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Brave new L.A.

Jon Christensen is a UCLA adjunct assistant professor, senior researcher and journalist-in-residence in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. He also has a joint appointment in the history department. This piece ran in High Country News on Jan. 20, 2014.

In 1913, Los Angeles' legendary chief engineer William Mulholland watched water flow from the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time and proclaimed, "There it is. Take it." The project drew water from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, more than 200 miles away across deserts and mountains, drying up the Owens River and the once-vast Owens Lake, and dangerously lowering eerily beautiful Mono Lake. Over time, it also made modern Los Angeles possible in all its awful glory: sprawling suburbs linked by clogged freeways underneath a blanket of smog.

Later, L.A. tore out its rail system to make room for a booming car culture. And even today, despite the dramatic natural setting – 10,000-foot mountains, 30 miles of Pacific beaches and one of the nation's largest urban parks smack-dab in its middle – many of L.A.'s 4 million residents have no easy access to nature, making the city one of our most park-poor.

And yet, last year, as the city celebrated the centennial of its original sin – that Owens Valley water grab – it also marked a turning point in its history. Under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.

This coincides with a political transition. In 2013, L.A. elected Mayor Eric Garcetti, 42, who as a city council member was a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change, and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX. That the L.A. River – a trash-strewn, concrete-lined channel famous as a backdrop for murders and movie car chases – has become an official symbol of Los Angeles says a lot about the city's transformation. The river, like its city, is slowly but surely being rehabilitated.

Los Angeles has a solid foundation for this effort. Its 329 days of sunshine a year and ocean breezes give it an advantage, making heating and cooling more energy-efficient. The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation's densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many – 88 cities altogether in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist's dream.

Meanwhile, California's overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country's most progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River – initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams – have been embraced by the political mainstream. The city is also home to RePower L.A., a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic justice activists that works with the city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to train workers to retrofit homes at no cost to homeowners.

L.A.'s bid to become a 21st century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began, with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here. Still, L.A. imports approximately 89 percent of its water from hundreds of miles away – the Owens Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been forced to leave more water in Owens Valley, raising the level of Mono Lake, returning water to the Owens River, and keeping down dust at dry Owens Lake. With other imported supplies likely to be pinched by climate change and increasing environmental demands, the municipal utility is working to capture more stormwater and store it in depleted groundwater basins, clean up contaminated groundwater, and recycle and reuse wastewater. 

Woodbury College's Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year – the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake – if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That's already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.

Meanwhile, the utility has committed to phasing out coal-powered electricity in the next 12 years – ending long-term power purchase agreements with plants in Utah and Arizona – inspiring the climate advocacy group 350.org to call Los Angeles "the national leader in the fight against climate change." L.A. already has the largest solar rooftop incentive program in the country, and the best feed-in-tariff rules, which allow consumers to sell power back to the grid. The city itself has realized an energy savings of 57 percent by installing 36,500 LED streetlights. It's working to reduce energy consumption by at least 20 percent overall across 30 million square feet of existing buildings. At the end of this year, the city council made L.A. the first major city to require all new and remodeled homes to have "cool roofs" that reflect rather than absorb sunlight.

L.A. is also building a new rail system that is creating a different backbone for a city long defined by cars and freeways. Within a couple of years, you'll be able to ride a train 25 miles from Pasadena to the beach at Santa Monica for the first time in nearly a century. L.A. is also, incredibly, becoming more bike-friendly, with 350 miles of bike lanes and paths and more on the way. Major city thoroughfares are shut down several times a year for CicLAvia events that attract tens of thousands of riders. And 19 new parks have been opened in recent years as part of the city's "50 Parks Initiative," many in L.A.'s most park-poor neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the city has dramatically reduced smog: You can see the mountains here more often now than you could when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Pasadena. That said, L.A. has a long way to go. We still have the worst air quality of any major U.S. city. Many local communities suffer from disproportionate environmental health risks because of their proximity to freeways and other polluters. And like everyone else, the city still needs a strategy for kicking its addiction to fossil fuels.

As a newcomer – I moved here a year ago from Northern California – I've been surprised not only by L.A.'s recent accomplishments, but also by the serious self-reflection behind them. Los Angeles is taking more responsibility for its past wrongs and actively tackling current challenges.

Last fall, the University of California, Los Angeles announced a major research initiative. "Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles" aims to wean the city off imported water and make it fully reliant on renewable energy by 2050, while preserving biodiversity and improving local quality of life. More than 70 campus researchers – from law, policy, conservation biology, engineering, humanities, climate science, public health, urban planning – are contributing to the plan, to be presented in 2019.

And the necessary partnerships with local, state and federal government, businesses, other universities, and community groups are already coming together. "Let's get it done!" Mayor Garcetti told a group of local leaders, researchers and donors, who gathered to kick off the $150 million fundraising campaign in November.

Can we get it done? With the impending impacts of a hotter climate and rising sea level, more wildfires, and reduced snowpack, one could simply argue that we have no choice. We have to get it done.