Tag Archives: conservation

Mesa Water on Conservation: In Cuba maybe, but not here

By John Earl

To the five elected directors of the Mesa Water District, conservation is a Trojan horse, unleashing Cuban-style authoritarianism, drop by drop.

The answer to the worst California drought in 500 years, they say, is to sell more water and build more ocean desalination plants.

“The solution to drought is water,” opined Director Fred Bockmiller during a recent (Nov. 10) Mesa workshop. Conservation doesn’t solve the lack of water, he reasoned, “It just means you don’t use it.”

In 2014, after three years of severe drought and foot-dragging by the state’s 400 water agencies, Governor Jerry Brown mandated state-wide conservation standards designed to achieve a 25 percent reduction in overall water use.

The Governor’s plan increased water savings by 28 percent at little if any inconvenience to Orange County residents. Continue reading Mesa Water on Conservation: In Cuba maybe, but not here

OCWD: Costly Desalination Plan Trumped by Common Sense Alternatives

By Joe Geever
Special to the Surf City Voice

Some of Orange County’s water managers and politicians insist that a proposed partnership between Poseidon Resources Inc. and the Orange County Water District to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach is a good deal at even three or more times the $600 an-acre-foot price currently paid by OCWD for imported water.

That’s a great price to pay for a reliable source of water during shortages caused by drought, earthquakes, and population growth, they say, because it would protect our economy and general welfare.

Opponents of the Poseidon project, however, argue that we already have reliable water sources that could be strengthened by minor management changes.

Conservation, rainwater retention, and expanded wastewater recycling are suggested as cheaper alternatives to ocean desalination.

Those proposed changes are much more cost effective than desalination and would help to maintain a reliable marine life population along the California coast.

Now a new idea has come forth from one of the County’s most experienced water managers, Peer Swan, who serves on the Irvine Ranch Water District Board of Directors.

Speaking to over 200 Orange County residents at a town-hall meeting in Huntington Beach on March 4, Swan explained how a commonsense change in the way we manage our groundwater basin and water imports could provide all the reliability we need, avoiding nearly $1 billion in desalination costs every 10 years.

On average, north Orange County gets about 70 percent of its water by pumping it from the groundwater basin. The 30 percent difference is made up with water purchases that member agencies make from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).

OCWD manages the basin to prevent excessive overdraft, but not necessarily to maximize its potential capacity.

There are three major sources of water used to recharge the basin: 1) rainfall/Santa Ana river flows; 2) the Ground Water Replenishment System (turning waste water into drinking water); and, 3) imported water from MWD.

Swan’s solution for water reliability is simple.

Historically, severe drought has caused MWD to reduce water allocations in one out of 15 years. To be conservative, Swan assumed water rationing in two out of ten years.

If OCWD and its member agencies withdrew less water from the basin during the eight years that have rain while maximizing their use of imported water, the basin would be full for dry periods, acting as our water reliability “insurance” policy during years of water rationing.

The groundwater basin, our water bank, eliminates any need to create additional “reliability” supplies at enormous cost.

Before shifting an exorbitant $1 billion insurance policy to the ratepayers, water managers should thoroughly analyze all of the commonsense alternatives.

But the OCWD’s board of directors has been loath to use commonsense over the past year, rushing toward a draft contract with Poseidon, while limiting transparency and public discussion of important issues left unanswered.

(The Draft Term Sheet be discussed by the board this Wednesday, March 18, 5:30 p.m. at 18700 Ward St. in Fountain Valley).

Ratepayers want reduced water bills. Conservationists want reduced environmental impacts. These two constituencies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but Swan’s commonsense approach would answer both of their concerns.

It is simply not good enough for our elected representatives on water boards to respond with the hollow claim that, “Even if we did all the alternatives first, we still need the water Poseidon is offering.”

Without numbers and analysis attached to that unsupported claim, we shouldn’t give Poseidon our trust, or our money.

