May 28, 2014 - From the June, 2014 issue

Australia’s Rainwater Cisterns Inspire TreePeople’s Lipkis

At the USC Center for Sustainability’s Spring Forum on May 6, titled “Envisioning Drought Resilient Cities,” Founder and President of TreePeople Andy Lipkis shared the unprecedented success Australia experienced after its citizens installed rainwater-capture cisterns on their homes during the country’s historic 12-year drought. Lipkis discussed how, in the face of changing weather patterns due to climate change and with fewer trees to capture, clean, and store rainwater than we once had, those living in cities must mobilize to collect as much precipitation as possible—and local water agencies must work together on stormwater solutions rather than remaining in isolation. MIR has included an edited transcription of his remarks.

Andy Lipkis

“TreePeople has committed itself to…catalyzing a rapid shift to local water supply and climate resilience in Los Angeles. We’ve set a goal of 50 percent local water.” -Andy Lipkis

“The City of LA throws away at least 3.8 billion gallons per inch of rainfall as runoff... Distributed, networked small and large stormwater capture systems are the fastest way to get us water as soon as possible.’” -Andy Lipkis

Andy Lipkis: Things are changing day to day. Whatever you heard was fact in Los Angeles, even a year ago, is no longer. My goals today are to help us understand that a new, resilient, local water supply is not only possible—it’s now beginning to happen, even at DWP, at LA County Public Works Flood Control, and at LA City Sanitation.

I want to get into how trees and land are used to capture, clean, and hold water, and how we lose it, so we understand the fundamentals about why we need permeable, living soil; how we can biomimic those functions to create a very resilient city without having to unpave everything, but unpaving as much as we can; how that’s happening; how they did it rapidly in Australia, dealing with the kinds of issues that are coming straight at us very fast; and how we can do it here. 

Our natural infrastructure works in a way that we probably forgot and need to remember. Take a very large oak tree, with a canopy that is 100 feet in diameter. What happens underneath is what’s really important. Over several hundred years, the soil built up and created an incredible space that is a habitat. Most oaks have at least 300 species of critter—from rodents to bugs to microorganisms—living in the tree and especially in the soil. Together, they are an ecosystem that is our life-support system. 

That space under a tree is not just habitat. It is a sponge. It is a tank, as is the canopy. It captures the first tenth of an inch of rainfall without ever releasing it. It slows and catches the rain, then drops it in to the sponge that is in the root zone. Water flowing across the surface flows into that sponge and it picks up pollutants. The critters work together to clean it. Then, because the area is really permeable, that water makes its way down to the aquifer. 

The volume of that space is what’s significant. According to the US Forest Service, a tree with a canopy100 feet in diameter has a root-zone sponge five-feet-deep that has the capacity to hold 57,000 liquid gallons of stormwater in a 12-inch flash flood—without it running downstream as a flood. The question is: What happens when we lose the tree, and what do we replace it with? It does stormwater capture, storage tank, flood control, water quality, and all kinds of things. When we lose the tree, we lose all those services. We lose the water, we lose the habitat, and we potentially lose our lives in a drought.

We replaced it with hardscape and separate bureaucracies: a flood control system, stormwater protection system, and water supply system —all these different bureaucracies that never talked to each other again like the tree talked to itself. We created separate infrastructure systems that all hold high costs, some of them with conflicting services. This has delivered us to the point where we have very expensive and vulnerable infrastructure with a public unwilling and unable to pay what it takes to get it up to shape to protect us from coming severe weather.

All climate scientists across the world pointed to Australia as one of the early victims of severe weather and climate change, experiencing hotter hots, wetter wets, and drier dries. They just came through a 12-year historic drought that finished about two and half years ago. When that happened, they were out of water. They’re a fairly dry place anyhow. But they biomimicked the tree and got people to change radically. I’m telling this story because we could emulate it fairly quickly. 

Before the drought, I observed Australians harvesting rainwater out in the countryside. During the drought, I saw all kinds of changes happening in their cities. For those of you who haven’t been in Australia, the cities don’t look any different than ours. In fact, most of them look better. Most condos and homes today have signs on them saying they capture rainwater. They installed cistern tanks galore, which were heavily discounted so they were easy for people to get. A 1,000-gallon one was the minimum size installed. They had tanks to capture 1,000, 5,000, and 20,000 gallons per house. There was an online center where you could size your roof, size your tank, get your rebate from your water district, choose your installer, and get it installed. 

Rainwater CisternToday, 45 percent of the homes have rainwater harvesting systems in the City of Adelaide, which has the weather most identical to Southern California. In Brisbane, it’s 30 percent. You can’t build, renovate, or make a change to a house now in Sydney without being required to put in a major cistern as part of your water supply. 

During that drought, in a city like Brisbane, water use started at 80 gallons per-person-per-day. It dropped to 33 and hasn’t risen above 40 gallons per day since the drought ended. They more than doubled or tripled their water supply, first by capturing the rain, and then by radically conserving. How did this behavior change? How did residential users become such thrifty managers of the water? Through owning cisterns, they had their own rainwater “bank account.” When you’ve got your cash in your hands, visible, you spend it very differently. When you think it is your life support system, you spend it differently, and that is exactly what happened with residents and their water. That’s how they made it through. 

Ten and a half years into the drought, when they got truly scared, they started building desal plants. By the time the drought was over, none of these were finished. Afterward, Sydney’s plant came online, produced abundant water, and they couldn’t sell a drop. It was mothballed and sold. If we want to talk about drought resilience and a fast—sustainable—response, we should learn from Australia. 

