Monday, March 14, 2005

[Escape from] Los Angeles…

A trip to Los Angeles the past few days allowed the following realization: there are parts of the world that exist way beyond their carrying capacity. Once the era of cheap energy is behind us, Los Angeles, like many other urban areas will be due for a long period of unplanning. It may be orderly, chaotic or catastrophic but one way or another, LA will have to wind its way back to a sustainable existence.

For starters, the Los Angeles metro area is home to approximately 12 million people. Twelve million people that live, work and play in a basin that prior to the advent of industrialized civilization, could support just a few hundred thousand residents. The limiting factor then as it is now is actually water, though in California, the issue of energy and water are intricately linked. The Metropolitan Water District, which is the agency now charged with supplying (directly or indirectly) much of urban southern California from the Tehachapis to Tijuana operates a massive water supply network that reaches more than six hundred miles from the city. Canals that stretch out like tentacles of a giant squid now reach up past Sacramento, drive deep into the Owens Valley and across the blazing desert to drink at the West’s limited water supply. Los Angeles’s ever present thirst for more water to beg, borrow and even steal water from other locations, in part courtesy of colorful characters like William Mulholland.

Water that does not fall from the sky or flow freely down stream needs to be pumped. And that of course, requires energy. Over a gigawatt alone is required to send the water from the California Aquaduct system over the mountains from the Central Valley into LA. Add in all of the additional pumping and you have quite significant energy consumption figures. Of course electricity is used for many other purposes and with some 12 million in the metro area, that’s a lot of potential users.

Natural gas has been the preferred fuel of late to power some of the state’s recent power plant operations. It also has long been the fuel of choice for cooking and heating for many households and businesses.

Energy, in the form of food is vital to its residents. While urbanization has swallowed up most of the region’s agricultural land and driven many of the livestock operations into the Central Valley, many of the food processing facilities remain anchored in the LA basin. As a consequence, the raw materials, be it grain, vegetables, dairy, or meat must be shipped in from somewhere else.

And of course, what is a discussion of LA without a mention of its road system. The layout of the city and its countless suburbs is one massive monument to miracle of petro-commercial development that oriented itself squarely around the automobile. The construction of those roadways and the continuing dependence on the personal vehicle has led to ever increasing gasoline (and by proxy) oil consumption.

Start taking away LA’s energy sources and it becomes abundantly clear that the current situation is untenable.

* An increasing price of gasoline and ultimately declining amounts of that fuel will render obsolete much of post World War II developments useless. Separation of jobs housing and commerce will make little or no sense if you have to walk miles.
* Increasing fuel prices will also drive up the cost of agricultural products that the processors need to make in their final products. Eventually whole regions will become inaccessible. If the agricultural products aren’t locally produced, then the area will suffer shortages over the long term.
* Natural gas will deplete. If LNG resources are able to mitigate the depletion of continental supplies, then natural gas will available for a little while longer. If not, then depletion will deprive industrial users of gas, followed by commercial and final residential users of gas.
* Decreasing gas availability will directly correlate with decreasing electrical supplies. Less electricity will translate into rolling blackouts.
* Finally, less electricity means less water. Less water in a dry area is never a good idea.

How those looming problems play out remains a mystery. One thing is clear—it won’t be life as usual.


Blogger monkeygrinder said...

You nailed it - LA, and the desert southwest in general, is going to have huge problems in the post peak era. Almost to the point where the safest approach might be to move into a river valley farming community now..

I'm interested to hear that it takes a gigawatt just to pump water to LA.

There have been plans floated in the past to divert the columbia river. Now that is thirsty work.

Thanks for the link to my blog - though I believe you have preppended your site name to it, so it doesn't actually click through.

3/15/2005 2:00 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

Perhaps we should have taken the hint from our ancestors; stay out of the deserts.

In anycase, I fixed your link.

3/18/2005 11:17 PM  

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