California State University, Long Beach
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Professor Looks At Recharging Southern California’s Ground Water

Portrait of Susanne DallmanGeography’s Suzanne Dallman doesn’t let living in the semi-desert of Southern California diminish her love for water.

“My father was an avid fisherman and he taught me to love the running water of rivers. My family vacations always were to water. I’m really just transfixed by water,” said Dallman, who joined the university in 2007. “Water is such a charged issue in California.”

The expert in water and environmental policy who earned her M.A. degree from CSULB set out on her road to geography by jumping from her first interest in art as part of a personal journey. “I worked for a while in the software industry. I was really good at it but I had no passion for it. But I always had a passion for environmental interests,” she said. “I got in a car accident and received a settlement that allowed me to quit my job and return to graduate school. I enrolled in CSULB’s environmental studies certificate program then discovered geography.” She started working with water for an environmental engineering company after receiving her master’s degree, then went on to earn her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2001.

Dallman takes a special interest in recharging Southern California’s ground water, an interest that formed while managing a research project for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council to determine the practical potential for capturing storm water runoff. “One of my favorite quotes has to do with the irony of sending our storm runoff to the ocean as quickly as possible, while spending millions to import fresh water from distant streams. If you capture runoff to recharge ground water, you get more local water supplies and you keep the urban pollutants out of the ocean,” she said. “That has been my ongoing study since 2000.”

In 2007, Dallman presented the results of six years’ research to the California Storm Water Quality Association and the American Water Resources Association. “Storm water pollution affects us in ways that most people don't even realize,” she said. “Trash on the beaches, growing algae plumes in lakes and bays, bacteria and plastics in our ocean, rivers and streams... Anything that can be washed into our waterways from the Earth's surface when it rains - including oil and fluids from cars, fertilizer and pesticides from lawns and farms, or cigarette butts tossed to the ground - contributes to storm water pollution.”

Dallman believes average Californians are more aware of water issues than they used to be. “But in terms of what to do about future water shortages, most people throw up their hands,” she said. “Their concerns stop at the water faucet. As long as water comes out, what more do most people need to know, they ask?”

She believes the biggest water use issue facing California is too many people. Since the 1970s, Los Angeles doubled its population while its total water use barely increased. “We’ve been that good at conservation,” she said. “There are still plenty of things that can be done to further conservation. That includes capturing waste water and runoff for reuse. We can make ourselves lots more self-sufficient than we are.”

Dallman gives Long Beach high marks for its water conservation. “Keep in mind, Long Beach already uses the least water per capita of any city in Los Angeles County. It works out now to less than 120 gallons per person per day,” she explained. “Part of that is due to the use of reclaimed water for irrigation in the public parks, and part of it is the city’s ahead-of-the-curve water use restrictions implemented last fall in the face of potential supply shortages.”

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Southern California about water use. “We have advanced water conservation technology. There is a lot more to it than changing to water-saving toilets,” she said. “Most household water use goes to irrigating our landscaping. Why are we growing lawns and tropical plants in an arid environment when we have such wonderful native vegetation here that uses very little water?”

What we don’t want to teach the world is our water-transfer mentality. “Why can’t we develop where the water is instead of transferring it?” she asked.  “It won’t always be true that the water will follow us wherever we move. But when I hear complaints from Northern California about how Southern California is ‘stealing’ its water, I want to ask Northern California if it wants 6 million of Southern California’s people.”

The classic question about water transfers is couched in terms of Mars, a story she heard from former California EPA secretary Terry Tamminen. “If we were to find water on Mars, would we build a city far away from that water?” she asked. “The housing will be here and the industry over there and pipelines will be built to serve each. Is that really such a good idea? That is what we did in California. We can do better. It’s not silly; it’s our history.”

Dallman’s expertise with water use affects the way she sees the world. “I cannot see runoff from sprinklers into drains without thinking about state water policy. I drive my husband crazy,” she laughed. “Wherever we go on vacation, I look at drainage and my husband automatically knows to take pictures for me.”