By Lyn Corum
Days before California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought in the state, water officials and stakeholders met at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), on January 13, for the US–Australia Dialogue: “The Coming Water Crisis: Solutions and Strategies.”
According to a statement by UCLA and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs when introducing the symposium to address water concerns for a warming planet:
“Technological advancements in both countries will lessen some of the problems brought on by prolonged drought, but the real challenges will be reconfiguring development and land use to capture more storm water, attaining public acceptance, securing political agreement, and investment in reclaiming wastewater and using it.”
California shares with Australia in what will likely become the worst drought cycle in more than 100 years in the two countries. Australia’s paradigm-changing, 12-year drought ended with flooding in late 2012, followed by the hottest temperatures in history in Sydney on January 7, 2013—45.8°C (114°F).
Gene Block, UCLA Chancellor, opened the dialogue—which was an assembly of a diverse group of professionals with experience in water systems and water scarcity—by describing UCLA’s launch of a daunting grand challenge, an environmental and sustainability initiative, as: “Thriving in a hotter Los Angeles.”
The goal of the comprehensive plan is to achieve self-sufficiency in energy and water in the Los Angeles region by 2050. Block noted that population growth over the next few decades will place unprecedented pressure on the city; currently 85% of Los Angeles’ water comes from northern California and the Colorado River.
UCLA’s vision is to work with partnerships across sectors and communities to identify and develop new technologies or efficiencies for the region to cost-effectively obtain 100% energy from renewable sources, and 100% water from local sources; to develop strategies to preserve local habitats and species at risk due to the effects of climate change and urbanization; to create timelines, milestones, and required actions to transition Los Angeles to new energy, water, and transportation systems; and to create a communications plan to build and strengthen partnerships with Los Angeles stakeholders. A full description is available here. And, 2019 is the target for the plan to be fully devised.
In its dryness, Australia reflects the future for California, asserts Jamie Pittock, program leader for the energy and water nexus project in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney (Australia). Inflows into Perth’s reservoirs have dropped catastrophically since the 1970s. There had been major studies showing water availability will drop as soon as 2030, but the actual reductions already experienced have been far larger than predicted. “We share the need to provide services to a growing population, reduce carbon pollutants, and secure energy and water supplies,” says Pittock.
He argues that managing energy and water requires tradeoffs. Reducing hot water demand sustains energy and water. Hydropower sustains power but increases water demand. Desalination sustains water but uses more energy. Obtaining unconventional natural gas (through methods such as fracking) and many biofuels systems use much energy and water.
Even rainwater harvesting drove up energy costs, explains Pittock. “The Australian government has mandated that rain water tanks are plumbed into residences or businesses. The energy per unit of water delivered in the home is five to six times higher, compared to energy used in delivering water from a centralized system.”
He adds that inefficient pumps on this scale are part of the reason. He says, typically, many elements of the centralized systems are gravity fed.
Centralized systems also have the advantage of economies of scale. A way around this is: “a solar-powered pump on a rainwater tank, which would also be carbon neutral.”
Pittock explains the tradeoffs and costs to reducing carbon concentration in the atmosphere. For example, when farmers in Australia are encouraged to grow trees to soak up greenhouse gases, the trees transpire, or soak up water during and after a rainfall, thereby reducing water flowing into rivers.
He elaborates: “Most people think that planting trees is a good thing. And there are very many benefits. But there can also be very serious environmental consequences. A lot of climate policies, CO2 mitigation policies, develop in isolation from water policies. Policies designed to reduce emissions or sequester carbon are often very thirsty policies.” He brings up the question, where does the water come from to run a huge solar thermal installation in the desert?
The establishment of the water markets in the mid ‘90s and a 2004 national water initiative are helping bring some harmony, Pittock says. Farmers can buy and sell their water entitlements, which are a percentage of water available, or lease them for a year.
“Water use can readily change hands,” he adds. “In a drought year when there will only be 30% of the usual allotment of water available, a cotton farmer may choose to lease his or her water to an orchardist.”
