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LA is finding a way to capture water from heavy rains and save it for dry weather


California got a lot of rain and snow this winter, but one wet year hasn't freed the state or the rest of the West from the long-term drought brought on by climate change. Some areas are trying to figure out how to capture and store more rainwater for drier times. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports on what Los Angeles is doing.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: Sterling Klippel looks like a kid in a candy store as he gazes at San Gabriel Dam outside Los Angeles. He's an LA County stormwater engineer, and he's in charge of capturing rainwater.

STERLING KLIPPEL: It's amazing to see it when it's here. And every drop is precious, so we do our best to capture every drop of it.

WELLS: This year marks one of LA's top 10 wettest years on record, and yet, most of the water that flows through the faucets here is sourced from Northern California and the Colorado River. That's because the infrastructure in LA is great for handling potential floods but not so great at saving water for a not-so-rainy day. This matters because human-caused climate change will increasingly stress water supplies. LA wants to prepare for that day, so it has an ambitious goal to cut its reliance on imported water in half by 2035 to avoid hiking up water bills and tightening water restrictions.

BRUCE REZNIK: We are trying to undo sort of a century worth of poor planning around water, and it's going to take us a while.

WELLS: Bruce Reznik leads the nonprofit LA Waterkeeper, which is the city's self-proclaimed water watchdog. He says the local infrastructure is just not set up to capture and store enough rainwater.

REZNIK: A lot of that is because of the sort of twin factors that - so much of LA is channelized and concretized and urbanized that we're not letting Mother Nature do its job of capturing the stormwater, letting it recharge our groundwater.

WELLS: And that's something LA wants to change. It's rethinking its infrastructure so it won't just manage flooding in big storms; it'll capture that water. Klippel says the city is investing even more into its reservoirs, storm drains, even giant fields designed to get wet.

KLIPPEL: We release it, and we send it down to our spreading grounds. The water then will percolate through this kind of sandy, gravelly geology here and recharge these local aquifers where later it's pumped out for local municipal water use.

WELLS: This infrastructure can be expanded or improved with big investments, but that gets tricky. Californians decided in the mid-'90s that new taxes for a rainwater project would require two-thirds of voter approval. That's an extremely high bar, says Reznik.

REZNIK: And so there has been, you know, a decades-long lack of funding for stormwater infrastructure.

WELLS: County officials anticipate it'll take several billion dollars to hit the city's goals to capture rainwater and recycle wastewater.

DAN MCCURRY: Which seems pretty ambitious to me.

WELLS: That's Dan McCurry. He teaches civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. McCurry says capturing rainwater and recycling the water that flows down our kitchen and shower drains are two of the region's best tools to cut down reliance on imported water.

MCCURRY: Stormwater capture, when it's available, is low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, we make wastewater all year at about the same amount, right? And so it's kind of a steadier baseline supply.

WELLS: Reznik says infrastructure projects large and small are needed to meet the city's goals.

REZNIK: You know, residential and commercial developments and continuing to convert our, you know, grass lawns into little mini rain gardens and stormwater capture.

WELLS: LA County invests $280 million every year to capture and purify rainwater, ranging from giant projects like deepening the fields at the base of the San Gabriel River...


WELLS: ...To much smaller ones, like overhauling beachside storm drains to use water before it reaches the ocean. And all of these projects help get LA closer to its goal of surviving the next dry spell on its own.

For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Los Angeles.


Caleigh Wells