September 8, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

Lipkis: Wiser Drought Policies & Collaboration Can Save Our Trees

In the face of California’s drought, TreePeople Founder and President Andy Lipkis argues for a collaborative and multi-faceted response, with an emphasis on water capture, filtration, and aquifer recharge. He reminds TPR readers of the critical and complex role trees play in this process. Lipkis highlights how TreePeople is advancing collaborative water management in greater Los Angeles, pointing to projects currently proving its viability.

Andy Lipkis

"The millions of trees in Los Angeles represent an investment of billions of dollars in public and private funds to create a tree canopy that isn’t even yet sufficient to protect us. The implications of losing it are not good for public health.” -Andy Lipkis

Andy, California’s drought is Issue One in California today. How are trees impacted? What role do they play in managing water conservation? 

Trees, especially native ones like oaks and sycamores, are a key integrated component of our local water system—meaning, our watershed. Trees provide rainwater capture, clean the water, filter the water, and recharge our aquifer. They prevent floods and clean up pollution. They also moderate severe heat. Trees are one of the most powerful tools to rapidly adapt Los Angeles for climate resilience and to respond to threats facing us.

Below ground, trees capture large amounts of water. Updating the facts from my last interview with TPR, we ran the numbers again with the Forest Service and they’re even bigger than the 57,000 gallons I mentioned. For a large oak tree with a 100-foot canopy, the total capacity of the root zone—the “sponge” formed by the tree and mulch—turns out to be 123,000 gallons. All 57,000 gallons that fall on the tree in a 12-inch flash flood would be absorbed. Since the capacity is more than double that, the root zone can also capture water that’s flowing by. 

It’s reported that 12 million trees have died as a result of the drought. If that’s the case, how do recent state and local government mandates to let lawns go brown impact the health of tree roots? 

That 12-million number looks at national forests and doesn’t count urban trees that are dying, both in wild lands and in cities. We’re seeing quite a lot of dieback. We’re working with both the City of LA and the County of LA, which are seeing increasing death of street trees and urban trees, especially in places that have not been watered over the last few years. Now the threat is arriving quickly as people stop irrigating their lawns.

It’s vital that people keep their trees alive—not just for water capture, but also to protect people from severe weather, including flooding and, especially, urban heat. As I said, we’ve mobilized with the city and the county, but also with tree groups around the state. Even the Governor’s Office is telling people to keep watering their trees. When you take out your sprinklers, ideally you would pop off the sprinkler head, attach a little converter, hook up a simple drip irrigation system, and put that in the space under the tree, then cover it with mulch. Place the drip irrigation system out toward the very end-reach of the tree branches and canopy, away from the trunk, where the living roots can drink the water. Your readers can find more information at

The millions of trees in Los Angeles represent an investment of billions of dollars in public and private funds to create a tree canopy that isn’t even yet sufficient to protect us. The implications of losing it are not good for public health.

Do you have policy concerns about the messages the governor, the State Water Resources Control Board, California cities, and the County of LA have been widely communicating regarding the need for the public to conserve water by reducing outside watering?

Yes. The concern is about communication.

Even the Governor is saying the right thing: “Don’t kill your trees. Do continue to water them. They only use a fraction of the water that lawns use.” But the rebates for removing turf and substituting gravel or artificial turf can be quite detrimental. 

TreePeople released a report in February titled “Moving Toward Collaboration: A New Vision for Water Management in the Los Angeles Region.” Please share the report’s recommended framework for collaborative governance. 

Over the last 20 years, TreePeople has been demonstrating the viability of collaboration, as we helped facilitate agencies with diverse missions coming together. Now they are getting used to collaboration. We’re pushing for higher and higher levels of it.

I’ll back up to explain the reason why. The need has only continued to grow. The good work of increasing integration in water management is starting to get things done. The challenge is that we’re still stuck with one agency leading in its area—whether that’s water supply, storm-water quality, or flood protection—and then inviting others to help fund its project. The project is always the child of one agency, supported by aunt-and-uncle or neighbor agencies.

Projects need to combine the DNA of many agencies so that we maximize efficiency. The cost of meeting our infrastructure needs is growing, starting with deferred maintenance—crumbling streets and water pipes that cost us in terms of water and energy damage to Los Angeles. Add to that $1.4 billion over 30 years to replace sidewalks, because of the ADA settlement related to trees. Then add the cost of the storm-water quality plan and the enhanced watershed management plans, which have been completed and submitted with a price tag of about $24 billion. Those plans are currently optimized for water quality, with some water supply mixed in. Add in more drought response and long-term water supply, like the proposal for the peripheral tubes, which could be $60-80 billion, depending on whose numbers you believe and which interest rates you calculate in.

As these programs and urgent needs get announced, the taxpayer faces an extraordinary burden that will look overwhelming. They’re legitimate needs. But they are actually all related.

