Nahai: A Fount of Water Wisdom

Heal the Bay board member and former DWP chief David Nahai knows his water. Here he shares how L.A. will beat the drought.

Aug. 11, 2015 — As a former CEO of the LADWP and former Chair of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, David Nahai has a unique perspective on Southern California’s water woes. Urbane and erudite, the London School of Economics-trained attorney has been a longtime Heal the Bay board member. Both a pragmatist and an optimist, he firmly believes that L.A. can fix its water woes if its leaders act decisively today. He recently shared his views with Heal the Bay’s communications director, Matthew King.

Heal the Bay: Do people in L.A. even know where the water comes from?

David Nahai: Generally, no. The history of L.A, which is inextricably linked to our relationship with water, is not generally taught in our schools, nor is there an ongoing, ever present campaign to inform the public.  Public outreach efforts surface only during shortages. That may have been fine while our imported water was cheap and plentiful and droughts were periodic occurrences. But importing 90% of our water supply is no longer a sustainable model.  Climate change and other factors necessitate a fundamental change.  We must conserve more and produce more local resources (from wastewater recycling, stormwater capture, aquifer remediation, infrastructure repair, new building standards and so on).  This shift will require an investment, which, in turn, must have public support.  So, having an informed, engaged public is essential. 

HTB: Do you dislike the word drought? Does it imply something temporary?

Nahai: This drought has galvanized attention and mobilized action in a remarkable way.  I would not jettison the word because it technically describes the current condition.  Rather, the messaging around the word has to convey the fact that we are in uncharted territory, that, with the advent of climate change,  this could well be our “new normal.” 

HTB: Is agriculture being scapegoated by media or given a free ride by water regulators? Or something in between? 

Nahai: Some facts are undeniable: Ag does account for the vast bulk of water used in California; some farmers do lag behind in adopting modern, efficient irrigation techniques, as well as farm runoff control practices; the water rights system in California is inequitable and must be revisited; and the farm lobby is a formidable force in Sacramento.  On the other hand, Ag is important to us economically, historically, and culturally; it employs many people who need and deserve our protection; and possible impacts on food prices resulting from greater regulation must be considered.  It is encouraging to see the administration take action to restrict water use by the senior rights holders, and the voluntary cut backs offered by the senior holders are certainly welcome.  But finger pointing won’t solve the problem.  Rather, all interests must contribute to the solution.

HTB: Is desalination our savior or the definition of insanity?

Nahai:   Ocean desal must be our last resort in LA.  It remains the most expensive, most energy intensive, most environmentally impactful alternative.  While our conservation record is good compared to other U.S. cities, it is not impressive judged against the levels reached by Israel, Australia and other countries. Further, our rate of wastewater recycling is very low; we fail to retain the rainfall that we do receive (allowing it instead to run untreated to the coast only to pollute our beaches and marine environment); our San Fernando Valley groundwater basin is contaminated; and our infrastructure is deteriorating.  Addressing these challenges has to be our first priority.  

HTB: What’s the biggest obstacle? Money? Complacency? Political Will? Technology?

Nahai: I believe the main obstacle is money.  While there are pots of money that agencies can look to, such as Prop 1, to defray some of the cost of the various steps outlined above, it appears to me that water rate increases will be necessary.  LADWP has started to present its case for rate increases.  I hope, and believe, that Angelenos will support the necessary investments.

HTB: What are the consequences realistically if we don’t? Are we all moving to Portland?

Nahai:  If we don’t act now, our future choices may be limited, drastic, and financially wrenching.  But let’s not dwell on failure; it’s not an option.  L.A. has clear measures that it can take to conserve water and produce local water, thus gaining some level of independence from imported water.  It needs to seize the opportunity.

HTB: Why is Heal the Bay positioned to change the dialogue and encourage massive investment in more local water? 

Nahai: Heal the Bay is the leading environmental organization in Southern California on water.  Its voice is trusted and its opinions are respected.  Thus, Heal the Bay enjoys tremendous political capital which can be deployed to compel needed action.  With this power comes responsibility.  I believe that Heal the Bay has an obligation to lead – because it can.