Will Water Cisterns Be the New Norm in the Southland?

The painted pavement indicates the underground cistern at the Pico Library in Santa Monica
The painted pavement indicates the underground cistern at the Pico Library in Santa Monica. Photo: Avishay Artsy

With periods of extreme drought expected to increase in the Southland, as well as an El Niño on the immediate horizon, city officials across the region are looking at ways in which to become “water self-sufficient.” And they are going public with their programs in a bid to encourage widespread water-capture, both in private homes and in public buildings. But will it be a drop in the bucket for the region’s water needs?

This morning Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti held an unveiling of a so-called “smart” water cistern at a house in North Hollywood. This was the launch of LA StormCatcher, a city led pilot program in which 1,000-gallon capacity cisterns have been installed in the yards of 10 houses, complete with sensors that monitor storm predictions and enable water to be siphoned off to “rain gardens” if more space is needed for fresh rainwater.

It’s part of a bid to encourage homeowners to find ways to capture more of the water that falls onto their roofs and gardens. Captured water can then be used for irrigation purposes.

Meanwhile at Virginia Park this morning in Santa Monica, city staffers demonstrated a civic-scale water capture project. DnA watched as city employees spray-painted a large sign onto the ground in front of the new Pico Library, featuring a dotted line marking the presence of a water cistern buried underground and the words “Collected Rainwater Below Here.”

Dean Kubani, Manager of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica explained that, “what we’re trying to do is educate people that water is important and we know now in Southern California with the drought that we’ve got to use water very wisely… This is a library where people come to learn things and they also need to learn where their water comes from and that 12,000 gallons are under their feet right here.”

Dean Kubani (left) manager of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica, with the architect of the Pico Library, Hank Koening.
Dean Kubani (left) manager of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica, with the architect of the Pico Library, Hank Koening. Photo: Avishay Artsy

For the city of Santa Monica this is just one of various initiatives aimed at making the city water self-sufficient by 2020.

Other plans include “water-neutral” development, where building developers either capture water for reuse or infiltration on their properties or they offset their water use by paying for water capture on another property  a bit like carbon offsets.

They also have other plans for building a water cistern below the pier; for expanding their present water treatment plant; for digging a “brackish” well below the pier; and even for tapping into the sewage pipes and capturing that liquid and cleaning and processing it for irrigation and other uses.

How the cistern works at Pico Library, designed by Koning Eizenberg architects.
How the cistern works at Pico Library, designed by Koning Eizenberg architects.

The latter taps into a prevailing public concern about reusing water that might be unsanitary.

At the Pico Library the rainwater is collected in the cistern and is cleaned up and used to flush the library’s toilets. But the Department of Health and Safety was initially very concerned, and, recalls the architect of the Pico Library, Hank Koening, “said to us we should put signs up that this is not potable water. And I said, ‘who drinks from a toilet?’ and they said ‘dogs do.’ And my response was, ‘well, dogs are out of luck because they can’t read.’ Then somebody said, ‘well, young children do.’ But usually those children of that age, they can’t read either. It’s not the water from the roof you should be worried about, it’s what’s in the toilet anyway.”

Hank Koening and Julie Eizenberg, his wife and business partner, have a special connection to the issue of water self-sufficiency. They hail from Australia, which has some of the most stringent water conservation and capture regulations in the world.

A smart water cistern in North Hollywood. Image courtesy of TreePeople.
A smart water cistern in North Hollywood. Image courtesy of TreePeople.

Now Angelenos, so long used to simply letting rainwater flow out to sea, are looking Down Under for ideas.

State Senator Ben Allen recently made a fact-finding trip there. Dean Kubani said, “We just haven’t been pushed as early. They had some really severe droughts about ten years ago and had to deal with that. Now is our time. We’re having to deal with it and even if we have El Niño that’s not going to solve the problem over the long term. So I think this is the wave of the future and it’s great that we’ve got some really low-tech ideas on how to solve this problem. We’ve got the solution right here. We just need to do it.”

Low-tech is key as far as Santa Monica is concerned, where you won’t hear desalination mentioned (too costly and energy-wasteful, says Kubani).

But what about El Niño? Will all of this help capture the rainfall that’s expected? No. Many of the plans are longterm and not ready for the anticipated rainfall this winter. One person connected with the city of LA suggested that the city is ready to capture millions of gallons of rainwater that falls, but not the billions that we’ll need to capture if we are to become less dependent on imported water.

But at both the city of LA and the city of Santa Monica, there is optimism that Angelenos will soon become as educated about water capture as they are about saving energy.

Image courtesy of TreePeople.
Image courtesy of TreePeople, which is co-sponsoring the Stormcatcher program in Los Angeles.