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California Water Summit: A New Landscape for Water Management

— June 21, 2016

??????????????????Drought is not new to California, but 2012-2015 has been the driest 4 consecutive years in history. With climate change forcing us to face the idea of a new normal, the biggest question is: What if the next drought is even worse? This year’s California Water Summit highlighted how the discussion around California’s water situation is shifting focus from emergency measures to long-term preparation. This will require stakeholders to generate new solutions to address water management, both from the top down and the bottom up.

Top Down: Putting the Right Systems in Place

The California Department of Water Resources has been managing the variety of funding opportunities available to public utilities and others through Proposition 1. One focus area relates to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee the management of the groundwater basins that provide over half of California’s water in dry years. The process of forming GSAs requires the input of many stakeholders on how to protect our watersheds from unsustainable use. As this effort evolves, it will be important to help these entities organize effectively and meet their planning requirements.

Another hot topic as resources become scarcer is that of water rights. Nobody wants to lose their access to water, but things have definitely changed since this fragmented system was put in place, resulting in suboptimal use of a precious resource. The summit called upon a number of Australians to share their experiences with the electronic water markets implemented in response to a culmination of factors, including their own drought that lasted over a decade. Though the endeavor was technologically challenging, the Australians said the largest obstacle was political inertia.

The California Water Summit also exhibited a strong focus on recycled water as an important water supply. Case studies showed the criticality of regulation and investment that support this resource as consumers become more comfortable with expanding its uses.

Bottom Up: Aligning the Resources

The Pre-Summit Workshop was dedicated to public-private partnerships, termed P3s, as a way to spur investment in water infrastructure. Various opportunities were discussed throughout conference sessions, including grant funding, which can take up to several years to secure. The summit wrapped up with a number of case studies that highlighted the importance of involving various stakeholders at every step in the process. One set of stakeholders to be particularly aware of is disadvantaged communities, as these sometimes overlap with areas hardest hit by drought.

Infrastructure is composed not only of large civic construction projects, but also of the more subtle IT networks that enable more precise management of water-related systems. These investments are also necessary as utilities seek to eliminate inefficiencies from leaks and other sources of waste. As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” We can expect increasing focus on (and hopefully investment in) California water data over the next few years.


One Water: A Path Toward Unified Water Management

— April 8, 2016

Oil refinery plant along riverDespite generally successful emergency water conservation measures and recent rains, the California drought has continued into 2016, highlighting issues around the state’s long-term ability to handle increased drought and flood conditions. This is an important topic considering the trend toward more frequent droughts and other effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the underlying organizational structure behind water resource management throughout the state has not changed significantly. According to the 2016 update of the California Water Action Plan, “There is broad agreement that the state’s water management system is currently unable to satisfactorily meet both ecological and human needs, too exposed to wet and dry climate cycles and natural disasters, and inadequate to handle the additional pressures of future population growth and climate change.”

Fundamentally changing the water resource management system is a significant challenge. One of the reasons for this is that water-related services are too often kept in silos established by regional and municipal jurisdictions. Because of the variety of roles and responsibilities as well as the large number of local agencies, it is not a simple environment in which to effect change.

Breaking Silos

For example, in the City of Los Angeles, the Bureau of Sanitation (LASAN) handles wastewater while the Department of Water and Power (LADWP) provides potable water and water conservation programs. Furthermore, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works has jurisdiction over watershed management and stormwater management/flood control. Collaboration is especially difficult among different levels of regional entities such as this. In practice, this model inhibits true, sustainable water resource management.

To their credit, water organizations in California are aware of the importance of working together despite logistical challenges. In Los Angeles, great strides have been made by preparing the One Water LA Plan, which calls for close coordination between city departments and regional agencies to build resilient local water for a sustainable long-term supply. The effort is managed by LASAN and LADWP together, and has a long way to go—when the plan is completed in 2017, it will still have to be implemented. The California Water Action Plan also identifies several initiatives supporting more integrated water management, such as expanding funding for integrated water management planning, supporting local ordinance changes to enhance local water supply and conservation, and more.

The Right Direction

All of this work is certainly a step in the right direction and helps further the conversation about sustainable water management. However, sufficient collaboration to gain a complete perspective of and control over the entire regional water resource requires a huge organizational and intellectual investment. One solution is to modify the underlying structure itself instead.

Communities should move toward a single, holistic water function—One Water—to manage all aspects of potable water, wastewater, stormwater, and flood protection. But how? The concept of fully integrating water and wastewater utilities is not new, but the actual transformation of distinct local organizations into a single unit will take a significant amount of organizational change. The first step is to create a One Water strategic framework, then align and merge city departments so that they can implement and manage the strategy. In addition to managing water sustainably, the One Water approach should also reduce costs and improve service. In many municipalities, this can be accomplished by an ordinance or revision to the city charter.

Some U.S. cities already have aspects of One Water, such as combined sewer and stormwater treatment in San Francisco, and others are moving in this direction; for example, merging water and wastewater (and streets) into one public works department in Geneva, Ohio. California municipalities, under the pressure of drought, should strive to adopt a One Water approach.