The cotton farmer gets paid while taking a break. “It’s a win-win. In our last big drought in southeast Australia when only 30% of water normally available to farmers was supplied, we were able to produce 98% of the regular value of agriculture by moving the water from low-value crops to a high-value crops.”
Will Los Angeles Manage Water by Following Australia’s Lead?
Robert Hill, former Australian ambassador to the United Nations and professor in the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney, says groundwater regulation is more advanced in Australia than in the US.
Jeffrey Bleich, former US Ambassador to Australia, notes that all toilets in Australia have two types of flushes (something that is also common in Europe), and Australians have rain harvesting tanks or cisterns.
J. R. DeShazo, director of the Luskin Center for Innovation in the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, reviewed the two major water agencies in southern California. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is unique to regional governance in southern California. The MWD is a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties. It is now emphasizing conservation, local supplies, storage, and transfers (which are trades of allotted water), while attempting to move away from the heavy dependence on imported supply and the state water project diversions created in the early ‘90s.
MWD has changed its fee structure from costing to pricing—water rates have increased 100% and local agencies are now looking at water reuse or recycling and conservation, which could change the pricing, DeShazo says. Efforts are being directed to state agencies to prove water is safe. DeShazo also states that groundwater management is a major challenge.
He says the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has been an aggressive and a successful steward with demand remaining steady since 1970, even though population has increased by 1.5 million. It procures 53% of the water supply for the city of Los Angeles from MWD, 12% from local sources, including 1% recycled water, and 35% from its own aqueduct that brings water from the Eastern Sierras through Owens Valley to the city.
Furthermore, DeShazo says, stresses on LADWP’s water supply—which includes continuing low snow pack in the Eastern Sierras, shrinking water storage at the statewide level and at MWD, court rulings limiting water exports from the San Francisco Bay-Delta, and environmental enhancement in the Owens Valley—are producing responses at the local levels. Within the last 10 years there have been aggressive efforts to develop pilot programs and experiment with innovative projects.
Mark Hanna, with Geosyntec Engineers, describes his collaboration with LADWP to develop a stormwater catchment project. Since 1975, the utility has recharged 30% of the nominal stormwater, representing 30,000 acre-feet per year.
At the southern end of the state, San Diego is at the end of the water pipeline. The city has decided to act aggressively and develop its own local resources, which include desalination, water supplies from the Otay River and Mission Basin Narrows, and North San Diego County’s regional water reuse project. Opinions about solutions vary however, and DeShazo compared the costs of these local resources to MWD wholesale water supplies, which are half or one-third the costs of the Poseidon Desalination plant now being developed and the proposed water reuse project.
Andy Lipkis, president of Los Angeles-based TreePeople, notes that Australians got through 12 years of drought by everyone buying into the water restriction strategy. He recounts that, in Australia, friends greet each other with, “So, how are your tanks?” Water tanks are everywhere in Australian homes, he says.
The ad, “Rainwater Cisterns at Home Depot,” helped raise residential awareness and got more families doing their part. In addition, utilities upgraded billing cycles so customers could see how much water they were using.
The work of TreePeople is to be water resilient, Lipkis says. TreePeople has been planting trees throughout Los Angeles for many years to replace large swaths of cement because, he explains, trees transpire or store water. Oak trees native to California have large-diameter canopies, and they can capture thousands of gallons of rainwater and deliver that water to the aquifer and rivers instead of allowing it to run off into storm drains and the ocean.
In Los Angeles, Lipkis says 1 inch of rain, which falls even in dry years, produces 3.6 billion gallons of runoff, and the LADWP is looking to capture some or most of that rainwater to use as groundwater recharge to eventually provide 30% to 33% of the city’s water supply. It has formalized a study to do just that and has just completed a pilot where it installed a few rain harvest gardens to increase groundwater absorption. Lipkis says TreePeople has been advising the department on both efforts.
