling to realign its approach to water management on almost every level. Los Angelenos have gotten their daily water use down to 106 gallons per person. Orange County has a state of the art waste-water recycling plant. And there is serious consideration of costly desalination plants as a way to increase the water supply for our parched state.

The city of Santa Monica is aiming for water self sufficiency by 2020. An ambitious goal which is noteworthy because it relies heavily on catching 182.5 million gallons of rainwater per year before it runs into the ocean.

Here’s how they plan on doing it: Tanks will be installed to collect urban runoff and storm water that would otherwise flow off the Third Street Promenade area and city streets through storm drains into the ocean. One tank will be just north of the Santa Monica Pier in the Deauville Parking lot, a second will be installed adjacent to the City’s existing Civic Center, and a third will be at the City’s Memorial Park (14th Street and Olympic).

These tanks will connect to the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (SMURRF) unit, where the water gets treated and then used for street cleaning, irrigation, and flushing toilets. Creating a local water supply while at the same time stopping all that bacteria laden untreated water from entering the ocean is good news for the health of Santa Monica Bay.

While the tanks won’t be in place for this El Niño, there are other water-saving projects going on in the county.

“We saved 400 million gallons of water from the beginning of El Niño with spreading grounds diverted throughout LA County,” states an LA Public Works official.

These water conservation facilities are located in areas where underlying soils are permeable enough for water to percolate into, then connect to an aquifer. However, this doesn’t get us out of the woods. Even though it’s hoped this El Niño will temporarily relieve drought effects, it’s too unpredictable of a force to be depended on to save us and its intensity may be dangerous if we don’t figure out the water situation.

“El Niño occurs about every 7 years alongside southern oscillation – the change of atmospheric pressure along the eastern and western Pacific,” says Murray. “A decrease in atmospheric pressure over the eastern Pacific leads to a decrease in the westward blowing trade winds towards the equator, which in turn allows warmer waters to travel east and north to the southwestern U.S. coastline.”

Warmer ocean temperatures exacerbate storms and this month’s record ocean temperatures – nearly 4 degrees warmer than average – are expected to give an additional boost to El Niño 2016, which will likely persist throughout spring. Warmer air temperatures intensify storms because warmer air holds more moisture.

This is where climate change comes into the picture – increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has driven overall global air temperature up by one degree already and ocean temperature is up too because a third of the excess heat has been absorbed by the ocean. Then there’s sea-level rise caused by climate change which leads to coastal erosion where we lose wetlands and swamps – the areas that can buffer the effects of a storm. All of the above can intensify an El Niño storm system resulting in “King” tides, storm surges, and flooding.

El Niño rain is going to affect some areas more harshly than others. Past El Niño have resulted in mudslides, erosion, and flooding. Homes in areas known to be at risk of mudslides will be the hardest hit, along with houses built on mountainsides or hills. Neighborhoods near L.A. stormdrains that have been clogged with trash and debris can also experience flooding. Intense and weird weather is predicted to be the new norm.

Places like California will experience more drought and intense El Niños, so we need to be prepared for all these possibilities. In the coming months, it will be important for the state and its residents to be more proactive with water on an individual and large-scale level. Whether it’s installing rain barrels at homes, or investing in local and state water-saving projects, it’s time to think of other ways to recycle water – and quick.

Local environmental champion and journalist Belinda Waymouth contributed to this report.