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Water Down the Drain: SoCal squanders badly needed rainwater, but there are solutions

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

Southern California (SoCal) imports about half of its water from northern California and the Colorado River. 

Question: What’s wrong with that picture? 

Answer: It threatens the ecosystems of both those sources of water and contributes to global climate change via the enormous energy expended in transporting water over long distances. 

What’s more, SoCal manages its rainfall through a storm drain system that directly contributes to ocean pollution while squandering opportunities to put a precious source of water to use. 

No wonder northern Californians are reputed to be less than enamored with their neighbors to the south. 

The heavy downpours which made December 2010 one of the wettest in SoCal history serve as a reminder that, despite being semi-arid, the region’s rainfall is by no means inconsequential and might be put to better use than overwhelming sewer systems and polluting coastal waters. 

SoCal is home to two-thirds of the state’s population yet receives just one-third of the rainfall and has relied on imported water for over a century. The problems this imbalance has created are now well known. 

The ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River are both in dire straits from the demands placed on them and management shortfalls. The California State Water Project, which pumps the water some 400 miles and up 2000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, is the state’s single largest user of electricity and consequently a significant source of global warming-producing greenhouse gases. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has calculated that “it takes up to twenty times more energy to supply water to southern California through the State Water Project as it does to supply groundwater locally.” 

Water experts agree no one solution is likely to completely solve the southern region’s water supply problem. With that said, a study recently published jointly by the NRDC and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), “A Clear Blue Future”, outlines practical measures, collectively referred to as low-impact development (LID), which could be applied to homes and businesses by developers and governments to put SoCal on a better footing toward a sustainable water future. 

The main thrust of LID is simple: prevent rainwater from entering storm drains by capturing and repurposing it where it lands while simultaneously replenishing groundwater aquifers.

For homeowners, LID means funneling rain gutter outflow either directly onto local landscaping, via downspouts and hosing, or alternatively into rain barrels or cisterns for future irrigation. It also means grading driveways to prevent runoff onto streets and sidewalks and choosing pervious paving materials (like bricks, tiles or permeable cement) specifically designed to foster seepage into groundwater. Businesses would do the same and could also collect cistern water for toilet flushing and install so-called “living” rooftops to further minimize runoff. 

Developers would do their part by promoting water-retaining landscape designs and permeable paving. 

The internet is fairly awash in information about rainwater collection systems, some do-it-yourself and at low cost. They can be as small as 50 gallons or up to 25,000 gallons for large scale applications and can pay for themselves through savings on water bills. 

The NRDC-UCSB report also calls on municipalities and governments to require LID practices for new developments, redevelopments or retrofits and to offer tax incentives and/or subsidies to homeowners and businesses that adopt LID strategies. 

The beauty of allowing rain to percolate through soil on site is it prevents urban runoff which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the greatest non-point source of water pollution. Streets and sidewalks look clean after a rain because all the oil, grime and trash gets washed into storm drains, along with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste and bacteria from landscaping, all of which are harmful to aquatic life. Directing rainwater instead onto landscaping allows the soil to naturally filter out pollutants. What’s more, rainwater is easier on plants because it does not contain the chlorine that is added to tap water. 

By raising the levels of groundwater aquifers in the SoCal region, more potable water would be made available locally for extraction and at lower cost in terms of both money and energy. And, together with rainwater collected for irrigation, the demand placed on imperiled, far-away water sources is eased. 

Lest anyone think SoCal does not get enough rain to make harvesting it worthwhile, consider that most cities in the area average between 10 and 17 inches of yearly rainfall spread out over about 33 days, and just one-half inch of rain on a 1000 square foot roof could yield over 300 gallons of water. 

Consider also the NRDC-UCSB study’s estimate that implementation of LID practices in California could, by 2030, save 1,225,500 megawatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power well over 100,000 homes. Similarly, relying less on water from energy-intensive sources like northern California or from desalination (see “Unlocking Solutions”)  could reduce annual atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide by over 500,000 metric tons, an impact equivalent to eliminating nearly 100,000 cars per year. 

The cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently implemented pilot rainwater harvesting programs which provided a limited number of property owners with free rain barrels. San Diego undertook a study at selected municipal sites to figure out the best roofing materials and rain barrel collection systems. Today, property owners in Santa Monica can earn rebates on rain barrel or cistern installations. In June 2010, a first-in-the-nation ordinance took effect in Tucson requiring new commercial  constructions to meet 50 percent of their landscape demand using harvested rainwater.

A sobering article in the Los Angeles Times on January 14 reminds us that, despite the record rainfall of late, the Pacific Ocean is nevertheless in the grip of powerful La Niña conditions which generally portend an extra dry winter for SoCal. Whether or not the rest of the season will be as dry as some meteorologists are predicting, the pressure to locate more potable water will be increasing in the future as a result of population expansion. The U.S. Census Bureau is predicting that populations in the region’s already four largest counties – Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Riverside – will by 2050 have swelled by anywhere from 32 to 122 percent. 

