Transition Culture

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31 Jan 2014

Andy Lipkis, the man taking on LA’s water system

Andy Lipkis

We published a taster of this piece earlier in the week, introducing Andy Lipkis, founder and President of Tree People. It’s a fitting way to draw to a close our month on ‘Scaling up’.  Andy was raised in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, at a time when the smog was so bad that he had to come home from school and breathe steam in order to give his lungs relief from the pollution.  During summer holidays, in order to get him away from the smog, his parents sent him to summer camp in the mountains 100 miles from LA, 8,000 feet up in the mountains.  It was there that he had his first environmental epiphany:

“When I turned 15, the rangers from the US Forest Service said that they had been noticing for many years the trees were dying, and they were dying at an ever faster rate. They’d done some research and figured out it was air pollution from Los Angeles that was killing the trees and if nothing was done the forest as we know it would be gone by the year 2000. They basically said – it’s up to you kids if anyone’s going to save this thing. The government’s not doing it. You’re the ones who love it. It’s up to you”.

They were words which, as he put it, “fell on the ears of a kid who’d been raised in an activist family and the other kids in my summer camp came from similar backgrounds”. They found that some species of tree weren’t affected by smog to the same degree, and set about planting those.  On one summer camp, they spent 3 weeks turning an old baseball field truck parking lot into a forest:

We just went, “woah, what can we do?” and they said there are smog-tolerant trees that naturally occur. Some of the native species aren’t affected by the smog to the same degree, and you can start planting those.  We peeled back the tar, dug in truckloads of cow manure that we’d shovelled from a dairy an hour away on very hot land. Broke everything up, built walls, built a little park and planted smog-resistant trees.

They were Sugar Pines, Coulter Pines, Giant Sequoias instead of the dominant species, the Ponderosa Pine, the Jeffrey Pine that were dying. In these three weeks, if someone looked at us they would say, “my God those are kids in prison camp!  They’re swinging picks, breaking rocks, doing really hard work”. And yet for us, for me at least, probably the whole group, it was some of the most fun we’ve ever had at camp. We were taking on a task, we were using our muscles, we were using our intelligence and we were doing something to fix a really bad situation”.

It’s a story he also tells in this video:


It was a turning point, because for the first time he saw how he and some friends could achieve what appeared to them to be great things in the face of impossible odds.  “It was so powerful” he told me, “that I wanted to keep doing it, and the last day of camp we were all crying about having to leave each other and having to go back to the mean old city, and our camp director said if this felt good, take it back to the city and make it real for you. And don’t stop”.

tree people

Nearly half a century later, and Tree People now is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to inspire, engage and support the people of Los Angeles in taking personal responsibility and participating in making LA a healthy, fun, safe and resilient urban ecosystem. Its objective is to catalyse an unstoppable shift in LA to resilience within the next 10 years by scaling its massive effort of bottom-up action.

Their approach combines top down and bottom up action.  The bottom up work is about supporting people to transform their homes, neighbourhoods and schools.  The top down is facilitating integration and partnership amongst agencies who are working in separate silos.  As Andy puts it:  “They manage infrastructure that was designed over 100 years ago, that we can’t fix until they actually come together to integrate their budgets to create the savings and resources to help people do the work retro-fitting their homes”.

The situation LA faces in relation to water is both stark and as clear an example of un-joined up thinking as you could hope to see.  I’ll let Andy explain it:

“Los Angeles imports 89% of its water. The city spends anything from $750 million to $1.2 billion a year to import that water and distribute it. Meanwhile, it rains and we throw away most of the rain. We only get 11% of our water locally. The rest of that water comes from Northern California, the Western United States. Pumping the water to Los Angeles is the single largest use of electricity in the entire state of California, which is the eighth largest economy on the planet. So there’s a lot of energy from around the world that’s used to pump the electricity to pump the water over the mountains and bring it to LA.

The water that does fall here naturally is estimated at today’s usage to potentially provide 30-33% of the water we need in Los Angeles, the way we use water today. But if we were to capture it and use it really efficiently, let’s say we were to double our efficiency, that would be 60% of the water we need. Every year, this city throws away $400 million worth of water”.

The county flood control system which removes the water from the city and the county, have a annual budget of around $700 million. So in a nutshell, LA spends close to a billion dollars to remove around $400-800 million worth of water every year, and spends nearly a billion dollars to bring in other water from other areas for its drinking water.

On top of that, it gets even more absurd.  The city uses half of its water to irrigate landscapes, mostly lawns.  All the mowing are taking to landfill rather than being used as mulch or composted, and the cost of taking away all the city’s green waste and lawn mowing?  Another $100 million. Here’s Andy explaining all this in a short video:

Part of the reason for this is the disconnected nature of the agencies who make these decisions, usually in isolation from each other:

“The whole idea is to connect the agencies that all spend this money, who don’t ever meet. They don’t talk, they don’t plan together.  First they thought I was crazy, but then they caught on and we built some pretty amazing partnerships”.

So how do we move forward from this stalemate I wondered? 

“We have to offer them some really viable solutions. We can say, well we’ll do grey water and various other good applications, but if they can’t count on it, if they can’t quantify it, they don’t want to be held accountable for it. To bring them to the table we have to say that we realise we’re putting them at risk, they can’t take that risk, they can’t risk the public’s health and safety, so let’s build a system that ensures that for them”.

“Essentially”, he continued, the model we’re intending to overlay onto the city is a model of how a forest ecosystem works, within which all energy, all water, all nutrients are recycled. The rainfall is caught by the trees and treated in the soil under the tree in that mulch zone and slowed down and sent to the aquifer and slowed down so it doesn’t create floods and makes its way to the rivers. The solar energy is harvested, turned into nutrients, the leaves fall from the trees and break down and feed the animals and feed the soil. You have a closed loop”.