Emerging Technologies Address Water Management Dearth

— August 4, 2015

It’s been the kind of balmy summer in Washington, D.C. that makes Washingtonians thankful for air conditioning. Blasts of cool air offer a welcome greeting in homes, offices, and stores throughout the region. Unfortunately, the trek between those cool oases can be terrible, particularly when using public transportation. Though the stations, buses, and railcars of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) are equipped with air conditioning, maintaining an appropriate temperature has been a persistent problem.

In normal times, WMATA struggles to provide adequate air conditioning. In June, WMATA faced catastrophic failure in the chilled water plant that serves two stations (Dupont Circle and Farragut North). The chilled water plant in question consists of a chiller, a cooling tower, and air handling units to provide cool air in the stations. The chiller uses the refrigeration cycle to cool water that is distributed to the stations’ air handling unit and reject heat to the cooling tower. The cooling tower relies on evaporation to then reject heat to the atmosphere (the same principle that makes that bird go up and down). For WMATA, the water piping that connects the chiller to the cooling tower, known as the condenser loop, sprung a leak, rendering the system useless. Though it’s little solace to frustrated commuters, there are several emerging technologies that could have helped.

Water World

The technology improvements in buildings (and metro stations) is focused on energy. Because water is cheap, it is hard justify the expense of infrastructure to monitor it. As a result, monitoring water systems for water waste and inefficiencies is outside of the scope of most building management systems. In chilled water plants, sensors collect data on flow and temperature of water, but omit water management, such as leak detection. Seattle-based startup APANA offers a turnkey package of sensors, telemetry, and software that provide real-time monitoring of operational and mechanical water consumption. If such a system were installed in WMATA’s chiller plant, immediate notification could have been provided and downtime could have been minimized.

Another company, Aquanomix, offers a solution to collect data on water quality of chilled water plants. Though this technology would not have averted WMATA’s catastrophe, it would be beneficial nonetheless. As water evaporates in cooling towers, everything that is not water is left behind and concentrated over time as make-up water (and additional contamination) is added and evaporated. These contaminants reduce the efficiency of the chiller and cooling tower. The current method of treating them involves a water treatment technician taking physical measurements and adding appropriate chemicals to minimize impact on the system. Aquanomix uses sensors to provide real-time monitoring of water quality and integrates that information into the building management system to quantify the impact water quality has on energy efficiency.

Market Adoption

Monitoring and management technology addressing water use in buildings has lagged behind the advances made in other building operations. The prolonged severe drought affecting the western United States has started to spark a conversation around innovation in water use. However, drought may not be necessary to justify investment in better technology for water management. In Washington, D.C. (which is having one of its wettest summers), better monitoring would have improved the environment of many commuters.


The Breadbasket Running Dry

— May 22, 2015

NASA scientists recently predicted that California has just 1 year of water left to the catastrophic tune of a million Facebook users simultaneously hitting the Share button. California’s water problems are not entirely self-inflicted, coming in the middle of what is reportedly the worst drought in 1,200 years. However, some of these problems are caused by poor water management.

California’s water laws dedicate around 40% of total water to farming and agriculture—about 80% of what isn’t strictly devoted to maintaining wildlife and the environment. Farming requires a lot of water, and California water law does not improve the situation. There is a huge incentive for farmers to waste water, meaning the so-called breadbasket of America can’t sustainably keep producing the same crops it currently does. California, if it were a country, would have the eighth largest economy in the world, so shutting down the pipes is not exactly an option.

Technology to the Rescue

So, what is being done to keep lawns green in The Golden State? Water appliance standards have been enacted, which are projected to save more than 100 billion gallons per year. But even massive usage restrictions won’t be enough to keep California going. William Shatner has proposed a $30 billion Kickstarter campaign for a pipeline that could transport water, above ground, from Seattle into Lake Mead. Orange County began recharging its drinking water aquifer with purified wastewater in 2008, but the catchphrase toilet-to-tap makes this a less-than-popular option in the public eye.

One solution that appears more glamorous is the desalination of seawater. In Carlsbad, California, construction is underway on a $1 billion desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Due to open in early 2016, this plant could provide up to 50 million gallons of fresh water each day, supplying around 112,000 households. Desalination is, however, massively expensive and can discharge large amounts of concentrated brine directly into the ocean. Permanent desalination plants (such as the one in Carlsbad) can only treat around 35%–50% of the water they bring in, according to Stanley Weiner, CEO of STW resources.

Salttech, a Norwegian company, recently demonstrated its DyVaR Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) water processing technology in Midland, Texas. This technology promises to recover up to 97% of the water processed, and discharge only solid salt and minerals, thus eliminating the problem of brine disposal to the ocean. Salttech has plans to begin an ocean desalination project on the coast of California. This technology also claims to be economical, reducing the cost of desalination from $1,850–$2,000 per acre-foot to $1,100–$1,350 per acre-foot, also according to Stanley Weiner. With the cost of desalinated water currently hovering around twice that of imported water, these technologies must make some major cost reductions before they can be widely adopted. Until then, California may have to start construction on Mr. Shatner’s pipeline.


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