Is Your City Preparing Smartly For El Niño?

In a time of severe drought, one El Niño isn’t going to solve all our problems. But here’s how cities can prepare to take maximum benefit of what rains do come.


Wasteful: After a storm, as much as 10 billion gallons of water is wasted flowing into the sea from urban runoff. That’s enough to fill 100 Rose Bowls! Even when it doesn’t rain, 10 million gallons of urban runoff flows through L.A County stormdrains each day, picking up pollutants and eventually reaching the ocean without the benefit of any treatment. It’s why many of our beaches, rivers and creeks remain chronically polluted. This pollution along our shorelines is terrible, but the waste of water in a time of extreme drought is equally maddening.

Smart: Capturing that runoff, cleaning it, and using it to augment regional water supplies.

The potential:  Up to 630,000 acre feet per year could potentially be generated by better stormwater capture and reuse in the state, according to estimates by the NRDC. This volume is roughly equal to the amount of water used by the entire city of Los Angeles annually.  Using this water for non-potable uses and groundwater recharge can greatly increase local water supplies.

How to get there: It will take significant resolve and funding, but watershed management plans that prioritize green infrastructure and multi-benefit stormwater capture projects must be embraced. Portland and Philadelphia are doing it, and so can we.

What Heal the Bay is doing: Our policy team is working to ensure stormwater management planning and implementation includes multi-benefit solutions that improve greenspace, beautify communities, and capture water onsite for reuse or recharging groundwater.  Our staff scientists are working with state and local governments to find creative ways to fund stormwater programs. We hope to get funding in place before 2020.


Wasteful:   Contaminated plumes continue to expand in aquifers in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, infringing on and reducing groundwater that is available to greater Los Angeles. Much of our groundwater contamination is due to historic improper handling and disposal of industrial chemicals.

Smart: Removing pollutants from groundwater basins in order to enhance available storage space for stormwater and reclaimed water recharge.

The potential: The city of Los Angeles has the rights to pump up to 87,000 acre-feet of water annually. That’s enough water to meet the demands of the greater L.A. Basin for two months out of the year.

How to get there:  We need to find the funding to clean up our groundwater basins. Investment is necessary to allow for our local aquifers to be used to their fullest extent in the future once we do a better job of capturing runoff and recycling treated runoff

What Heal the Bay is doing: Our advocacy staff supports funding through state bond money and the Metropolitan Water District to help clean up the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Valley aquifers. LADWP hopes to have two San Fernando Valley aquifer remediation facilities in operation by 2022.

Improved water supply and improved water quality are inextricably linked. Heal the Bay will continue to advocate for smart projects that help us achieve both goals. The drought will require sacrifice and investment. Let’s just make sure we are investing wisely.

Illustration by Jenny Adams