Lipkis says there’s a need for innovation and cites Australia’s experimenting with harvesting phosphorus in sewers. “The world is dependent on phosphorus for fertilizer, and we need to start recovering it to put back into the food chain.”
Lipkis recommends that southern California integrate resource management planning by bringing together its water agencies, transportation departments, and the county sanitation districts the way that the state of Victoria in Australia is doing. Integrated management could tie together wastewater recycling, watershed management, water supply with cisterns and rain gardens, and flood management.
Victoria’s state government appointed a ministerial advisory council in 2011 to come up with a roadmap to improve Melbourne’s water management. It produced the “Living Melbourne, Living Victoria Implementation Plan” to overhaul the water-planning framework to better respond to community and environmental needs and integrate them with urban planning, and to transform the way water resources and the water system are managed. An Office of Living Victoria was established to drive reforms by coordinating urban and water planning. The plan—capitalized at $50 million in Australian dollars for the first year alone—was adopted, and implementation is underway.
“We already have a model of agency integration with the emergency control center in Los Angeles” says Lipkis.
In another example, in 1998, Los Angeles County brought together multiple city agencies to create the Sun Valley Watershed Project following Tree People’s design of a multi-agency plan as an alternative to creating a 9-mile storm drain. While the project cost $200 million, $172 million worth of water was returned to the aquifer, and the county sanitation districts have avoided $30 million in costs to collect waste over a 30-year period.
Adam Lovell, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), says most state water corporations have secured capital costs for water services for the next 10 years, and have started thinking how to deliver water services in a new way starting in 2030. He believes that greater private sector involvement will drive innovation and efficiency, and points out that water utility members of WSAA outsourced between 93% and 100% of their capital expenditures in 2009 and 2010.
Lovell says Australia had an above average year for rainfall—it poured—in spite of also having the hottest year on record: 120°F. “Communities have completely outraced their use of water,” he adds.
Sydney households used 25% less water in 2009 than they did in 2000. Water customers used 80 gallons per day (GPD), per person. In contrast, Los Angeles water customers used 132 GPD, per person. While Sydney water consumption has decreased, utility bills have increased, along with complaints, he says. (Editor’s note: The higher cost of water in Australia has become a point of discussion as water professionals in the US ask if consumer engagement, as well as infrastructure repair and maintenance, can ever effectively take place unless water prices are raised).
Dams, recycling, conservation, and desalination will be the solution to Sydney’s water demands, Lovell says. Desalination could contribute 15% of that demand. Dam storage was 68% in 2001, and by 2005 it was 40%. However, Sydney does have a four-year supply of water within its dams.
He says water efficiency technologies and actions are “maxed out”—these include water-saving products and services, landscape irrigation, and water efficiency labeling and standards. Supply costs, demand options, and water transfers are being studied. The big challenge is bringing in stormwater management to urban water cycles.
The City of Perth was built on sand and has a population of one million. A desalination plant is transferring water to Perth, and by 2022, it will provide 60% of the city’s water supply. Water use reduction and groundwater replenishment are also being implemented, he says.
Stormwater Capture for Water Supply 2050
Mark Gold, associate director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, describes UCLA’s grand challenge: how do you make Los Angeles 100% reliant on local supplies by 2050? Major regulatory and infrastructure reform will be necessary to reach that goal. He says the City of Santa Monica will try to be 100% sustainable by 2020—including taking a pump and treatment approach to recovering stormwater.
Tony Wong, CEO of the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, focuses his remarks on stormwater reclamation. Cities are water supply catchments, he says. For example, climate change produces drier catchments but using stormwater to fill catchments can provide alternative sources of water. Stormwater catchment basins provided water to save trees when the first drought-induced restriction meant turning off water to irrigate public parks.
