Woodbury College's Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year – the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake – if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That's already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.
Meanwhile, the utility has committed to phasing out coal-powered electricity in the next 12 years – ending long-term power purchase agreements with plants in Utah and Arizona – inspiring the climate advocacy group 350.org to call Los Angeles "the national leader in the fight against climate change." L.A. already has the largest solar rooftop incentive program in the country, and the best feed-in-tariff rules, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid. The city itself has realized an energy savings of 57 percent by installing 36,500 LED streetlights. It's working to reduce energy consumption by at least 20 percent overall across 30 million square feet of existing buildings. At the end of this year, the city council made L.A. the first major city to require all new and remodeled homes to have "cool roofs" that reflect rather than absorb sunlight.
L.A. is also building a new rail system that is creating a different backbone for a city long defined by cars and freeways. Within a couple of years, you'll be able to ride a train 25 miles from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for the first time in nearly a century. L.A. is also, incredibly, becoming more bike-friendly, with 350 miles of bike lanes and paths and more on the way. Major city thoroughfares are shut down several times a year for CicLAvia events that attract tens of thousands of riders. And 19 new parks have been opened in recent years as part of the city's "50 Parks Initiative," many in L.A.'s most park-poor neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the city has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena. That said, L.A. has a long way to go. We still have the worst air quality of any major U.S. city. Many local communities suffer from disproportionate environmental health risks because of their proximity to freeways and other polluters. And like everyone else, the city still needs a strategy for kicking its addiction to fossil fuels.
As a newcomer – I moved here a year ago from Northern California – I've been surprised not only by L.A.'s recent accomplishments, but also by the serious self-reflection behind them. Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges.
Last fall, the University of California, Los Angeles announced a major research initiative. "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" aims to wean the city off imported water and make it fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving local quality of life. More than 70 campus researchers – from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning – are contributing to the plan, to be presented in 2019.
And the necessary partnerships with local, state and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups are already coming together. "Let's get it done!" Mayor Garcetti told a group of local leaders, researchers and donors, who gathered to kick off the $150 million fundraising campaign in November.
Can we get it done? With the impending impacts of a hotter climate and rising sea level, more wildfires, and reduced snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.
Jon Christensen has written for HCN for over 25 years from around the West. He is an adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher, and journalist-in-residence in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and History Department at University of California, Los Angeles.