Poseidon is pushing OWCD hard to sign a “take or pay” contract—the ratepayers must buy its boutique water even in the 14 years that it isn’t needed (assuming it ever would be).

But as ratepayers in Australia recently learned, racing to build desalination facilities before exhausting better alternatives has turned out to be short sighted and costly for ratepayers who were forced to take water they didn’t need after all.

If OCWD signs Poseidon’s proposed “take or pay” contract before implementing preferable alternatives, Australia’s costly lesson on water mismanagement will have been lost at the expense of Orange County’s ratepayers.

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Desalination: Focus on affordable solutions

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

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 the last of three parts.

Worldwide, humans have quickly and wastefully consumed water from the cheapest sources by over-pumping aquifers and over-allocating rivers. We’ve turned to technology to eke out more but technology is not without its costs. Every remaining incremental gallon of water will come at a higher and higher price. Are we nearing a breaking point?

Prior to the 2008 run-up in oil prices, gasoline, like water, was widely believed to be inelastic–that consumption of such an essential commodity would grow despite the price. But as gasoline prices headed toward $4/gallon, discretionary spending shrank and the economy shrank.

The rising costs of essentials like food, shelter, energy, and water have a disproportionate impact on low-income households. Low-income assistance programs for water vary significantly from one jurisdiction or utility to the next. For example, in California, San Jose Water provides a 15 percent discount on the total bill while Valencia Water provides a 50 percent discount off the monthly service charge. Such programs shift the costs onto remaining consumers and businesses many of whom are also facing economic distress. Are these programs sustainable in the face of continuous water rate increases and growing economic challenges?

“A solution isn’t a solution if it isn’t affordable.”

Those were the cautionary words of Cuban energy expert Mario Avila who visited California in September of 2010. Cuba has lived through a number of energy crises. The one with which I was familiar was the oil shock that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Mario explained that it was the lesser known electricity crisis following the 2005 hurricane season that exposed the vulnerability of their water system. Two power plants were destroyed by two storms plunging the island into relentless daily blackouts. Without electricity, water didn’t move, it could not be treated, and it could not be discharged. Castro declared an “energy revolution” and within a six-month window, thousands of “social workers” were deployed to inventory and replace every incandescent light bulb on the island and promote zero-interest loans for efficient appliances. Rather than replace the two large power plants, the nation built smaller, distributed power plants improving the resiliency of their system and restoring power and water.

Resilience should be the goal of water planners but most options that improve resilience–water harvesting, conservation, demand management– receive a tepid reception. One major reason is because water providers are paid to sell water, not conserve it. And there isn’t an ongoing assurance for funding conservation or efficiency. When budgets get tight, the conservation budget is the first to be eliminated as was done last year by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). Ironically, while eliminating the conservation fund, MWD was approving subsidies for desalination and raising water rates because their conservation message had resulted in lower water consumption. Conservation and low tech options for reducing water demand will never compete against capital projects in the current regulatory framework.

Level the playing field
It isn’t surprising that an industry that can’t even quantify water in a consistent unit of measure (acre-feet, gallons, cubic meters, units, cubic foot), would apply different criteria to different water options. The result is a misleading comparison between options.

Here’s an example. Say a proponent tells you that the new desalination project will produce water at $1000/acre-foot. You’re told that your city is buying water from MWD for $750/acre-foot. The natural reaction will be to compare $750 to $1000. But MWDʼs actual production costs are closer to $200 of that $750 figure. That means $550 is covering their fixed costs. So even if you reduce your imported water by 10 percent, the remaining costs (including your city’s 90 percent remainder) will have to be leveled across all water purchasers. Communities that are not the recipients of the desalinated water will nevertheless be footing the bill through subsidies and cost sharing.

Similarly there has not been a fair method for comparing conservation measures to traditional water sources. For example, the cost effectiveness of rainwater tanks has traditionally been calculated by comparing the cost of installation against the savings on household bills. But this ignores the broader cost savings to the community in deferred water infrastructure, storm water infrastructure and environmental externalities like greenhouse gas emissions. When those are accounted for, rainwater harvesting is superior to desalination.

