“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” John F Kennedy, former US President.
Walking Water participants are sharing in a grand dream that could be a lifeline for the thirsty city of Los Angeles while renewing hope throughout drought-stricken California and everywhere in the world that’s facing water scarcity challenges.
The dream – presented by Andy Lipkis, the visionary founder of TreePeople who joined the recent 21-day walk through the Mono and Owens Valleys – foresees a new and transformational relationship with water and a massive shift in attitudes and practices.
Instead of allowing precious rainwater to disappear down stormwater drains, it could be harvested on an unprecedented scale to cater for up to half of LA’s needs, simultaneously reducing pressure upstream on communities, landscapes and Ecosystems that have suffered immeasurably as their waters were taken and diverted southwards during the past century.
The diversion of the waters began in 1913 with the creation of the LA Aqueduct system that redirected waters from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt, causing social and economic suffering and widespread environmental destruction that triggered the California Water Wars.
Even today Owens Lake remains a dramatic example of what happened, drying out completely in little more than a decade and becoming infamous as the place in the US with the most dangerous levels of airborne pollution. Around $1.6-billion has recently been spent on dust mitigation measures, adding to the already heavy toll that LA pays for its imported water.
But for more than 20 years Andy Lipkis and the TreePeople social profit organisation he created have cultivated an altogether different vision, recognising that so much water is being unnecessarily wasted.
Demonstrating a possible way ahead, a house to the south of the city was retrofitted in 1998 with measures to harvest and store water instead of encouraging it off the property and into stormwater drains. It’s about creating a catchment instead of a drain.
Officials and media were issued with umbrellas as they witnessed an unusual demonstration in which an artificial downpour was created on this one property with water brought in by tankers. Instead of a torrent rushing into the street, carrying pollution, it was harvested, retained and allowed to nourish the soil. Andy made his point in the most dramatic way he knew how!
Speaking as an Angeleno with a love of the city that is home to some 4 million souls, he says: “The rainfall that we receive is roughly half the water that we need.”
And the great irony is that while the city spends a $1 billion annually to import and distribute the water, other agencies invest close to half that amount “to throw away the rain for flood protection – but that’s the equivalent of half a billion dollars worth of water thrown away from the city alone.”
And the madness doesn’t end there, he insists: “Half the water that LA imports is to grow grass and landscapes. What’s grown is mostly mowed and taken to landfill at a cost of tens of millions of dollars and then we’re spending tens of millions more on stormwater quality to unpollute the water we pollute.
“Consider also that the single largest use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over the mountains and into LA. With all that money haemorraging out, there are a lot of jobs that aren’t available for chronically unemployed youth and other people.”
In the aftermath of the Rodney King riots of 1992 he calculated that there could be as many as 50,000 jobs locally managing LA as a watershed instead of a drain. “So there’s real pain and suffering in town and it’s not that the people of LA are bad and evil,” he argues. “On the contrary people care a lot but were part of a paradigm where decision-making and water management issues were solely in the hands of a few decision makers. The people didn’t have to be aware of where the water came from, where it went and the quantities used. So they were not aware of potential negative impacts.
“The reality is that paradigm has come to an end – now we have the technology and the new generations have the compassion and capacity to be responsible co-managers of the waters.”
In recent years he has been lobbying and working quietly behind the scenes to further the dream of capturing rainwater and has facilitated dialogue between the Department of Water and Power, the largest public utility in the country, and other parties like the Bureau of Sanitation which is responsible for stormwater quality.
He and others recognise that the Earth is a closed system and there is no new water available on the planet, although what we have is very recyclable. “All the water that ever was here is still here and its all recycled. When you drink your water you are drinking dinosaur pee.”
The trick is to look after what we have available to us and find new ways of being in relationship to the water and each other.
He and experts he is working with visualise a system of cisterns and water retaining landscapes, wherever appropriate, that are linked to homes, businesses, schools, shopping malls and anywhere it is possible to harvest rainwater. All could be networked and computer-controlled. But instead of a 50 gallon rain barrel (189 litres), which is like a thimble-ful of water, homes would have huge cisterns of between 2,000 and 10,000 gallons (7,570 to 37,854 litres) that could even be linear storage features replacing perimeter fences.
Looking at the current model where every dam in the country is managed for water supply and flood control, he says: “The manager of a dam has to make a decision four to six months ahead of the rainy season, whether they are going to empty the dam because they know there is a storm coming. It’s a gamble.
“With the networked cisterns and available software you could wait until you have confirmation of a storm, hold on to the water and then release it hours before the storm when you know you are going to refill your supply.“
Are the people of LA ready for these changes and how would it be funded?
Andy and others believe there could be significant savings in coordinating these new investments into the design, construction and care of new integrated multi-purpose infrastructure that treats and manages water as a living watershed, instead of a drain.
He has a high regard for the ability and willingness of Angelenos to change and pioneer new ways.
“LA uses less water today, with a million more people, than it did 30 years ago. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
And he sees Walking Water playing an important role in raising awareness and mobilising new initiatives all over the globe. “I just imagine all the work we are doing in our walking as this builds over two or more years during the journey from source to the place of end use.
“Imagine that we do something that is so potent,” he suggests “that every family in Los Angeles has a conversation about: ‘What can we do to take care of the water, the people and to take care of ourselves?’”
This blog was written by Geoff Dalglish and originally posted on his personal blog, Earth Pilgrim Africa. The featured image of Andy Lipkis during Phase One of the Walking Water pilgrimage was taken by photographer Jasmine Amara.