Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
75 percent of the county’s 228 water systems are vulnerable in some way.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the largest municipal utility in the U.S., serves less than 50 percent of the nearly 10 million souls residing in L.A. County. That fact is a testament to both the staggering population of Southern California, and to many other sources providing county residents with water—the vast majority of which are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and drought.
According to a new report from UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, 228 community water systems serve Los Angeles County. These range from Antelope Valley’s tiny, private Winterhaven Mobile Estates system, which serves just 25 people, to Golden State Water Company’s tens of thousands in communities scattered across the county, to the 4-million-customer behemoth LADWP.
The “Los Angeles County Community Water System Atlas and Policy Guide” uses maps and graphs to powerful effect to show the spectrum of these system types, and how they’re equipped to handle severe water conditions. As the graphs to the right show, “Very Small” (25-500 customers) and “Small” (501-3,300 customers) water systems make up 44 percent of county water systems. Over ninety percent of county residents are hooked up to “Large” (10,001-100,000 customers) or “Very Large” (>100,000 customers) systems.
Across the board, some 75 percent of these systems evidence some kind of supply vulnerability—whether due to their small size, dependence on a single water supply, contamination in local groundwater, or a projected increase in super hot days in the years to come.
And although they serve a a tiny portion of the population, it’s often the smaller community systems that are most vulnerable to water supply issues, and arguably, demand extra attention.
About one third of L.A. County’s water systems—mainly small and very small systems—are 100 percent dependent on groundwater, according to the Atlas. Compared to systems with multiple water sources, they run a higher risk of contamination and supply depletion during droughts. Small water systems also often lack the technology, staff, and funds to manage such conditions—and distressingly, are often exempted from state reporting regulations. L.A. County already has the highest number of water systems in the state that depend on groundwater sources that recently exceeded maximum contaminant levels.
Crucially, individuals from disadvantaged communities—marked by linguistic isolation, poverty, and high unemployment—are more likely to suffer health impacts from drinking low-quality water than those from non-disadvantaged communities. These populations are also most vulnerable to utility price increases, as water becomes more scarce.
According to the lead author, Henry McCann, the Atlas is the most in-depth spatial accounting of L.A. County’s water systems ever published. As California enters the summer of its fourth consecutive year of drought, state and local legislators are wise to identify the most vulnerable water supplies and communities, and respond to existing failures. Surely it’s worth remembering that safe, accessible drinking water is a basic human right—and California has a long way to go to uphold it.