Despite the sense of pessimism orbiting conversations about environmental issues, extraordinary visions and industrious leaders have risen to the top, proving progress can be achieved when we trade in our criticisms for action. Andy Lipkis, president and founder of Tree People, an organization utilizing nature to heal our cities, is certainly one of those influential agents of change. In an exclusive interview with Yogi Times, Andy discloses the latest news in his pioneer work with water conservation and discusses his goal to create a sustainable water supply for Los Angeles.
YT: How long has Tree People been involved in promoting rainwater resource programs?
In 1970, we started planting trees in the mountains in response to the pain urbanization was creating. Then we realized we actually needed to fix the city in addition to supporting nature, so we started involving people and planting trees in the city so they could capture and conserve water. We were trying to improve the quality of life, clean the air, restore the forest, and get people to start caring about these issues. Then, in 1992, triggered by the plan to raise the walls of the L.A. River to prevent floods, the concept of rainwater harvesting surfaced. We knew we needed water and needed to be conserving it. I felt it was important to build a demonstration project to show it was possible, and to illustrate the fact we were hemorrhaging a vast supply of water and money. I also wanted to make the case that it was technically and economically feasible to begin to retrofit L.A. to function as a sustainable watershed.
YT: How has this initiative changed over the years in terms of the amount of water harnessed and the number of rainwater capturing devices operating?
From a watershed and ecosystem perspective, if we had various agencies functioning together, we could stack up the benefits. Stone water, water conservation and flood control could all profit if we worked on them in tandem. However, because these agencies did not work in an integrated way, they were only responsible for single-purpose cost benefits. I started voicing the thought, “If you guys would cooperate, amazing things could happen.” Then in 1994, I received a seed grant from the U.S. Forest Service
to show that it was technically and economically feasible to completely adapt Los Angeles to function as watershed. It took a few years to raise the money and get partners together, but just over ten years ago we held our first conference. We started by bringing together one hundred architects and giving them design parameters to retrofit every home, office, commercial and industrial property to create watershed functionality. We then took the pilot model for a home and created a flashflood to illustrate the journey of the water. With the new model, the agencies were able to see that we could capture every drop of water and put it into the land or in the cisterns, with no pollution or waste. Before that time, most agencies had considered this kind of system revamp an unacceptable lifestyle change. However, when they saw our model, it created a breakthrough. Now we have six sites that are successfully capturing water. Although this is the driest year on record for Los Angeles, it recently rained an inch, and from those the six sites captured one and a quarter million gallons of water!
YT: I heard you have been working with a network of local mayors to implement rainwater-saving techniques. How far do you see this expanding?
Very real changes are beginning to occur in cities due to climate change, and one them is the newly enhanced severity of storms. Due to unprecedented, life threatening urban flooding, the city of Seattle recently invited one hundred engineers to an urban drainage and climate change adaptation workshop. Recent storms have shown the city has not been able to build storm drains fast enough to protect their citizens. As climate change continues to occur, we are going to be hit hard by very big events; but whether or not they end up as disasters has to everything to do with whether we are prepared and connected. Community enhances the quality of life. It calls for a new paradigm of leadership that says, “Things are changing so fast that we don’t have the answers, but we can protect each other if we work together.” After I worked with those one hundred engineers, I addressed one hundred mayors at The Climate Change Summit
hosted by the mayor of Seattle. We laid out scenarios for how mayors should engage communities to increase protection.
YT: What obstacles stand in the way of the program reaching its fullest potential?
The current barrier stems from our systems, laws and policies that are still functioning from an old paradigm. It is a new day that requires a shift in attitude, behavior, and the inclusion of a new structure of leadership. We need a system where agencies are working together to manage the land and ecosystem as a whole. Outdated systems will continue to generate one Katrina after the next. It is important to understand that agencies can indeed work together. It will take special training, facilitation and language skills to move into a new, integrated system of management and shared responsibility, but it is achievable. The good news is the people who understand this most desire change. They are the ones who will eventually come into power. We are seeing many engineering firms and agencies aspiring to adaptation. Among them, the city of Los Angeles is working very hard to embrace new procedures and policies.
YT: What do you think the future of this program will be?
The ultimate vision is that we can retrofit and adapt the whole city. Cisterns, which are six feet tall and eight inches wide, can easily hold ten thousand gallons of water. Imagine a million of those in our citizen’s backyards. That gives you ten billion gallons of capacity you can use for irrigation, firefighting, emergency water supply, flushing the streets before it rains, etc. Imagine the economic development opportunities. This influences far more than just water. California uses twenty percent of its total electricity to pump water. When you consider we are the sixth-largest economy on the planet, twenty percent of our electricity is no little thing! When you also consider that during normal rainfall we receive half the water we need, and instead of capturing it, we throw it away, it becomes a climate crime. Yes, implementing a new system will create a lifestyle change. All of the sudden your home will be a functioning watershed, but boy, the implications for safety and jobs are huge.
YT: Do you foresee home water capture and purification systems being available to the public for purchase?
Yes. We are developing them, and once changes occur in the market, we hope others will too. If these cisterns are more expensive than many people can afford, we will include incentives to help people install them. It is our mission to inspire the people of Los Angeles to take responsibility and to participate in making this a healthy, sustainable and fun urban-environmental model for the world.