Weekly Report – June 8, 2015 – The Drought

The current drought continues to expose fundamental weaknesses – antiquated infrastructure, conflicting laws and policies and political conflict – in the water supply system of California and the western United States.

In early April, Governor Brown ordered the state to conserve a million and a half acre-feet of water in the next nine months, a drastic response to an intensifying four-year drought that has devastated small communities in the north, decimated groundwater supplies in the Central Valley, and made cities throughout the state contemplate their future. To help visualize this quantity of water – an acre-foot is what it takes to cover an acre to the depth of twelve inches: some three hundred and twenty-five thousand gallons. A million acre-feet is about what the city of Los Angeles uses in two years.

CA’s last major drought was in 1977, when the population of the state was 14 million people – half of what it is today. Since then cities and farms throughout the state have implemented conservation programs and recycled more of its water to accommodate for population growth. Based on the theory of diminishing returns, it is going to get a lot harder to advance solutions that will develop a long term water supply for the 44 million people who are expected to call CA home by 2025.

Recent reports of an El Niño solving the drought are contingent on many variables and, even if CA experiences a consistent period of rain, everything will not go back to normal. Lower snow pack and overall warmer temperatures will continue to make water, and the lack of it, an issue for years to come.

Solutions Depend on Long-Term Planning 

Governor Brown’s Water Action Plan. Released in January 2014, this provides a road map for the first five years of a sustainable water management plan to secure the state’s long-term water supply reliability. The Plan calls for adding storage, restoring damaged ecosystems, building tunnels for conveyance, and assisting groundwater management throughout the Central Valley, as well as investments in local project development and more recycled water. Some of these efforts, like the initiative to manage the state’s groundwater basins, will take over two decades. Two elements of the plan – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the fast-tracking of new water storage projects, are very high on the agenda.

The Governor’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Two out of three Californians and 4 million acres of the state’s farmland ($42.6B AG industry) receive some water from the Delta. The Delta exists because half of CA’s annual runoff flows through the state’s two largest rivers ‐ the Sacramento and San Joaquin River –  into the Delta. It is the hub of CA’s two main water delivery systems ‐ the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. It is also the West Coast’s largest estuary. It includes facilities – pumping and power plants; reservoirs, lakes, and storage tanks; and canals, tunnels, and pipelines – that capture, store, and convey water to 29 water agencies throughout the state. A major earthquake or storm pose the greatest dangers to the Delta, potentially causing levee failures and flooding of as many as 20 islands at once and jeopardizing water supplies for two‐thirds of the state. After years of studies and numerous proposals, it looks as if the Governor will make a decision by year’s end to move forward with his plan to restore tens of thousands of acres of delta habitat and install two 30-mile pipelines as an alternative way to deliver water from the delta. Once that decision is made it will drive a lot of the policy on the statewide Action Plan.

The Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (Proposition 1).This $7.5 billion bond was approved by CA voters in November 2014. Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to direct L.A.’s piece of the bond dollars toward groundwater cleanup, water recycling and river restoration funds. L.A.’s priority is the San Fernando Valley aquifer where they plan to spend $600 to $900 million in the San Fernando Valley basin on groundwater treatment facilities to clean up chromium and other pollutants left by aerospace companies and others. The basin accounts for more than 80 percent of the city’s local water rights, but about half of its wells are unusable because of contamination. The unknown factor – local funding to leverage the bond’s dollars. The California Legislature required that at least half of a given project be paid for with local funds unless it serves low‐income areas.

Sustainable Financing. A 2012 infrastructure report by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that CA’s current funding shortfalls in critical water infrastructure areas equal nearly $12 billion annually. Relying on bond funding is not sufficient to address these needs from both a debt perspective and because continued voter approval cannot be assured. Given current constitutional requirements under Proposition 218, it is difficult for water agencies to raise revenues for needed local upgrades and improvements, and policymakers lack a consistent funding mechanism at the state level. That said, some communities need to move faster on implementing metering and the agricultural industry needs to do more groundwater monitoring. Those efforts, in the face of an emergency drought, will need to be accelerated.

Functional Water Market.Water is a commodity, not much different from any other, and yet it is exceedingly difficult to trade or exchange it to reduce costs and maximize benefits. CA needs a functional water market to define who owns the water and how much is available and a process to move water efficiently between demands. At present, there are numerous hurdles in establishing markets and trading mechanisms for water in CA. One such hurdle is lack of sufficient and transparent data and information regarding how much water is available and how, where, and when it is being used. It is unacceptable that CA, the world leader in data management, cannot apply those talents to one of our most important resources, water.

Public/Private Partnerships. CA needs to advance more policies that leverage public funding with private investment in water treatment, storage and supply infrastructure. Investment in water treatment, banking and other activities is happening but the pace needs to be accelerated to meet our state’s growing needs. Researchers estimate that CA will experience a reduced snow pack due to climate change and must plan for capturing more rainfall. That means we’re going to need more surface storm water capture and more reservoir space to capture it quickly and try to move it into groundwater basins.

The L.A. Region’s Initiatives. Water reuse is the easiest and most economical fix. It currently accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage in the U.S. and scientifically proven advances in water technology – including reverse osmosis, ultraviolet disinfection, and oxidation – will allow regions like L.A. to reuse water for many different purposes. Mayor Garcetti has set a goal to reduce imported water from 80 percent to 50 percent locally by 2025. The question becomes – how?

  • Capturing storm water runoff.Even on the driest year in recorded history in 2013, it still rained 3.6 inches in Los Angeles. An inch of rainfall in L.A. generates 3.8 billion gallons of runoff, so you’re talking about more than 12 billion gallons of water that could be captured, but that flows within hours down our concrete streets and into the ocean. There’s enough rainwater to be harvested to produce 30-50% of the entire city’s water needs. Implementing this initiative would provide L.A. a sustainable source of supply to help recharge groundwater supplies or for direct use for non‐potable applications. Approximately two‐thirds of the reuse potential is in coastal areas where wastewater is discharged into the ocean or into streams that drain into the ocean. L.A. has 400 locations that chronically flood and some bond money from the state would be one funding source, but the storm water price tag for cities in L.A. County is $120 billion, so the bond measure falls short of a solution.
  • Treated wastewater. This method, including sewage and water used for industrial processing, can be cleanly recycled for agricultural and landscape irrigation, industrial processes, toilet flushing, replenishing a groundwater basin and even for drinking water. Energy producers can substitute it for freshwater in cooling towers and manufacturers can use recycled water throughout the production process. The City of L.A.’s five‐year water resource plan, adopted in June 2012, depends on a set of recycled water projects (facilities and pipelines), such as recharging groundwater supplies with purified recycled water and weaning itself off imported water. The CA Legislature set aside $725 million for recycled water projects and the DWP has one of the largest projects in the category, at $400 million, already planned, such as the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant Groundwater Replenishment Project. It does not have plans for water storage or any desalination plants in the next five years and remains dependent on a long‐term solution in Sacramento – the Bay Delta Plan being one of them.
  • Conservation. The biggest potential new source of water is people. People in Sydney Australia, with a roughly comparable climate and standard of living, use about half the amount of water most people use on average in L.A.. L.A. residents do have a good record of conserving water thanks to government rebates, some of which have been given out for decades, to install low‐water toilets, shower heads, washing machines and sprinklers. LADWP and MWD offer numerous rebates on water‐saving devices and other programs to help the consumer save water. Programs to retrofit yards away from grass have allowed LADPW to secure a 17 percent savings in water use since the summer of 2009. MWD has a similar program where savings reached 24 percent. Homes and businesses could reduce water use by up to 60 percent by using it more efficiently, recycling and reusing water, capturing more rainwater and installing water meters at all homes and businesses. MWD’s enhanced lawn removal program will save 800,000 acre-feet over 10 years, which is the equivalent to the the capacity of Diamond Valley Reservoir. New state building codes will also force developers to plant less grass and provide more drought friendly foliage.

Desalination. CA’s four-year drought is putting a new spotlight on a plentiful but costly water alternative: ocean water, minus the salt. Desalination is widely used in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, but has been slower to catch on in the U.S. One reason: It takes a great deal of electricity to separate the salt from water, making the process unattractive for communities that have cheaper sources. Poseidon Water, a Boston company that develops water systems, is using $1 billion in private financing to construct a desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA. It aims to provide the San Diego County Water Authority with about 8 percent of its water, at a cost up to twice that of water the agency imports from northern CA. The Orange County Water District in January voted to negotiate to buy water from another $1 billion Poseidon plant, to be built in Huntington Beach, Calif., pending final permits. As of 2013, there were 26 desalination plants in California—up from 18 in 2006, according to the most recent data. Some are operated by government authorities while others are privately run. Critics of desalination contend the plants hurt the environment by, among other things, using large amounts of electricity and sucking fish eggs and microorganisms into water intake pipes that often rest in the open ocean.