An approach that integrates the thinking and resources can do several things. First, it can better respond to changing conditions in order to be climate smart—helping us achieve goals around protecting ourselves from the severe climate impacts now upon us. Most of those projects were not designed with that in mind. They’re going to have to be scaled up anyhow—adding flood protection and heat protection.

Roads, because they collect and concentrate all the runoff, are unwittingly the flood enhancement system and the pollution inoculation system. But, for the most part, highway-building and road-repair money don’t include funds to deal with the flooding, pollution and water shortages they generate. If we’re going to be repairing and rebuilding roads, we should never simply replace a road. In fact, Councilmember Felipe Fuentes has introduced a motion saying just that: If the city is going to rip up or repair a road, it should be upgraded to watershed and water-capture standards. 

Share, by way of example, TreePeople’s long involvement with the Sun Valley Watershed Multi-Benefit project. Elaborate on your collaboration with LA County Public Works and the City of LA agencies, and their leveraged regional investments in watershed management and infrastructure.

County Public Works is the lead agency, but this is probably the most advanced, most integrated program in the region. Already, LA City agencies—the Bureau of Engineering, Street Services, Sanitation’s Watershed Management Division, and the Department of Water and Power—are all co-investing in multiple pieces of the Sun Valley Multi-Benefit Project.

Elmer Avenue, for example, was led by the Watershed Council (now called the Council for Watershed Health), but LA City’s Street Services division was the prime investor. It’s a great project because it’s capturing, cleaning, and treating so much water, and it’s done so much to improve the street and neighborhood.

What has TreePeople learned from these projects about the challenge of collaboratively working with traditionally siloed public agencies? 

We continue to learn a lot. Elmer Avenue, and much of the Sun Valley watershed, is being conducted as a prototype project: trying new technologies and building one-off projects. Those are expensive. The prices come down when you commit to a whole program, rather than building piecemeal.

Jurisdictions do these projects not just because multi-benefit and agency collaboration are good things. The City of Los Angeles and other cities around the country have chief sustainability officers, as does the LA City Department of Water and Power, because the notion of sustainability and resilience includes investing your dollars in ways that are cost-effective and that both solve other problems and produce other really important, needed benefits for the city. 

What remains for TreePeople and public agencies to learn in order to prove the model? 

Urbanization disintegrated the multiple, elegantly integrated life-support services trees once provided and broke them into different bureaucracies. Each separate agency is in its silo, because it’s regulated—for water quality, water supply, flood protection—and then held accountable. Just like the US military isn’t comfortable in an integrated command because they don’t trust that their soldiers will be protected, each agency feels some risk in collaboration—not trusting that they can guarantee the things they need to accomplish.


We’re slowly starting to prove the model. Collaboration is happening in a light mode. But our institutions don’t provide the training and support needed for truly enhanced collaboration needed in today’s environment. We don’t have the systems and the structures. Initially, it’s more expensive to get people together. It looks more cumbersome. People aren’t used to sharing everything. The teams have found themselves competing for very limited ratepayer support. 

Are the many non-governmental interest groups involved in these public works/watershed projects—citizens, neighborhood groups, environmental groups, architects, and engineers—all in favor of true collaboration? 

It’s a mix. Environmental policy organizations tend to be strongest at lawsuits. While NRDC and others are very supportive, and indeed promote the watershed management approach, they’re very scared that this is opening a door to let cities off the hook on meeting water-quality requirements. I don’t believe that is going to be the outcome.

The Sun Valley Watershed worked really well. I’m going to get nerdy here to go into the nitty-gritty: The county and its partners knew they were going to spend $200 million or more on Sun Valley Watershed projects. Once the project was done, after spending that $200 million, the project would be subject to fines and penalties if it didn’t attain water-quality objectives, due to the traditional regulatory function of water quality. They thought: Wow, to spend 20 years and $200 million—and produce a lot of urgently need benefits, like flood protection and greatly enhanced water supply—but wind up being busted and fined for not achieving the water quality standards would be crazy. They didn’t want to commit to that effort without the Regional Water Quality Control Board on board—as a regulator, but also as a partner. This was a huge challenge.

The invitation from the county to the regional board was: Please join this process. We need you to participate with us for the design and implementation. You’re approving the design ahead of time, using your best knowledge and state-of-the-art science, so we’re only going to build what your scientists and engineers agree will meet those standards. We’re only going to do it if you participate in the design, approve it, and monitor it.

The Water Board agreed after a couple years of consideration. That allowed all the agencies to feel safe investing. Everybody was going to give it their best effort, including the regulators. That has allowed a couple hundred million dollars to flow into those projects. The regional board has put in monitoring wells. The city is running the water quality side, while the county helped build the thing. It’s functioning. The new MS4 (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System) permit for the whole region is based on that approach.

