Column: Can L.A.’s massive water tables quench our thirst?

As the California drought continues and water conservation becomes critical to our survival, does one of the answers lie beneath our feet?

I began thinking more about the possibility after corresponding with John Eric Juricek, a West Hollywood resident who saw an LA Times story on conservation and wondered about the water seeping into the garage of his apartment building.

“We have sump pumps running day and night to keep the water out of our elevator shaft and we have ongoing groundwater leaks seeping through the floor of our parking garage,” Juricek said. “I think it’s all going down the drain and into the sea.”

Juricek’s curiosity piqued my own, and I’ve spent several days getting a better sense of what’s going on underground in the Los Angeles area. We all know there’s water down there, but how much and where? Is it really so close to the surface in some places that it can seep into an underground car park, and if so, can it be pumped out and put to good use?

Cedars-Sinai has an underground river. This is the view of a well in the basement.

Cedars-Sinai has an underground river. This is the view of a well in the basement with water visible in the hole.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

The answer to the last question is a definitive yes. In fact, there is something like a river flowing under the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centerand Isaac Bales, assistant director of the hospital’s waterworks, took me down to the basement to see for myself.

“Look right down there,” Bales said, pointing to an opening two or three feet wide.

Water shimmered eight or ten feet down the shaft. It was like looking at a stream, and the water was so clear you could see the bottom about seven feet down. Bales told me that water from this well and three others on the hospital grounds is pumped and used for the hospital’s cooling system.

About 80,000 gallons are pumped and cleaned daily for industrial use, or nearly 30 million gallons a year. The $1.2 million conservation project, which completed in 2018 and was funded in part by the Metropolitan Water District and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, saves the hospital $365,000 annually in water costs and frees up 30 million gallons for others users available.

To the west, UCLA has a similar operation.

“Due to the high water table, UCLA needs to remove water to prevent flooding at its medical center,” said Nurit Katz, UCLA’s chief sustainability officer. Approximately 1.5 million gallons are pumped into the cooling towers of an on-campus power plant each month.

“Many other Westside buildings also have drainage projects, but not all reuse the water,” Katz said.

That’s partly because the technology required to pump, purify, and reuse water can be prohibitively expensive for smaller companies than UCLA and Cedars-Sinai. That’s especially true where smaller or less reliable amounts of the valuable resource are available, said Gregory Pierce of UCLA, a senior researcher and water resources expert.

But that’s not to say that groundwater, which currently supplies about 12% of the total supply, isn’t an essential part of LA’s faucet of the future. Urban customers in Los Angeles use about 550,000 acre-feet of water each year, and the San Fernando Valley’s underground reservoir can hold about the same amount if enough rainfall and stormwater is captured.

Anselmo Collins, senior assistant general manager in the LADWP’s water department, said there is no underground system of rivers and lakes in the valley, despite what I saw at Cedars-Sinai. Water sits between grains of sand, he said. And at the Tujunga pumping station and drilling site that I visited, that water is not near the surface. It lies at a depth of a few hundred meters.

Eveyln Cortez-Davis, Director of Hydraulics and Engineering Services at LADWP, gave me a tour of the Tujunga facility, which features 12 giant water pumps. But many of them have been idle because there is an ugly problem with much of the groundwater in the San Fernando Valley.

It’s contaminated.

For decades, toxins from aerospace and industrial operations in the valley have seeped into the water table. Accompanying Cortez-Davis and I on the tour was LADWP engineer Jason Lockwood, who showed me an ingenious water purification plant that is currently under construction.

Another challenge with pumping water up from underground is that if you draw too much water, as is the case in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the ground will sink. To prevent this, the aquifers need to be recharged, which means what we remove is replaced with recycled water and rainwater is better managed.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has set an ambitious, hugely expensive and only partially funded goal of making the city far less dependent on imported water by 2035.

“If only we were better at conserving, catching, cleaning and recycling, we would have enough water to feed us in Los Angeles for the rest of the century,” Garcetti said.

Specific goals include saving 25% more water than before and doubling both rainwater collection and groundwater storage. The biggest problem is converting the Hyperion water treatment plant to recycle all the water it processes instead of pumping it into the sea.

None of this will be easy, but with struggles over shrinking supplies of imported water, we may not have a choice.

As for the water being pumped out of Juricek’s West Hollywood garage, I’m still following the details, even though he’s taking shorter showers to conserve H2O. The building management is in a state of upheaval, so nobody was available for questions.

West Hollywood public works director Steve Campbell said anyone pumping groundwater during a construction project needs a state permit. For existing buildings with groundwater problems, pump permits may be required in some, but not all cases, depending on the amount of water, whether it is contaminated and other factors.

I have seen no record of an active permit for Juricek’s building.

Water service in Juricek’s neighborhood is provided by the City of Beverly Hills (LADWP serves East West Hollywood). Shana Epstein, director of public works in Beverly Hills, told me that years ago a water conservation advocate complained that she heard “gallons and gallons of water” pouring down a storm drain near her home at night.

Epstein said the city had an ordinance in place requiring anyone pumping groundwater to comply with one of several options, including recycling the water for “useful purposes” like irrigating the property or paying the cost of the down piped water to the city’s outflow.

Sounds like a pretty good idea because when you’ve caused a climate crisis like we did, every drop is precious. Column: Can L.A.’s massive water tables quench our thirst?

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