rainwater stadium
Could a new pro football stadium help California beat its drought?

That’s the ambitious goal of the latest stadium proposal to appear in Los Angeles. The project—details of which are only now becoming public—would provide more than merely a home for the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars, who are looking to leave their smaller market in North Florida. The proposed stadium would double as one of the world’s largest and most advanced water recycling facilities.

The new stadium would be designed to help capture and clean rainwater from Los Angeles’ infrequent storms, thus fulfilling two longstanding Southern California dreams. After 20 years of pro football drought, L.A. would again have a team. And Southern California could become far less reliant on imported water by collecting more of the billions of gallons of water that fall during a storm.

This second dream had seemed too impractical and expensive, because it would require a costly remaking of Southern California’s basic water infrastructure, which—instead of collecting rainwater for reuse—funnels it into storm drains and out into the ocean. But the idea of building a stadium that is itself a water recycling facility could change the game, capitalizing on the public mania and nearly limitless financing for pro sports to build a facility that significantly expands L.A.’s water supply. It also could inspire similar projects across California and the parched Southwest.

Already, political momentum is building for what would effectively be a 21st century application of an ancient technology, the rain cistern. And time is of the essence: Mayor Eric Garcetti last fall ordered the Department of Water and Power to reduce its purchases of imported water by 50 percent within a decade. City officials are racing to incorporate the new stadium into a highly anticipated storm water capture plan due out this summer; the plan had been expected to make storm water 4 percent of the city’s annual water budget, but the stadium-water recycling project could add significantly to that.

The location of the stadium would be in the Sun Valley section of the northeast San Fernando Valley, which has been a target for rainwater capture projects because of its favorable geology. The stadium would build on an existing project, the Strathern Wetlands Park, a joint effort of the county and the city of L.A. Those plans would transform a World War II-era gravel pit and landfill into a park to capture and clean rainwater, provide some flood control and habitat for native plants, and also be open to the public for recreation.

Next door to the wetlands park, the stadium would be built into a slope on one end to facilitate capture of storm runoff from local mountains. That runoff, in addition to rain falling on the stadium footprint, would be funneled through drains into a massive cistern underneath the playing field, where water would be recycled and fed into adjacent earthworks; the ground itself would also serve to clean the water, in an effect that has been compared to a drip coffeemaker.

The NFL’s Jaguars believe that bringing water along with football to the region gives them an edge in the fierce competition to return the NFL to L.A. Since the project would be within the city of L.A., the stadium-water plant would have broader business and civic backing than the competing proposals in smaller Southern California cities—the St. Louis Rams’ stadium in Inglewood and the joint San Diego Chargers-Oakland Raiders stadium in Carson. And those competing proposals are all privately financed, while the Jaguars’ stadium could tap public funds—including Proposition 1 state water bond monies—because of its water impact.

Among the other water-friendly features would be an indirect potable reuse system to capture liquid waste from the stadium’s bathrooms and recycle it, using so-called “toilet to tap” technology already in place in Orange County. A survey commissioned by the NFL found that football fans in L.A. are strong supporters of recycling, and would be more likely to support a team committed to environmental sustainability. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is said to be supportive of the water stadium plan, as a way of countering bad publicity his league has received over its handling of head injuries and domestic violence among players.

Engineers are also wrestling with the question of how much the stadium might move as the levels of recycled water stored below the field rise; the effect might produce a slight feeling of motion for fans and players, thus creating a home-field advantage of sorts, since visiting teams would be unaccustomed to the sensation. The Jaguars could end up playing on the gridiron equivalent of a waterbed.

The Jaguars believe that their lack of history in L.A. should give them an advantage over the Chargers, Raiders, and Rams, all of which previously abandoned L.A. after playing here. And besides helping to quench Angelenos’ thirst for more than just pro football, the Jaguars are prepared to argue that their location in the northeast San Fernando Valley—today among the poorest places in Los Angeles—would provide a major boost to local efforts to reduce income inequality.

While plans are only being disclosed now, documents suggest the new facility might be called The Rain Barrel, and the Jaguars could be renamed the Los Angeles Splash.
To promote use of the facility for concerts and conventions, the stadium also could have a retractable “green roof” that would capture half of all rain that falls on it.

Team officials with baseball’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who play in a stadium along the Santa Ana River, are privately exploring various rainwater capture technologies as part of their own planned stadium renovation. And the state’s high-speed rail agency has been approached about altering the path of its Palmdale-to-Burbank link to come within a quarter mile of the stadium, so that The Rain Barrel would have its own station.
Of course, the project faces enormous obstacles, and it starts months behind competing stadium proposals. It also might require local and state legislation to speed environmental review.

But if those considerable challenges can be surmounted, an aggressive construction timetable calls for completion of the stadium-water facility by April 1, 2019—exactly four short years from today.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor of Zócalo Public Square.

He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.