NRDC and some of the other environmental groups worry that there’s no way to hold anybody accountable for obtaining the water quality goals: What happens if they miss? We still need to get everybody in.

In June, TreePeople launched its Storm-Water Capture Master Plan in partnership with LADWP. It aims to increase the amount of LA City water supply coming from local sources. Elaborate on the plan’s purpose, and the resulting benefits if it is adopted.

The Storm-Water Capture Master Plan was led and paid for by LADWP. TreePeople partnered with them as pro bono consultants, on a team that included an engineering firm and lots of environmental stakeholders. The plan was actually just finished and presented to the LADWP board.

This is the first time in the agency’s history that it has evaluated the role rainwater could play in meeting our city’s needs. For 20-some years, I’ve been saying that if we were to capture rainwater, it could meet close to half our needs. Sure enough, the modeling done by Geosyntec, a major engineering firm hired to do the plan, showed that if we were to capture rainwater and add it to local water supply, it could represent as much as 45 percent of our current use.

The plan shows two rates of implementation to capture the water and add it to our supply—an aggressive one and a more conservative one that takes 35 years. All the components of how we can capture rainwater and add it to our supply are in it. They are compatible with the Enhanced Watershed Management Plans done for water quality, which are not optimized for rainwater capture for supply, but can be.

The LADWP board gave the plan a positive response. However, the plan does not request full approval before moving forward. DWP staff has said that they’re going to bring each component back to the board to green-light them. All but one of the components requires funding from other beneficiaries beyond just DWP, and so staff wants to assemble partnerships first.

In my last TPR interview, we were looking to Australia for indications of how quickly we could accelerate rainwater capture in Los Angeles. We focused on Adelaide because it has the same climate and rainfall as Southern California. With the motivation of the drought in Australia, they assembled very aggressive rebates and incentives to get people to install rain tanks and capture the rainfall. Across Australia, between 27 and almost 50 percent of homes in each city installed rain tanks. It had a huge impact on increasing their supply. They did it very quickly over that five-year period. It’s only continued since their drought because people are so comfortable with the technology.

The idea is so new here in LA that people can’t imagine we might retrofit a million homes with cisterns and retrofit yards so that they use far less water and capture rainwater with trees, bioswales, treatment wetlands, and rain gardens. But it’s doable!

Andy, please share more about TreePeople’s short-term and mid-term goals with respect to water conservation in California. 

I see a number of steps. First, we need everybody—the agencies and the people—to see that there’s actually a highly efficient, highly effective new infrastructure system within reach that completely integrates with our existing one: distributed rainwater capture and groundwater recharge, where feasible, on permeable properties. These can be designed to weather and protect and serve us in our new severe climate norms—hotter hots, wetter wets, drier dries—and can be deployed quickly, giving us safety. Demonstrating that and helping people understand it comes first.

Second, we need to quickly assemble the financing to build a program. We can’t just build infrastructure and leave it, but instead must create a program that includes long-term maintenance, support, training, and jobs. We must substitute human energy—jobs—for the petroleum energy currently used to pump half of our water over the mountains and into LA. Instead, our plan uses those former petro dollars for greenhouse-gas-free humans. This needs to become a financed program with adequate incentives to inspire wide-scale adoption. The California Solar Roofs Program, for example, did just that in order to build quickly.

Lastly, could you elaborate on the financing challenge? As you know well, just announcing a stretch goal will not secure the desired results. 

Absolutely. Especially with new technologies, people need to see and understand the benefits. But also, the promises that come with bond funding instead of tax funding have, not infrequently, been broken when it comes to reaching an outcome. When bond funding only pays for construction and not for maintenance, you don’t wind up with a trained workforce that’s supported in maintaining the infrastructure so it can deliver the job. Look at every American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card for this city, this region, and the whole country, and you see low to failing grades. Most of it is related to lack of financing.

Anticipating that, we’ve put in place something that’s not going to be more expensive, but that actually substitutes the costs of energy for investment in local water.

We’ve also identified sources: the cap-and-trade funds. David Hochshield, the chair of the California Energy Commission, has just been given $100 million from the governor to work on technology that bridges the water-energy nexus, including distributed water in Los Angeles. He built the California Million Solar Roofs Program and its financing system, which has been really effective.

The Public Utilities Commission has begun the rule-making that, if it succeeds, will allow Southern California Edison and others to invest their money on the energy-water nexus side in helping to build this distributed local-water-supply system.

These dollars are in addition to the price that Metropolitan and DWP pay per acre-foot for importing water. They are starting to deal with the externalities—the negative consequences and costs to the ecosystem, human health, and economy that bringing imported water to Los Angeles has continued to wreak on our region. They’re starting to support financing of this local water supply because of its ability to lift the burden of greenhouse gases and air pollution off of the rest of us. 


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