As you might have heard, it has been raining heavily in California. High surf is usually a cause for celebration around here but last week it all became a bit biblical, with rock slides on the Pacific Coast Highway and flooded mansions in Montecito. The benign-sounding “atmospheric rivers” swept into the weather system and almost shut Los Angeles, with major boulevards transformed into canals. I came home to find my basement flooded; I heard that a house further north had come free from its foundations and was blocking a street.
In California it’s always feast or famine when it comes to water: tinder-dry for much of the year, mired in shortages, then washed out for weeks. Yet more could be done to harness the heavy downpour when it comes, especially in Los Angeles, where only about 20 per cent of the rain that lands on the basin is captured for later use. When the city was built, the priority was to get water away from homes as soon as possible. Its storm channels, those vast concrete ravines that carve through the city, send innumerable gallons of rainwater towards the Los Angeles river and, ultimately, the ocean. Unfortunately, those channels also wash debris and chemicals from the streets into the Pacific, meaning that only the most committed surfers will dare to paddle out after a downpour.
Despite the recent deluge, the city is likely to continue spending billions of dollars importing water and, by the summer, the news agenda will return to droughts in the southwestern US and the pressures on its reservoirs as people try to keep their lawns green. A long-touted LA County plan to build hundreds of small water-capture projects is gathering pace but there are case studies for simple fixes: Tucson, a city in the Arizona desert, learnt to make the most of its downpours with neighbourhood stormwater collectors and incentives that nudged residents to build their own – investments that pay off in the long-term, when the sun does eventually, inevitably, shine.
Christopher Lord is Monocle’s US editor, based in Los Angeles.