Wong says water management can improve urban livability. Water reform will require establishment of a whole-of-government approach to harness the full potential of urban water management in delivering sustainable, resilient, and livable Australian cities and towns, he says. This builds upon something Hill, former Ambassador to the UN, said about the fact that urbanization in Australia is occurring at levels not seen before; rural populations are moving to cities, thus raising water and housing issues.
The key challenges to urban livability are water extremes and vulnerabilities, urban heat, degrading environments, and population growth. Wong says water sensitive cities can find ways to have integrated urban water management and governance, access to secure and clean water, effective flood mitigation, mitigation of urban heat, and quality public spaces.
David Nahai, partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, and the long time chairman of the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board, says Los Angeles—a floodplain—wastes 60% of its stormwater. Over 10 billion gallons of rainwater on a rainy day flow untreated to the ocean. “We know now we cannot waste rain,” he says, “not only for the water resource but to protect the marine environment.”
Nahai projects what Los Angeles’s water supply should be in 2035:
- MWD water purchases should be reduced from 52% to 24%, while Los Angeles Aqueduct supplies should be reduced to 30%, down from 36%.
- Local groundwater resources should be increased to 16% from a current 11%, and recycled water should be increased to 8% from a current 1%.
- The city should be recovering 4% of its stormwater in 2035, up from zero in 2010.
Conservation, infrastructure repair, building standards, wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation, underground storage, and more must be used, Nahai says. All initiatives will need money, either from the state or federal government, or attained through rate increases.
Alf Brandt, legislative director for California Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, says public health officials have difficulty with stormwater capture. He states that these officials need to be brought into talks with engineers to push ahead non-potable water projects.
Institutional diffusion is another challenge. Federal government agencies, state government legislature, and the governor, as well as water boards and local agencies, all have responsibilities with regard to regulating water use. There are 7,500 public water agencies in California, and the top 2% serve 90% of the population. The 88 cities in Los Angeles County each have a stormwater line and millions of landowners.
“We need a crisis,” says Brandt. “Out of this comes opportunity.”
Integrating Recycled Water
Speakers representing both southern California water agencies and Australian agencies described public fear over recycling wastewater. A
cceptance of stormwater reuse is also a big issue and must be overcome if local water resources are diversified in the long term.
Michael Stenstrom, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at UCLA, reiterates that conclusion. “Our droughts have not yet lasted long enough [to affect change],” he says. “Wastewater reclamation and reuse is not a technical challenge, it is a social and economic issue.”
Indirect potable reclamation is being done on a case-by-case basis with developing rules and regulations. But no direct potable reclamation is being considered yet, he says.
Some reclamation projects have failed because there was not enough public outreach—“We can’t do too much,” says Stenstrom. But first, we have to exhaust all other efforts.” With no new water supplies on the horizon, new water sources become conservation, reclamation, and reuse, Stenstrom says. Some innovative solutions are politically impossible to implement, largely due to water rights laws and lack of groundwater adjudication.
The Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s reclamation program, which began in 1970, is now producing about 250 million gallons/day. Stenstrom says staff at the treatment plants have noticed the effects of low-flow toilets and showerheads—incoming wastewater has decreased.
Shivaji Deshmukh, assistant general manager at the West Basin Municipal Water District in western Los Angeles County, described the recycling work being done in his district. The Edward C. Little water recycling facility, with a $500 million investment, recycles over 140 billion gallons of wastewater from the LADWP Hyperion treatment facility. It has created five levels of recycling of water, all delivered to businesses, including oil refineries in the South Bay area of the Los Angeles basin.
Tertiary water is nonpotable, and nitrified water, in which ammonia is removed, is sold to three oil refineries for their use. Water treated through reverse osmosis for barrier water is injected into the groundwater basin (to hold back seawater intrusion). Additional reverse osmosis in a double pass creates ultra pure water used by Chevron. The ultimate goal for the district is to double water recycling and conservation efforts.
Deshmukh says that the current concerns surrounding recycling water have to do with sources of supply. His water district is working with the Hyperion Plant management on this issue. As mentioned above, when residents reduce water use, “we have less water to recycle,” he says. Furthermore, the regulatory environment in California is tough, but the district is working with public health agencies to eliminate anxiety about introducing recycled and treated water back into local groundwater sources.
Leith Boully, chairman of the Australian Water Recycling Center for Excellence, echoes similar concerns. Recycled water for potable use in Australia is very controversial, whether direct or indirect, he says. It is questionable whether recycled water will be a major source for new water supplies, although indirect recycling does exist in Perth. Of the four research goals his agency has established, one is to see that reclaimed water becomes acceptable.
Tim Goodes, group executive director in the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources for the Government of South Australia, said South Australia is the driest state in the continent—more than 1/3 of the state is desert, with 8.8 inches of rain annually. The capital, Adelaide, has 1.2 million people.
Adelaide has six sources of water: Desalination, water from the River Murray, groundwater and stormwater, wastewater, and storage or catchment basins. A Murray Darling Basin plan was adopted, and 22% of wastewater is recycled in parks and for food production.
Goodes says the long-term water security plan was launched in June 2009 with a vision for 2050 of a diversified water supply. He says that management needs to consider how these sources interrelate strategically. “There are a great number of questions we are wrestling with,” he adds.
Interview With Lipkis, President of TreePeople
In an interview a few days after the US-Australia Dialogue, Lipkis expands on his ideas for an improved Los Angeles water supply. “We need to implement UCLA’s environmental and sustainability initiative [‘Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles’] sooner than planned,” he says.
The plan itself will cost $150 million for the university’s departments to complete, he says. “It is doable and will engage a lot of people.”
TreePeople completed a study tour of Australia in 2012 and published a report, “Lessons from the Land of Oz for the American Southwest: Australia’s Responses to its Millennium Drought.” It is available on their website. It succinctly covers many of the projects that were touched on at the US-Australia Dialogue.
Lipkis says that, while on the tour, he asked Wong, “When in the 12-year drought did Australia figure out it was in the middle of a 12-year drought?”
The answer from Wong, was “The longer you wait, the worse the options are, the more people get hurt and costs increase.”
Finally, 10 and one-half years into the drought, Australia got scared and invested in desalination plants in Sydney and Melbourne. The drought had ended by the time the desalination plants were built, and there were no takers for the water so they were idled, except as necessary to maintain their operational condition. Sydney’s plant was eventually sold, he says.
However, early on in the drought, the water agencies had deployed incentives to reduce water usage, subsidized the installation of water tanks, and created a muscular education campaign to reach the public. And everyone got it, producing lasting successes in urban water conservation that continues to this day.
In addition to the rainwater harvesting pilot, TreePeople are continuing to collaborate with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Lipkis says LADWP modeled how much rainwater could contribute to ground water recharge. The municipal utility has now formalized a $1 million study to capture rainwater.
Lipkis says given the climate-intensifying weather, “We need to upgrade our flood protection infrastructure.” To that end he developed the idea of a cistern fence that would capture rainwater, mimicking what he saw in Australia. Instead of round rain barrels, the cistern fence would be long and narrow and open on top. A number could be grouped along fence lines.
When a storm is predicted, within hours the cistern fences could be emptied of the existing water via a remote control switch on an attached pump, and they would be ready to take in the stormwater, thereby preventing flooding at overburdened storm drains. The stormwater would then be available for irrigation supply or other reuse.
Lipkis foresees a public utility investing in cistern fences throughout its service territory.
Manufacturing and servicing the cisterns in the private sector would create jobs along with a watershed management industry, he says. In Australia, one company manufactured four million cisterns that went to 720,000 homes and apartments.
Funding for the utility investment could be made available by redirecting money from the local sanitation or wastewater district, since stormwater and wastewater going to either of these would be reduced. The new source of water would lessen the amount of water currently pumped over the mountains from northern California, saving additional dollars, Lipkis argues.
This article was originally published in Water Efficiency