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Storm flooding in Los Angeles calls attention to drought, waterway issues

Flooding at the UCLA campus, pictured. Recent floods in Los Angeles have brought the UCLA community’s attention to the impacts of drought on two of the country’s most vital waterways. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

By Otis Wheeler

Jan. 31, 2023 1:15 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 10 at 1:06 a.m.

Recent floods in Los Angeles have brought the UCLA community’s attention to the impacts of drought on two of the country’s most vital waterways.

The flooding throughout the past month further impacted communities in LA that have already been facing the effects of drought for years. As a result, attention has been drawn to the major waterways that provide a large portion of California’s consumer goods and water supply.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that the Mississippi River carries over 500 million tons of goods each year, with the river generating an estimated $730 billion annually as a trade route. The Mississippi is at its lowest water levels in decades, while the flow of the Colorado River has seen a 20% reduction over the past thirty years, primarily due to climate change and inefficient agricultural practices, according to Vox.

The Colorado River accounts for one-third of California’s water supply and irrigates farms throughout the state that provide over a third of the country’s vegetables and three-quarters of the country’s fruit and nuts, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The consequences of a drier Mississippi River, including cuts to the supply of the most consumed goods by as much as 45% and a potential $20 billion economic hit, will have a direct and immediate impact on the price of consumer goods imported into LA, according to CNBC. Additionally, PBS NewsHour reported the supply chain issues will adversely affect the farmers whose exports make up a large part of the state’s agriculture industry.

The New York Times noted both of these water shortages come as the western United States enters its 23rd year of persistent drought because of climate change and inefficient agricultural practices.

California’s economy relies in large part on the state’s agricultural industry, which means that drought puts communities throughout the state reliant on the industry at severe risk. For the roughly 26,400 undergraduate students at UCLA who come from California, that risk is poised to hit close to home.

Recent flooding in California has been heralded by some as a much-needed, albeit temporary, solution to years of drought, according to Inverse.

However, the magnitude of flooding seen in recent weeks is difficult to contain and often contaminates ground and source water, affecting communities throughout the state but typically hitting disadvantaged communities first and hardest, said Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Leila Besic, a first-year undeclared student, said her perception of the flooding has been distorted by its minimal impact on the area around UCLA’s campus as the effects of torrential rain and flooding were minimal in Westwood.

Besic said there has been a mixed response to the flooding in LA and its potential to reduce the negative effects of drought, adding that she can see there are negative consequences associated with heavy flooding and that the experiences of other communities in LA have likely been very different than those in Westwood.

Jocelyn Perez, a second-year public affairs student, said she has seen the impacts of both the drought and flooding hitting her family near the Port of LA. Perez said there was a great deal of fear within their neighborhood as flooding persisted throughout the last month, adding that the region has already spent years facing water shut-offs and limits on water usage as a result of drought.

“We already experienced so much noise pollution, regular pollution, so it’s just very harmful and there’s not really good regulation for flooding,” Perez said.

Cohen said although the solution to drought is more water, floodwater does more to negatively impact communities throughout California and contaminate ground and source water than it does to negate the effects of drought.

In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 1205, which requires the California State Water Resources Control Board to adopt new water-use regulations that factor in climate change, according to OpenStates.

Newsom also reinstated a statewide emergency declaration on March 28, 2022, furthering the State’s drought response last year, and mobilized resources to combat drought, according to California’s Executive Department.

The governor’s policy added to the state’s current drought response, which includes a requirement for local agencies to create water management plans, according to the California Department of Water Resources. As some crops require less water than others, farms can shift toward more sustainable crops and more efficient water usage, said Will Rafey, an assistant professor of economics.

“There are strong incentives for people to continue to grow things in California because there are communities that are built around that production,” Rafey said. “There’s a lot of capital, and there’s a lot of talented labor.”

California is in need of a more diverse water portfolio, as recycling water could reduce water consumption in many urban areas by at least 30%, Cohen said. He added that additional steps include reducing water consumption statewide and moving towards desalination, the process of turning saltwater into clean drinking water.

“I think it’s possible that we start to shift away from some of the historical techniques for growing crops, premised on the assumption that you could have unlimited water for very little cost,” Rafey said. “We want to be responding over time and across space in a flexible way to the changing scarcity of water resources.”

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