Simply harvesting rain could go a long way toward helping all SoCal cities reach the 20 percent per-capita reduction in urban water consumption by year 2020, as mandated in the Water Conservation Act of 2009 enacted by then Governor Schwarzenegger.

Tiered water rates, where water guzzlers pay more for their greater consumption, are becoming commonplace and also foster conservation by pinching consumers in the pocketbook for the wasteful practices ratcheting up their water bill. As example, the Metropolitan Water District of SoCal estimates that up to 70 percent of residential water use is for irrigation which could be scaled way back by replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants. 

Huntington Beach
The city of Huntington Beach (HB) stands out among SoCal communities for not yet implementing tiered water rates, primarily for lack of a billing system that supports it, according to the city’s Water Conservation Coordinator Bill Crisp. HB’s official website talks up the merits of installing rain barrels, and Crisp says the city is seriously kicking around the idea of selling rain barrels for cheap to residents but needs to figure out first where to store them. 

However, HB does already have an ordinance limiting yard irrigation to cooler parts of the day and just once weekly during the rainy season and three times a week in April through October, though the program runs primarily on the honor system. And, the city participates with 12 water agencies in the area in offering rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal. Applications are available on the city’s website, and although the deadline for submission is January 31, Crisp hopes the program will be extended another year. Rebates for other water-saving upgrades – rotating sprinkler heads and weather-based irrigation controllers – are available as well.

 HB’s website touts that water consumption per household has dropped 20 percent over the last decade, largely through installation of water-saving upgrades like low-flow toilets and faucet aerators. Under the Water Conservation Act, the per capita daily consumption goal for the coastal SoCal area, which includes Huntington Beach, is 149 gallons by 2020. As is true for other seaside communities which view the ocean as their own backyard, HB has already surpassed this goal at its current per capita consumption of 106 gallons per day. 

Nevertheless, Crisp concedes residents could do a lot more to save on irrigation which still accounts for at least half the typical household’s water usage. He encourages people to look into harvesting their own rainwater and to visit the Shipley Nature Center on Goldenwest Street to experience the beauty of native, drought-resistant landscaping as alternative to water-thirsty lawns. 

Conscientious parents teach their children personal responsibility through the idiom “Waste not, want not” and the wisdom of savings accounts and living within one’s means. So too, we southern Californians can take more responsibility for our water consumption through efforts to capture and make good use of the precious allotment nature blesses us with, free of charge. 

Turning off the water while brushing our teeth, no matter how well intended a gesture, is not near enough.

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Desalination: Unlocking Answers from Yesterday’s Solution

By Debbie Cook
Guest Columnist

Debbie Cook is the former mayor of Huntington Beach. As a member of the Huntington Beach City Council, she opposed the Poseidon desalination project proposed for the city. She served on the state’s Desalination Task Force and has written extensively on the relationship between water and energy as well as peak oil. Her articles have appeared in a wide array of publications and she is well known for her expertise on energy related issues. This is part 1 of a three-part story.

There is powerful information waiting to be unleashed in water data. If it were set free it would force us to re-think how we use, develop, sell, transfer, and dispose of water. Rather than focusing on the miles per gallon our cars get, we might consider how much water per mile we get from that fuel. Rather than arguing over how much energy is being used to produce water, we would give credit to how much water is required to produce energy. Rather than focusing on whether our food is grown locally, we would consider how much water it took to grow that food in our locality.

For all the lip-service we give to water and its pivotal role, why is there not a U.S. Water Information Administration modeled after the U. S. Energy Information Administration? Established in 1977 as a response to the 1973 oil disruptions, the EIA “collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.” With a budget of $111 million per year, the agency produces data and analysis free of influence from the Executive Branch. The water sector screams for such a resource.

My particular interest in water began in 2003 when I served on the California Desalination Task Force, a group appointed by the State Legislature to look into the opportunities and impediments of desalination. Data is at the heart of reaching conclusions on a technology. Where did the data come from that allowed the committee to write its findings and recommendations? Who verified the veracity of the data? Would it stand up to scrutiny? I have spent eight years chasing such questions.

Information is not easy to come by. There are over 52,000 public and private water utilities in the U.S alone operating largely in anonymity. Public utilities offer varying levels of transparency, private utilities virtually none. The desalination industry consists of over 30,000 companies producing membranes, tanks, chemicals, pipes, monitoring, design, construction, mitigation, engineering, drilling, waste management, and consulting services. Many are competitors and hold data close to the vest. Foraging through public information, industry publicity, scientific papers, and news stories produces information that is contradictory and confusing.

