Conservation is the largest, least expensive and most environmentally sound source of new water, and water is being wasted in every sector of California’s economy, according to the Pacific Institute of Oakland. “We’ve found that California can cut its urban water use by a third through efficient technology, simple changes in policy and improved public education,” said Dr. Peter H. Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute. “What this means is that we can avoid new, expensive and environmentally destructive water projects and still meet California’s future needs—even if California’s population and economy grow as expected.”
There appears to be much room for improvement.
Outdoor water use accounts for 42 percent of urban use in California; this includes lawns, large landscapes, parks, golf courses and cemeteries, and a portion of commercial and industrial water use. But regional use varies significantly.
In Los Angeles, outdoor use accounts for 70 percent of residential use. In June 2009, an ordinance limiting lawn and garden watering to two days a week went into effect, and Los Angeles water consumption dropped by more than 20 percent.
In that same year, the state legislature passed Senate Bill X7-7, which requires urban water suppliers to reduce use by 20 percent per person by 2020.
Already, some water suppliers, particularly West Basin Municipal Water District (West Basin) in Los Angeles, are close to meeting the requirement. “In the early 1990s, we were relying on imported water from the Metropolitan Water District and then we had a drought, and that’s when we built our water recycling facility,” said Gus Meza, West Basin Senior Water Use Efficiency Specialist. “Now, 65 percent of our water comes from the Met Water District, and our goal is to get down to 33 percent. We hope to do that by doubling conservation, doubling recycling and using desalination.” Several cities have already met the 20 percent goal, including El Segundo, Inglewood, Lomita and Manhattan Beach.
More recently, a coalition of Southern California water agencies, including Chino Basin Water Conservation District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and Western Municipal Water District, worked with Home Depot to encourage water-efficient landscaping. Water suppliers inserted 630,000 notices into monthly water bills, inviting customers to save up to 50 percent on water efficient plants and supplies. For 10 Saturdays in 2011, parking lot sales took place. Sales at two stores jumped 150 and 200 percent, and seven other stores had sales increases of 50 to 100 percent. This creates a win-win situation for consumers, retailers and water agencies promoting conservation.
For urban and suburban users, conservation doesn’t actually cost money over time; it creates a net savings.
Residents can also receive reimbursements directly from water agencies for replacing their lawns, at $1 per square-foot. Eastern Municipal Water District has put $100,000 into a turf buy-back program. “One of the interesting things about that program is that we are also targeting Home Owner Associations (HOAs) in these areas,” said Peter Odencrans, senior public affairs officer for Eastern Municipal Water District. HOAs constitute one-third of residential housing in California. “We have applications for 20,000 square feet, and we still have 80,000 square feet available.” The program runs to June 2012.
But there can be resistance to change. Deby Anderson, a Hemet Resident, overcame HOA restrictions and recently replaced her lawn with drought resistant plants. “Our front yard has a huge hill, and we could never get it to look good. We had to fight our HOA, but eventually, they agreed,” Anderson said. “Every time I’m out in the garden, someone stops to comment on how beautiful the yard is which then gives me the opportunity to tell them how our water bill is less than half of what it used to be and that they, too, can get approval now to do something water-wise.”
State law backs drought-resistant landscaping, as well. In 2009, the state legislature passed A.B. 1061, and now HOA rules that interfere with water-efficient landscaping are void and unenforceable. A homeowner also cannot be fined by an HOA for putting in water efficient plants and replacing lawns.
But some HOAs are embracing change, like Casa Murietta in Sun City, California, which is currently replacing 10,000 square feet of lawn with drought-resistant landscaping and working with the local water agency. “We have a lot of green space, which uses a lot of water,” said Jeff Thomas, Casa Murietta homeowner. “There are 130 homes here. Right now everyone has their own green space, but water shortages are an issue that we’re going to have to face, sooner or later. Sooner is better, and when they’re providing incentives like this, it’s the right direction.”
Paula Albrigo, a resident from Laverne, has cut her water use in half by switching to drought-tolerant and native plants. “At first, when we let the grass die, we threw the neighbors into a tizzy. They wanted to know, did someone die? Are you leaving?” Albrigo said. “But now they love it, and we don’t pay for yard maintenance anymore.”
Water recycling is yet another way to increase water supply.
Many water agencies and districts are treating sewer water and reusing it for irrigation, industrial processing and groundwater recharge.
After reprocessing waste water with microfiltration, chemicals, ultraviolet light and reverse osmosis, purified water is piped to customers who are hooked up to specific pipes for specific types of water. Chevron, for example, uses “designer” recycled water in its refinery and boiler operations.
California has more than 250 water recycling plants currently operating, and in 2009, the state recycled approximately 724,000 acre-feet of waste water.
An additional 1.85 to 2.25 million acre-feet of wastewater could be recycled by 2030. That’s nearly the average annual flow of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers.
One of the largest recycling facilities in the U.S. is West Basin’s plant in El Segundo. West Basin serves nearly a million people in Los Angeles, and its recycling facility produces five different qualities of water for municipal, commercial and industrial customers.
Some of its recycled water is also used to recharge ground water, which eventually ends up in the drinking water supply. “The recycled water comes from reprocessed sewage, and it has to be put in separate purple pipes, but after processing, it is more pure than bottled water. You can drink it,” said Noelle Collins, West Basin Media and Public Affairs Specialist.
Desalination is another technology being experimented with by West Basin and several other water agencies in California, but currently, its costs, energy expense and potential effect on the environment make it less useful than recycling and effective conservation.
That said, there are still major gaps in California’s conservation policies.
Urban water metering is required by state law by 2025, but the City of Sacramento has installed only 27,600 of the required 110,000 meters since the city began its program in 2005. The city of Fresno and more than half San Joaquin Valley residents are also not metered. The flat water rate for some Fresno customers is $28 per month, regardless of use, and the city has some of the highest water consumption per household. But by 2013, all city of Fresno customers will be metered. The city of Stockton’s water is metered.
But California can’t ignore the largest water consumer—Agriculture, which uses 70 to 80 percent of the available supply.
Senate Bill X7-7 bill requires urban users to reduce use by 20 percent per person by 2020, and agricultural water suppliers to measure the volume of water delivered to customers and adopt a pricing structure based on the quantity delivered.
“We will never adequately manage what we don’t measure. There are challenges to measuring use, but it’s critical,” said Dr. Gleick. “We, at the Pacific Institute, have determined that there is enormous potential to be more efficient, but knowing how much potential requires knowing exactly how much water is being used.”
Thus far, reporting of agricultural water deliveries is set to begin July 31, 2012. No goal has been set for reduced use.
The next Delta article in this series will investigate the costs, conflicts and challenges associated with agricultural conservation and water measurement.