TreePeople has committed itself to helping facilitate this: catalyzing a rapid shift to local water supply and climate resilience in Los Angeles. We’ve set a goal of 50 percent local water. We believe at least 30 percent can be done very quickly with rainwater. With all the other things—groundwater recharge and cleaning up the groundwater, recycling local water—we can hit that target. Santa Monica has a goal of 100 percent local water by 2020. TreePeople, NRDC, and Heal the Bay are working with them to help get there. TreePeople is holding workshops to train people—so that more and more people unpave their yards and neighborhoods, plant trees, install tanks and harvest rain. 


We need, however, a lot of policy support to take it to scale. The good news, just this year, is that DWP, working with TreePeople, got MWD to give a $75-per-rain-barrel rebate. As of now, you can get rain barrels for $10 a piece. But those are tiny—virtually thimbles—even though they’re good starter drugs for rainwater harvesting. A ambitious neighbor of mine gathered all the 300-gallon barrels he could. He’s now got 5,000 gallons of storage. It’s not elegant, but he’s doing it. He’s got abundant water. He wants security, he wants to grow his food, and he never runs out of water.

Probably a thought on your mind is, “It doesn’t rain here.” But it does rain. Last year, the driest calendar year in history, it still rained 3.6 inches. The City of LA throws away at least 3.8 billion gallons per inch of rainfall as runoff. Last month, when it rained 4 inches in one week during that storm, we threw away 13 billion gallons of water. We threw away 3.5 thousand gallons per person, for every one of the 4 million residents of the city. In the driest year in recorded history, we had a lot of water that we could have captured if we built a system like this.

We can manufacture cistern fences that go in between houses and hold 5,000 gallons per fence line 100 feet long, made of recycled plastic. I happened to invent one, but LA’s design community could do better. DWP would like to see us get these fences manufactured locally. There’s a 216,000-gallon underground cistern right in TreePeople’s headquarters at the dead-center heart of Los Angeles—Coldwater and Mulholland. In our last local rainstorm, it captured 81,000 gallons of water. 

Fact: LA is about to spend $4.5 billion to replace our roads. Our roads, however, aren’t just roads. They are our drought-enforcement system, our pollution-inoculation system, and our non-resilience-dependency system. A Sun Valley Watershed street, Elmer Avenue, for example, was re-worked to mimic the natural watershed. The rainwater is harvested by design from the street. This is a project of the Council for Watershed Health, TreePeople, the City of Los Angeles, and all kinds of agencies, to show that this is possible. If LA is going to spend $4.5 billion repaving, we better learn from Sun Valley. If we add up the money that LA needs to spend for water quality, for water supply, and for flood protection, we’ve got over $20 billion that the city and the county will spend in the next 10 years. It could be quite a match to attract federal funds to help get us all the way to goal.

Fact: TreePeople has retrofitted school yards to have filter systems 40 feet under the schoolyard. An example is in the San Fernando Valley, in Pacoima. It is now part of the city’s water supply, flood control, and water quality treatment system. It’s happened in several schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District is collaborating with us, the City of Los Angeles, and the County to try to replicate this. The infrastructure agencies want to give the money to the district. The district doesn’t want kids exposed to potential problems with contaminated water underneath the school. We’re working on it. I believe a breakthrough is possible. 

The aforementioned is relevant to a problem most of you haven’t heard about yet. If you’ve been traveling around the city, you’ll know that trees are dying all over town. The Recreation and Parks Department called us February before the rains, because trees were in big trouble, and asked for help. We pulled in a solution from Australia, where they deployed hollow plastic traffic barriers by the tens of thousands, filled them with recycled water, hooked them up to drip irrigation systems, and deployed them around trees that were as much as 120 years old that they couldn’t afford to lose. 

I showed Australia’s system to Betty White, a donor of ours, and she gave TreePeople the funds to get started with the pilot project. We called the City Bureau of Sanitation, and they said “Yep, you can have the water from us, but you’re going to need to talk to the regional board and the County Health Department to get permission to do it, and DWP owns the water so they have to say, ‘Yes.’ Good luck.” We called DWP. They said, “Yes, you can have the water, but you’ve got to talk to the regulators.” We talked to the regional board. One of the board members, Madelyn Glickfeld, said, “We’re going to do all we can, but it really is in the hands of County Public Health.” County Public Health we talked to, and they said, “Yes, you can do this. This is too important.” We got permission within about 90 minutes for that whole thing to happen. The pilot was built, tested, and monitored by Public Health. These things are starting to go into parks this week or next around LA. We can pilot it there. We’ve got reclaimed water going in to protect critical canopy. Although we can’t do it for enough of LA, the vision for how we could deploy it is possible.

The challenge of advancing new solutions is to demonstrate that each is technically, economically, and socially feasible. People, I believe, will accept such solutions, people want to do this, and technically we know it works. The economics have been the challenge. 

When Los Angeles siloed water into separate agencies, doing integrated, sustainable water was not economically feasible unless the agencies were brought back together. I can tell you today that now, sitting at the table together, are DWP, Sanitation, and County Public Works Flood Control, starting to plan how they can do this. DWP is conducting its first ever Stormwater Capture Master Plan, and its looking encouraging. I’m not saying it’s done, but it’s now within reach, having gotten through the hump of getting the agencies to see that they’re all on one team—one may be the offensive squad and the other, the defensive squad,  with different names, but they have to cooperate and combine their budgets. They are getting there. One of the key leaders said, “Distributed, networked small and large stormwater capture systems are the fastest way to get us water as soon as possible.” 

We actually can have a fully integrated system that gives us water for habitat, that gives us flood protection, that gives us water supply, and that even does first flush of the whole stormwater system before a storm. All of that is feasible, especially if we reach out to the Feds with a shoutout from the governor. It’s going to take leadership, and leadership is emerging. Thank you for your support in getting there.


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