Lipkis is clear that the entrenched forces that often block these change aren’t evil, rather they’ve been built on a certain model and suggesting changing that can generate a lot of fear.  For example, recent efforts to get waterless urinals approved for Los Angeles was a major battle with the plumbers union locally and nationally because they were afraid of losing jobs.  But rather than getting drawn into conflicts, as Andy puts it:

“We’ve taken the path of trying to inspire and demonstrate what can work and then help people work it out”.

So, given the scales of the challenges that LA faces, what’s the best approach to engage people? 

“Look back throughout history, and especially now, and the political process rarely produces viable solutions, and practically never does in a timely fashion.  In the meantime, humans and the life forms and ecosystem on which we rely for health, safety, and the economy, suffer damage and pain or death, while we battle, and the human creativity/caring/healing/synergistic community energy that is available for building the solution, is lost in the eddy, all the while our passion, resources, hope are consumed and the destructive system is fed and re-enforced.

Our experience is that when we are simply bringing neighbours together to help each other and people to meet and work together without their labels there is joy, there is fun, there is love, there is attraction. That’s what we humans are designed for.  When we fall into the camps of war and fighting it doesn’t sustain.  Our volunteers, after a hard weekend of work planting trees in the city or the mountains or watering or whatever, they all report that they have more energy than they did after their long week of work”.

For Andy, arguing the economic case is a key part of this:

“If we take all that money that we spend on importing water and reinvest it in this economy, we believe there’s as many as 50,000 new jobs in Los Angeles alone. Not even having to bring in new money but just bringing the different agencies together to combine their budgets and invest locally.  We’re not looking at an agrarian society necessarily. It’s an integrated new-tech, high-tech green infrastructure where you’ve got food local, you’re got security.”

This post is the final in a month of reflecting on the theme of scaling up.  What I wondered, were Andy’s thoughts, based on his experience with Tree People, for how we might scale up our collective impact?

“Progress begins by making government comfortable, making people excited, producing better and better models. Holding ourselves accountable, modelling this stuff in practice.  But the big scale point comes when we consciously deploy in all our neighbourhoods and share compelling, attractive results. I believe California may be hitting it right now because everything in the Transition vision of what would happen in the world is starting to happen.  The pain is being felt, so the question is, are we ready to have the most viable solution there for people to grab when the crisis hits? We’re at a window on that and there may be a window on that in California.

 Less than a week ago, our governor declared a State of Emergency for drought. The global climate scientists, the IPCC, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, said California is going to be one of the first places to run out of water. The United States being in denial, the official state of denial has not responded to that call. But here we are. We haven’t had much rain for three years. There’s no snow. On all the mountains in California, the whole state should be green right now because of rainfall but the entire state is brown. We’ve just come through the driest year in recorded history. And the governor has declared a State of Emergency.

So Transition has, and Permaculture has a massive host of solutions that a lot of us have been deploying on our homes. People are starting to get scared and wake up. Policy makers are ready to start changing laws. We’re hearing from our state capital, give us the laws that we need to allow grey water and other things. What do you want to put in the packages so we can make the changes happen now, so people can take action now, and we’re doing it.

 Because of the level of work done for the last 20 years teaching, facilitating this government stuff, we’re actually right at the core of bringing them together to connect and plan in a new way”.

California stands at a crossroads.  Companies who made desalination plants, and who have half a billion dollar budgets for marketing and political lobbying are arguing that they can make the state drought-free.  Each plant would cost about $4 billion and use vast amounts of energy, but they are an easy solution that offers the illusion of business-as-usual.  They also move away from the far cheaper, and more resilient model of conservation and a diversity of smaller bottom up solutions. 

Fortunately Tree People are able to point to recent developments in Australia, who are experiencing extreme droughts about 10-15 years ahead of California.  Their devastating 12 year drought ended (for now) 2 years ago.  Australia went for decentralised permaculture-style responses, a huge scaling up of rainwater harvesting.  It subsidised millions of cisterns, which meant that, for example, consumption fell from an average of 82 gallons per day in Brisbane to 33.  This was backed up by legislation, penalties for excessive water use, and giving people access to information about their water use. 

Inspired by this, Tree People have been proposing a “smart water grid” for LA, replacing garden fences with long linear tanks that can hold between 5 and 20,000 gallons per household which are connected up, enabling the authorities to send you water, or release water for other uses.  It would be highly efficient at only a fraction of the cost of desalination plants. 

Andy recently convened a meeting of experts and government officials from Australia with the heads of the water agencies in the LA region:

“The first question I asked when I assembled all these key leaders was, “when in your 12 year drought did Australia realise it was in the middle of a 12 year drought?”  I asked that obviously because we have this problem with denial. You don’t want to flip the switch and make this change because it might rain at any moment.  He said the place where he marked that wake-up call was 18 months before the drought ended, when the government decided to invest big time in desalinisation plants in all the big cities.

The problem is, they barely were started with construction by the time the drought was over. When it was raining, people had so profoundly dropped their water use by the time the plants were finished – they’re not even all finished yet – but those that were, no-one bought the water and they couldn’t afford to run them, so they’re been shut down. The one in Sydney’s been sold. It’s being held in reserve in case there’s another massive drought, but people’s water bills have more than doubled, the governments in all the states have been thrown out by angry taxpayers and that is a very important cautionary tale”. 

If you would like to hear the entirety of our conversation, here is the podcast: