Surviving This Drought and Preparing for the Next One: What Are Your Options?

US Drought MonitorDrought is here and its impacts are being felt by water utilities, industries, and individuals alike. More than 80% of the State of California is in an “extreme” drought condition (see the California Drought Map) resulting in dramatic water supply shortfalls, increased wildfire events, declining groundwater levels, and significant economic impacts. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to call what we are experiencing a “water crisis”. Despite these conditions, many water utilities and water users have had measured reactions to the severity of this drought in hopes that 2015 will bring much-needed relief.  However, as 2014 draws to a close, the potential that 2015 will also be dry has increased, and many entities are now asking themselves: Can I make it through another year like this one?  Sadly, based on current estimates of water supply and water demand, the answer for many would appear to be NO.

These conditions are putting increasing pressure on water utilities and large water users (e.g., industrial and agricultural water users) to develop sound water management plans that address their future water sustainability. From a water utility perspective, this may look like increasing conservation efforts and investing in new, more reliable water supply sources such as groundwater, desalination and/or recycled water. Similar investments can also make sense at the industry level, such as the advanced treatment and reuse of process water, which can be a cost-effective way to increase local supply reliability and reduce an industry’s water footprint.

In the following sections we present options that water utilities and large water users can consider to get them through this drought and prepare them for the next one – when, not if, it happens.

What Can Water Utilities and Large Water Users Do To Weather This Drought Through 2015?

The development of a new, high-reliability water supply is an expensive and lengthy endeavor. During drought conditions, most entities EKI is working with rely one of three strategies: (1) doing more with less, (2) investing in groundwater, and (3) water purchases on the spot market or other water transfers. These options are described in more detail below:

  1.  Doing more with less: Most water utilities have historically relied on water conservation to get them through droughts, which comes at an economic cost associated with decreased commercial productivity, lost investment, and from a utility perspective, decreased revenue. While water conservation is still a necessity, demand hardening as a result of systemic conservation efforts means that the knob that water utilities have to turn in this regard is significantly smaller (i.e., now that almost everyone has efficient toilets, washing machines, and irrigation systems, it is much harder to reduce residential water demand by 20% than it was during the drought of 1976-77). In this instance, it is increasingly important that a utility have a well thought-out Water Shortage Contingency Plan in place that they can implement during a water shortage emergency.  For large water users, doing more with less often means enhancing the water efficiency of various commercial and industrial processes and/or recycling and reusing water that would normally be discharged as wastewater. As water rates increase and water supplies become more variable (both in quality and quantity), implementing water reuse as part of commercial and industrial operations may not only prove to be cost effective, but can also improve water supply reliability and quality which can also extend to process reliability.
  2. Investing in groundwater: Often the most immediate and cost-effective supplemental water supply that water utilities or large water users have access to is groundwater. Thousands of wells have been drilled across in the state in 2014 alone, and groundwater is estimated to make up over 50% of the total water supply to the State this year, as compared to the normal 30%. However, it is important to note that without a long-term plan to recharge the groundwater basin and operate within the sustainable yield, over-pumping of groundwater can lead to issues such as salt water intrusion, land subsidence, and other impacts, such as are being seen now throughout the Central Valley.
  3. Spot market water purchases or other water transfers: Depending on the infrastructure and water rights accessible to a water utility or large water user, they may have the ability to purchase a short-term water transfer. However, as we have seen this year, the limited deliveries from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project systems have hampered the viability of water transfers and other water exchanges, which has exacerbated the drought impacts in some areas (e.g., for water utilities that were unable to access their banked water).

While conserving water, participating in the water market, or tapping into an underutilized local resource can be reasonable near-term solutions, this drought is also providing water utilities and large water users with an opportunity to examine and improve their water supply portfolios in anticipation of an extended drought, or the next one.

What Can Water Utilities and Large Water Users Do To Prepare For Future Droughts?

One of the consensus findings surrounding climate change is that future droughts are expected to be more frequent and more severe. As such, it is increasingly important that a utility, industry, or entity develop a water supply portfolio that is sufficiently diverse and robust to handle the projected future supply volatility. With the benefit of advanced technologies and changing public opinion, EKI has worked with our clients to increase the reliability of their supply portfolios through (1) maximizing water reuse potential, (2) investing in desalination, and (3) optimizing their water supply portfolios. These options are described in more detail below:

  1. Maximize water reuse potential: Once considered unacceptable by the public, the use of recycled water is becoming an increasingly integral and drought-tolerant component of the overall water supply portfolio for many water utilities and large water users across the State. In most cases, water recycling and reuse reduces both the volume of wastewater discharged to local water bodies and the amount of potable water used for certain commercial, industrial, and irrigation applications. Advanced treatment technologies (i.e., low pressure membranes: Microfiltration (MF) and Ultrafiltration (UF) along with membrane bioreactors (MBR)) have accelerated progress in the water reuse sector within last decade and supported the implementation of Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) in California (i.e., the use of highly treated wastewater to replenish groundwater basins or local reservoirs) and Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) in other states and overseas. These low pressure membrane technologies also have significant benefits as part of upgrades or retrofits of existing wastewater treatment facilities in comparison to more traditional treatment processes.  In addition, these new membrane-based treatment technologies are playing an even larger role in water recycling and reuse by increasing reuse water quality, removing new constituents of concern such as pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs), personal care products (PCPs) and endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), and allowing discharges to meet meeting new water quality regulations.
  2. Invest in desalination: Another source that diversifies and expands water supply portfolios is desalination of recycled water, brackish groundwater and ocean water. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is the process that is typically used to reduce the salinity of these various water sources. The RO treatment process is sensitive to the quality of the influent water and so there is usually a significant pretreatment step prior to the actual RO process. Wastewater treated at an MBR plant is a reliable pre-treatment process for RO. Other processes may be appropriate in a brackish groundwater or ocean desalination facility, depending on the intake design (e.g., wells or open water). Significant advances in RO technology in recent years have made desalination an increasingly efficient, reliable and economical new source of the water.
  3. Water supply portfolio optimization: Whether by investing in water conservation, surface or groundwater storage, using supply sources conjunctively (i.e., using surface water in wet years and groundwater in dry years), investing in water reuse or desalination, or doing a better job of matching water quality to intended use, most water utilities and large water users can benefit from optimized management of their current supplies, especially in the face of increased supply uncertainty. A thoughtful approach to assessing future needs relative to supply reliability goals and options, and a prioritized ranking of potential solutions and operational changes, should be important parts of every large water user’s 2015 work plan.

What Has The State Done In Response To This Drought?

On 13 August 2014, California lawmakers passed a $7.5 billion water spending package with overwhelming support that will allocate money to store, clean, and deliver water, as well as restore ecosystems and prepare for climate change. Governor Jerry Brown promptly signed the bill, which awaits voter approval on 4 November 2014.Also under the Governor’s direction, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) recently passed two significant pieces of regulation related to (1) recycled water and (2) urban water conservation.

In addition, in response to the drought and dramatic groundwater level declines, California legislators passed a trio of bills, Senate Bills 1168 (Pavley) and 1319 (Pavley) and Assembly Bill 1739 (Dickinson) which were signed into law by Governor Brown on 16 September 2014. The centerpiece of the historic legislation is the addition of Part 2.74, the “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act” (SGMA), to the Water Code.

Also under the Governor’s direction, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) recently passed two significant pieces of regulation related to recycled water and urban water conservation. These new laws and regulations are summarized below:

  1. New Groundwater Law: On 16 September 2014, the Governor signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law. This new law grants certain local public agencies the ability to become a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) for their basin or a portion thereof. The regulatory regime is intended to empower local agencies to develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs), and gives the GSAs broad authority to enact the law’s provisions. However, the law also gives the state the authority and responsibility to intervene if local action is deemed insufficient to achieve the sustainability goals. The law significantly increases the monitoring and reporting conditions for almost all groundwater users. Groundwater producers will likely face new requirements for flow measurement and reporting, may be charged fees for groundwater extraction, and could be subject to limitations on extraction or face civil penalties and fines.
  2. General Waste Discharge Requirements for Recycled Water Use: On 3 June 2014, the SWRCB adopted General Waste Discharge Requirements for Recycled Water Use (Order WQ 2014-0090-DWQ) with the intent of streamlining the permitting process for recycled water use and to further encourage development of water recycling facilities so that recycled water may be made available to help meet the growing water requirements of the State and make the State more resilient in drought conditions.
  3. Emergency Drought Regulations: On 15 July 2014, the SWRCB adopted emergency regulations requiring water agencies and their customers to increase water conservation in urban settings or face possible fines or other enforcement (see Resolution 2014-0038). The new conservation regulation, which is primarily intended to reduce outdoor urban water use, became effective on 1 August 2014 and mandates minimum actions by water suppliers and their customers to conserve water supplies into 2015.

Specifically, the new SWRCB regulations require, among other things, that urban water suppliers implement all requirements and actions of the stage of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan that imposes mandatory restrictions on outdoor irrigation of ornamental landscapes or turf with potable water, or demonstrate that they have taken actions that will result in a water savings equivalent to reducing outdoor water use by 20%. These SWRCB actions have prompted many of EKI’s clients to consider their recycled water options, evaluate their compliance with the SWRCB regulations, including revising or developing their Water Shortage Contingency Plans, and/or formally declaring water shortage emergencies within their communities. At a minimum, agencies are informing their customers that the following actions are now prohibited per new regulations:

  • The application of potable water to outdoor landscapes in a manner that causes runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures;
  • The use of a hose that dispenses potable water to wash a motor vehicle, except where the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle or device attached to it that causes it to cease dispensing water immediately when not in use;
  • The application of potable water to driveways and sidewalks; and
  • The use of potable water in a fountain or other decorative water feature, except where the water is part of a recirculating system.Planning for an adequate water supply through the current drought and future droughts should take into consideration today’s technologies as a way to stretch and increase supplies by making more efficient use of water through conservation and reuse or obtaining a new supply through desalination.

It’s Not Too Late To Get Started

Planning for an adequate water supply through current drought and future droughts should take into consideration today’s technologies as a way to stretch and increase supplies by making more efficient use of water through conservation and reuse or obtaining a new supply through desalination.

Contact Anona Dutton and Val Frenkel to help you meet the challenges imposed by current drought and better prepare you to adapt to the uncertain future of water supply availability.