by Jared Sichel October 7, 2014
TreePeople built an underground water cistern that stores up to 216,000 gallons of rainwater. Photos courtesy of TreePeople
On the afternoon of Oct. 16, the final day of Sukkot, Jews will begin the annual practice of inserting a short but key line into the Amidah prayer: Mashiv haruach u morid hageshem: “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” In Jewish tradition, Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and, as it happens, for California as well. This year, in the Golden State, morid hageshem takes on heightened meaning, given that the nation’s most populous state is in its third consecutive year of drought, with about 80 percent of California experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, the most severe on a five-tier scale according to the United States Drought Monitor. And there is no end in sight, with the Climate Prediction Center forecasting that, at least through the end of the year, the state’s drought likely will persist and possibly even intensify. Only 5.84 inches of rain have fallen in Los Angeles since the beginning of 2014 — about half the average amount — or, put another way, 39.2 billion fewer gallons of rainwater than falls on the city’s 469 square miles in a year of average rainfall. But the problem is even bigger than those numbers indicate. In Los Angeles, an inordinate amount of the rain that falls on us makes no contribution to the city’s water supply — an estimated 80 percent of our rainfall flows directly into storm drains and heads out into the ocean, wasted before ever being used. One consequence is that for each gallon of water not captured, one gallon must be imported.
Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its water from the Owens Valley in Eastern California (270 miles away), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (380 miles away) and the Colorado River Aqueduct near Parker Dam — a 242-mile channel along the California-Arizona border (280 miles away) that was built and is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The MWD sells the water wholesale, supplying 1.7 billion gallons of water daily for use by 19 million people across Southern California.
“The largest single use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over those mountains into Los Angeles,” said Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople. He pointed toward the mountain ranges abutting the Grapevine, the route through which our Sierra-sourced water flows through a huge — and hugely expensive — system of aqueducts and tunnels. .. Lipkis believes we can use technology to replicate citywide a tree’s natural and remarkable ability to capture and store rainwater. He predicts that if Los Angeles implements such a system, it would become both less reliant on imported water and less prone to flooding. And maybe — Lipkis emphasizes that it’s a big maybe — the region could also become a little bit more flush with cash if a larger rainwater capture system bring about a smaller water bureaucracy and lower electric costs from not having to pump so much water over those mountains….
Rainwater from neighborhoods north of Elmer Avenue would flow downhill and gather in giant puddles on the street, making driving and walking nearly impossible during and after a rainfall. For TreePeople and a group of other nonprofits and agencies led by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (now the Council for Watershed Health), Elmer Avenue’s predicament became a perfect site to experiment with a rainwater capture model. Today, the street looks like one of the newest residential blocks in the city — new sidewalks, a newly paved road and, to Lipkis’ delight, a sophisticated rainwater-capture system. Front yards are filled with plants and native trees that require little water to survive but also store large amounts of moisture. When rainwater hits the street, it flows into drains that direct the water to a 5.2 million-gallon underground infiltration apparatus, which then filters the water into the ground. That’s where nature takes over and brings it to a natural underground aquifer. Rain that falls on houses is directed via gutters into rain barrels, onto lawns, and to porous driveways as well as to trees and swales — depressions that store water until they soak into the ground — next to the sidewalk. And if the swale fills up? The excess flows into the street, where it then flows to a nearby drain that leads to a large underground water storage device that eventually will redirect the water into a natural aquifer.
This simple but effective system echoes similar rainwater-capture projects that TreePeople has implemented…