There are 19 desalination projects proposed for Californiaʼs coast. With billions of dollars at stake, the public deserves more clarity on financial and environmental impacts. What are the assumptions that underlie our decisions to move forward? What issues are being left unaddressed? What lessons have we missed that could inform better water planning? Water agencies may be satisfied with the industryʼs propaganda, but my research suggests they should pause and re-examine where we have been and where we are going.

Remembering the past
Desalination proponents throw out numbers that cannot be verified or replicated and those numbers are repeated by the media and government officials as if they were fact.

An article published by the Los Angeles Times on December 4, 2010 is an example.

“Although still not cheap, the cost of desalinated water has been cut by more than half since 1998, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.”

I contacted the reporter to find the source of this statement and received no reply. I searched the USGS website and found an out-of-date overview of desalination with an unsourced sentence that looked like it might be the culprit of the reporter’s “fact.”

“As of 1998, the high cost of desalination has kept it from being used more often, as it can cost over $1,000 – $2,200 per acre-foot (1992 cost basis) to desalinate seawater as compared to about $200 per acre-foot for water from normal supply sources. Desalination technology is improving and costs are falling, though, and Tampa Bay, Florida is currently desalinizing water at a cost of only $650 per acre foot.”

Thinking there might be additional data available from the USGS, I contacted them. They were unable to direct me to any reports or studies to verify the veracity of the claim that Tampa Bay is producing water at $650 an acre-foot. Most likely the figure came from the original presentations made to Tampa Bay Water over a decade ago. Price was probably the motivating factor in Tampa Bayʼs decision to construct a project, but as NOAA stated in a 2003 publication, “Time will not only tell the environmental impacts of Tampa Bay’s desalination plant, but it will also determine if it’s really producing the cheapest desalted seawater in the world.” It would be wonderful if time did tell its secrets. Unfortunately for truth seekers, time may tell but no one is listening.

Last March, according to Tampa Bayʼs General Manager, the cost of production was $1140/acre-foot. Itʼs anyoneʼs guess how he came up with that figure. If you calculate the marginal cost of water based on what the plant has actually produced since 2003, then the cost of water is closer to $1826/acre-foot. Either way, the reporter did the public a disservice by perpetuating the myth that desalinated water can be produced at $650 per acre-foot. I could almost hear the gullible politicians jumping on board.

The reporter could have provided a valuable public service had she written about Tampaʼs twelve years of bankruptcies, technical challenges, and cost overruns. A search of news archives produced an interesting collection of stories, likely with similar fact checking issues, but nevertheless, interesting for the overall picture they paint.

  • 1998 engineering contract awarded to Stone & Webster
  • 2000 Stone and Webster declares bankruptcy
  • 2001 Covanta (partnering with Poseidon Resources) hired to construct and operate for 30 years at $7 million/year
  • 2003 (March) initial output begins producing 3 million gallons but acceptance test fails
  • 2003 (August) plant is shut due to clogged filters
  • 2004 Tampa Bay pays $4.4 million for Covanta to go away
  • 2004 (September) American Water Services hired to fix plant at cost of $29 million. Completion projected for 2006.
  • 2006 (January) Agreement reached between Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) (agency funding $85m of project) and Tampa Bay for payments: 25% when plant is running, 50% when it operates at an annual average rate of 12.5 mg/d for 12 consecutive months, 25% when plant produces 25 mg/d for four consecutive months.
  • 2006 (November) Tampa Bay Executive Director announces additional delays
  • 2007 (August) Tampa Bay announces plant should be running by Halloween
  • 2007 (December) Officials complete 14 day acceptance test. American Water contracts to run plant for 15 years.
  • 2008 $48 million over its original budget of $110 million, the plant is operating
  • 2009 plant producing 16-19 mg/d
  • 2010 (February) plant passes final benchmark, receives final payment
  • 2010 (April) plant put on “standby” due to Tampa Bayʼs budget constraints
  • 2010 (October) Pinellas County (customer of Tampa Bay Water) projects water rate increases of 16% by 2014
  • 2010 (December) SWFMD looks into sanctions against Tampa Bay Water for failure to operate facility in accord with agreement.
  • 2011 (January) Tampa Bay announces plans to reach 9 mg/d production by end of January.

Reviewing the news accounts of the Tampa Bay experience gave me pause. Having served in public office, I am familiar with the face-saving, “circle the wagons” mentality that takes over an agency when problems start to mount. Unfortunately, it means others are not likely to learn any lessons.

No one contemplated a standby plant at Tampa Bay. Now, faced with real production costs higher than the rate guaranteed to customers ($841/acre-foot versus $1140 or more), Tampa Bay will eventually have to raise rates or renegotiate an agreement that locks them a 17 mg/d production rate.

To be continued.

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