Smart Water Use: Stretching the Urban Supply
Despite a winter during which much of California was drenched with plentiful rain and snow, there is no escaping the need for the continued wise use of water, no matter what the change of seasons brings.
An examination of cutting-edge water use efficiency technology is to witness the ingenuity spawned by necessity. California’s climate is not like that of the eastern two-thirds of the country, where sustained rain showers and overall humidity retain a rich luster of green that is interrupted only by fall foliage and winter snows. Instead, the Golden State is often gold with sunshine, a pleasing attribute that nonetheless poses a continuing challenge for those charged with maintaining an adequate supply of fresh water.
That challenge, difficult enough in a “normal” water year, becomes much more so when drought descends upon the Southwest, shuttling the storm track well to the north and minimizing the Sierra Nevada snow pack – a natural reservoir of much of the summer water supply. Drought is by no means confined to California. The Colorado River Basin – a drainage area of more than 22,000 square miles that supplies water to seven states – is struggling to emerge from the grip of an epochal drought that has shrunk reservoir levels to historic lows and intensified the debate over how the river is managed.
During the last 30 years, California has felt the effects of dry spells that demonstrated the severity and speed by which the climate could swing as well as the unquestioned need for the permanent inclusion of water conservation in future water management. “There’s a very dramatic difference between the 1970s and 2005,” said Virginia Grebbien, general manager of the Orange County Water District (OCWD). “If you talked to a general manager in 1970 they wouldn’t be that interested in conservation. It was just emerging and was not that high on everybody’s agenda.”
Today, the picture has changed significantly. Water agencies throughout California and the West have responded with a plethora of management strategies to conserve and re-use water. The results have been remarkable, with reduced use, locally developed projects and new technological advances, such as the desalination of seawater and the introduction of water efficient appliances and accessories. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR), in its public review draft of the California Water Plan Update 2005 (Bulletin 160-05), notes “every region of California must build a balanced water portfolio that increases water use efficiency and maximizes our return on investment in sound water management policies. Every time water is wasted, money and a precious resource go down the drain.”
Water conservation and recycling are particularly keen in those parts of California with minimal local sources and which are dependent on groundwater and imported surface supplies. The state’s inverted ratio of population to regions with the most intensive precipitation is made possible in part by massive state and federal pumping operations that carry northern California water hundreds of miles through the Central Valley, over the Tehachapis and into the basin of southern California.
“Southern and northern California are pursuing aggressive water conservation and recycling programs that advance based on differing local conditions and response mechanisms,” said Richard Harris, conservation manager with East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).
Other regions have implemented aggressive programs to augment supplies, reduce wastewater flows and protect environmental resources. “It goes beyond southern California for many reasons,” said Dave Todd, land and water use program manager with DWR. “California is semi-arid. Even in some wet areas they have to conserve water because of limited wastewater treatment capacity.”
Such was the case in the city of San Jose, which stepped up its conservation efforts to reduce the flow of treated wastewater into San Francisco Bay, which is designated as impaired by certain pollutants. In El Dorado County, wastewater recycling is pursued in part because of the expense of treatment upgrades for discharges to surface waters.
“We find when we look at build out [of houses], it saves us … to recycle every drop vs. discharging it,” said Ane Deister, general manager of El Dorado Irrigation District (EID), noting the projected savings are $60 million.
Advancements in treatment technology have enabled agencies to re-use water that formerly would have been treated to acceptable standards and discharged to surface waters. Today, water is put back to work in several ways, from replenishing groundwater basins to irrigating golf courses to industrial applications. “The technology has continued to improve and the ability to remove more exotic contaminants has significantly improved as well,” said Dave Spath, chief of the California Department of Health Services’ Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management.
At the same time, ways are being found to capture and retain more stormwater runoff by directing it to percolation basins to slowly seep underground and refill underground aquifers.
Stormwater capture is “starting to be counted as water conservation because it’s water that’s not used otherwise,” said Fran Spivy-Weber, co-executive director of the Mono Lake Committee and co-chair of the Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee’s Water Use Efficiency subcommittee. The practice, which is used in different parts of southern California, is a “whole new area of water supply,” she said.
Other parts of the West with minimal rainfall have adopted strict conservation measures. In Las Vegas, faced with a burgeoning population and severely limited supply of water, development codes have done away with the most ubiquitous feature of the American home – the front lawn. In its place are landscaping features more suitable to the region’s desert climate.
“You can’t bring Minnesota here anymore,” said Ken Albright, director of resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and himself a native of the North Star State.
Other regions, while taking not so drastic an approach, emphasize the importance of using only the amount of water necessary to keep a suitable amount of landscaping vibrant. “Ninety percent of users don’t know in inches per week how much water to use,” Todd said. “They don’t know the water needs of the type of grass they have and how long to irrigate and that’s really basic information.”
Smart water use has evolved from the early days of public outreach to an ambitious, forward-thinking process that responds to the needs of commercial, industrial, institutional and residential water users with an eye toward how each drop can be used to maximum benefit. The solutions are wide-ranging and are not confined to water savings but energy savings as well.