A model already exists for a regulatory framework that would address such conflicting motivations. In 1982 California became the first state to adopt an electric revenue decoupling mechanism. This gave utilities the incentive to promote conservation and efficiency because their ability to recoup their fixed costs was decoupled from the volume of their sales. In addition to decoupled rates, California has a “loading order” of energy preferences that place priority on the least expensive and most environmentally protective resources. When meeting California’s energy needs, conservation and efficiency are considered before additional generation is added.

A sustainable conservation budget would give priority to cost effective programs like water capture, drip irrigation, water recycling, low-flow devices, and water management programs that reduce demand, costs, and bring true resilience to the water sector.

Left to compete on an uneven field, conservation will remain the bastard step-child to desalination. In 2006, many communities in Australia were offering substantial rebates on water tanks. By 2007, demand was so high that prisoners were put to work building tanks. Buoyed by studies that demonstrated other options would be more cost effective than desalination, twenty-three government leaders pledged $250 million toward their goal of reaching 500,000 households. Then in 2008, with the collapsing economy and in the midst of the desalination boom, the Bligh government dismissed wide scale rollout of water tanks. Some officials sensed a threat of competition to their capital projects, going so far as to suggest the licensing of water tanks so as to enable levying taxes on rainwater collected.

Remove the rose-colored glasses
Technology has its place. But it is not magic and shouldn’t be seen as the solution to all our problems. That which is technologically feasible is not necessarily economically feasible. Desalination cannot be “greened” by utilizing solar or wind energy for its energy requirements. Not only is the scale of such a proposal enormous, it ignores the fact that all renewable energy resources are backstopped by fossil fuels. Moreover, the price of such a proposal would significantly increase the cost of desalination, exacerbating the economic problems of water pricing and availability.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned over the past eight years of observing the desalination/water industry is that we create our own problems. And we are stuck in a perpetual feedback loop applying fixes to yesterday’s solutions. That’s the perfect recipe for rear-ending our future. The remedy is to increase our awareness of unintended consequences and the dynamic relationships between water, the environment, and human settlements. It is a systems thinking approach that starts with a willingness to open our minds and apply critical thinking.

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How to Shrink America’s Energy Footprint

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

Americans today are generally aware that we consume far more energy per capita than most of the world’s peoples, over four times the world average and double that of regions like Japan and Europe which enjoy a similar standard of living. Most of us reflect on home gas and electric bills plus the fuel pumped into our cars’ gas tanks when judging our personal energy footprints.

But in reality it is all the “stuff” Americans accumulate that contributes most heavily to our total energy consumption. To understand why this is true, it is necessary to first get a handle on the ways societies utilize energy.

By convention, the energy-consuming activities of society are divided into the four sectors described below: residential, commercial, industry and transportation. The pie chart insert shows the percentage of total U.S. energy delivered in a year to each sector, according to recent U.S. Energy Information Administration figures. Note that the very same pie chart describes the average per capita energy consumption of Americans in the four sectors.

The residential sector reflects the energy used to run our homes (to power lighting, appliances and heating & cooling systems) and, at 15 percent, it’s the next to smallest pie piece. At 40 percent, the transportation sector is largest but includes all energy inputted to move both people and goods about, be it by car, truck, train, plane, boat or pipeline. Given that about half this amount goes into shuttling people, this means that personal transportation and running our homes together account for only about 35 percent of the energy we Americans use.

An additional 11 percent goes to meeting the energy demands of commercial/institutional buildings which constitute the entire service sector of society – businesses, organizations and institutions including schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, stores, restaurants,  theaters, etc. – all of which expend energy for lighting, temperature control systems and appliances like computers and faxes. Though relatively modest, the energy that supports these shared facets of society is overlooked by most of us when contemplating our energy footprint.

Continue reading How to Shrink America’s Energy Footprint