Saving for a Sunny Day

Stormwater should be treated as a resource rather than a nuisance to be channeled away

Extreme weather cost the U.S. an estimated $165 billion in 2022, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Back in January, California went from almost completely drying up to being underwater. Most of the rain from that series of storms ended up in the Pacific Ocean. Outflows from the L.A. River alone measured about 28,500 cubic feet per second at one point, according to a news story at the time.  

Think of all that water just rushing out to sea, carrying a myriad of contaminants with it, exacerbating one problem while ignoring another. There is certainly a better way.  

“I’ll just note that we have to get more water in the ground,” hydrogeologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Andrew Fisher said in a conversation with NPR. “We simply have no choice.” 

Climate change is one of those topics that can quickly cross from science to politics. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that catastrophic weather events are occurring more regularly than they have in the past. And it’s easy to see the repercussions: scorched landscapes, empty reservoirs, flooding, landslides, etc. The topic gets greatly muddied, however, when discussion turns to causes. And maybe that’s the problem, at least where local water utilities are concerned. 

For the average utility operator, the reasons behind these occurrences don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that they actually are happening. It’s impossible to prevent a hurricane or stop the rain, but we have the ability to realign efforts and work better within these new circumstances, at least where water is concerned. 

In 2018, Los Angeles County approved Measure W, a small tax on paved property that raises about $280 million annually for stormwater projects. The earliest projects are beginning to make an impact, but the process is only just beginning and it’s a massive undertaking. For thirsty southern California, making better use of unpredictable rains could have significant impacts.  

“In a region that imports 60% of our water, it’s just a huge untapped potential for a local water supply,” L.A. Waterkeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik told the Los Angeles Times. “We passed the Safe Clean Water Program to get us there, but we’re just not there yet. It’s going to take us some years.” 

Funneling stormwater out to sea served the purpose of protecting people and property, but at this point it’s not enough, and Los Angeles is pivoting to better serve complementary needs. It’ll be interesting to see the improvements that spring from Measure W, and how other communities learn from them and work to improve their own situations.  

Reporting these stories and sharing examples of utilities taking new approaches to better serve their communities is what Municipal Sewer & Water is all about. The profiles of Buffalo, New York, and the Cleveland Water Alliance in this issue are good examples of that mission. 

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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