“The savings that urban water conservation can provide are real, are practical, and offer enormous untapped potential,” states a 2003 report by the Pacific Institute, Waste Not, Want Not: The Potential for Urban Water Conservation in California. “Water users have been improving efficiency for many years by replacing old technologies and practices with those that permit us to accomplish the same desired goals with less water.” The report calls the amount of water yet to be conserved “the largest, least expensive, and most environmentally sound source … to meet California’s future needs …”
This issue of Western Water examines the continuing practice of smart water use in the urban sector and its many facets, from improved consumer appliances to improved agency planning to the improvements in water recycling and desalination. Many in the water community say conserving water is not merely a response to drought conditions, but a permanent ethic in an era in which every drop of water is a valuable commodity not to be wasted.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the May/June 2005 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
The biggest source of water pollution today doesn’t come from the end of a factory pipe or a sewage treatment plant. It comes from water running off our streets and farm fields that flows untreated into creeks, rivers, bays and the ocean. By the time it reaches those water bodies, runoff water often is a stew of trash, animal waste, household and farm chemicals, metals and just plain dirt that fouls our beaches and contaminates our drinking water sources.
Because this runoff creates such serious problems, we at the Foundation have been involved with voluntary education programs to prevent as much of this type of pollution as possible. You may notice the stenciled lettering on street storm drains telling you that this water flows to the river or ocean. We also have water quality testing programs so that students can experience hands-on testing of water in our creeks and rivers.
The Foundation is proud to take another step toward addressing this important water quality problem with a new newsletter, The Runoff Rundown, about “nonpoint source” water pollution. The just-released first issue features in-depth information about important nonpoint source pollutants and spotlights practical approaches to reducing this type of pollution. Farmers, for the first time, are facing new requirements to monitor their field runoff and to clean up waters flowing off fields into creeks, drains and canals. They are responding by participating in an innovative program of “conditional waivers” developed by the state’s Water Boards. California growers are trying different approaches in various parts of the state because of regional differences in irrigation practices, cropping and climate. The program is in its infancy, but farmers are forming alliances both within their own ranks and with various watershed groups to address the pollution problems posed by runoff from irrigated fields.
And we are not forgetting urban runoff problems. The newsletter profiles a court decision on the legal challenge to the city of San Diego’s municipal stormwater permit. Cities are facing tough stormwater controls and some are making remarkable progress in reducing runoff and controlling sediment.
If you have an interesting story to tell about controlling nonpoint pollution in an agricultural or urban setting, share your experience with others through this newsletter. We want The Runoff Rundown to be a forum for sharing ideas that have successfully addressed this problem.
We all want to be part of the solution to this often invisible pollution problem. If you are interested in receiving this free newsletter, contact Glenn Totten.
In the News
Water, Local Government Groups Seek Removal of MTBE Immunity Provision
Despite a House vote that shields manufacturers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from product liability lawsuits, a coalition of local government representatives and water agencies, including the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), is confident the so-called “safe harbor” provision will not be part of the major energy package expected to be sent to the president later this year.
In voting for the House version of the 2005 Energy Bill April 21, a Republican-dominated majority adopted a provision that gives MTBE producers immunity from defective product liability lawsuits. A proposed amendment to remove the MTBE provision failed by six votes.
“The coalition feels that it was a good thing to bring this to people’s attention and that [the vote] emphasizes to the Senate how divided the House was,” said David Reynolds, ACWA’s director of federal relations.
The coalition found the vote an encouraging sign and believes lawmakers will reach a compromise solution that does not leave taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in cleanup costs, including more than 15,000 sites in California. MTBE, which is banned from use in California, has been identified as a possible carcinogen. Many areas are suing manufacturers, claiming they knew of MTBE’s potential as a groundwater contaminant.
“Despite years of evidence that gasoline manufacturers knew of the contamination problem posed by MTBE, these companies chose to continue using the additive,” said Steve Hall, ACWA executive director.
The MTBE immunity provision was pushed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both of whose districts include MTBE manufacturers. California Rep. John Doolittle (R-Roseville) said because MTBE was directly promoted as a clean fuel additive by federal officials in the 1990s, solving the problem lies with the federal government.
“In the end … the federal government helped cause this problem and the federal government needs to help resolve it,” he said. “The solution is not more litigation and lawsuits, but recognition that the federal government pushed MTBE on our communities, and now our communities need our help.”
ACWA and other groups pointed to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said the MTBE language “would impose both an intergovernmental and private-sector mandate as it would limit existing rights to seek compensation under current law.”
The Senate may take up its version of the bill in the coming weeks, depending on the outcome of unrelated matters, such as the debate over judicial nominees, Reynolds said. Discussion has been raised about addressing cleanup costs through the Leaking Underground Storage Tank fund, but coalition members say the fund was not intended for such substantial cleanup and that taxpayers should not pay for MTBE cleanup.
“If you look at the number of lawsuits and the cleanup costs … clearly, this is very expensive to clean up,” Reynolds said.