Are Water Supplies in California Headed For A Resource Cliff?
"The purpose of the Drought Response Workshop was to review and provide updates on drought planning, response, and mitigation measures. It was intended for water agencies and other public and local agencies involved in drought response and planning efforts. Over 70 people attended this workshop, which offered CEUs from the California Department of Public Health." Source: NWRI website
Like it's predecessor and cousin (the CalDesal 1st Annual Desalination Conference one week prior), the DRW provided cutting edge updates, reports, retorts and detailed analyses by regulatory agencies, water and utility district staff plus world class experts. All of the speakers took questions, all were very open and non-judgmental about inquiries from the gallery.
I'm one of those who believes in climate change but is uncomfortable with the phrase "global warming." That seems too simplistic and doesn't really confront the cyclical variations or nuances that we as relatively short-lived mammals have chronicled. We only started keeping track, that is writing down anecdotes that could be scientifically valuable, in the past few thousand years ago---So our view, our statistics or understanding of cycles is mostly based on carbon dating, tree rings, fossils, etc.
Here's a link that the NWRI has kindly provided, it lets browsers read the actual Power Points® given by workshop presenters. I have posted many of what I feel to be pertinent and highly educational slides in this article.
I wish they'd placed the Q & A banter online verbatim too, because a lot of interesting information was exchanged due to the technical expertise of the audience. Just like the CalDesal Conference, no punches were pulled, nobody bobbed and weaved, no rope-a-dope, nobody was censured or ignored:
What's occurring in real time is the establishment of a diversified water portfolio, and similar to a stock market concept, this is not only where we are, where we're investing time and money, but where we're headed as a state, as a nation and as a world. Reliable water is arguably THE most critical common element to sustain our lives and keep both economies and countries stable.
And hey, it was a free gig, continental breakfast and lunch included, you can't beat that for availability and expense. With increased demand for both potable (drinking) and non-potable (landscape and agricultural irrigation) reliable and sustainable water supplies comes dilemmas never encountered before in Southern California.
Oftentimes, Northern Califiornia gets their fair average share of rainfall, as it is now around Christmas of 2012. We live here in the South, in what Marc Reisner so accurately phrased a Cadillac Desert, at the mercy of taking from other regions lakes and watercourses---Many times to the excessive detriment of their aquatic and riparian ecosystems.
State and federal agencies disagree only slightly over just how much California's general population will grow by 2020. Last figures available were based on the 2010 census, but a 15% increase by 2020 is a good ballpark estimate for our purposes.
Population increase curves are integral in projections of resource demands, as are the drivers, the changing conditions and availability.
Scientists themselves often disagree due to cyclical and demographic variations and fluctuations. According to a Science Magazine column (Volume 321, August 2008) regarding assessments of seasonal forecasts: "....of the dozens of forecast techniques proffered by government, academic and private sector climatologists all but two are virtually useless...about the only time they had any success predicting precipitation was for winters with an El Niño or La Niña." Livezey and Timofeyeva, BAMS
California's population was estimated at 33 million in 2000, and by 2020 it will be 44 million. Potentially that's an anticipated 1/3 increase in demand that may not be met by available water supplies, regardless of the gamut of strategies being pursued or eventually implemented.
|Population Growth Areas|
I've spent a lot of online research, attended a lot of water and sanitation district meetings and conferences these past 15 years. They've been doing their jobs of futuristic planning, it comes back to finite resource limitations and an infinite population growth curve.
We're in a lifeboat, and water, especially drinking water, is NOT a completely renewable resource or ration aboard in abundance.
As I've noted before, there is great potential in wastewater reclamation. However, that requires billions of investment dollars on a statewide level to upgrade our treatment plants to achieve drinking water (advanced tertiary) standards. And before we blame the water and sanitation districts, keep in mind the regulatory hurdles they must overcome to comply with the applicable standards. The State of California proclaims the need but leaves antiquated hurdles and restraining regulations that bog things down.
In the present state of our economy, where will the money come from? Yes, water and sanitation districts have enormous assets, but if they liquidated those assets and used the funds to purchase more land, build out the existing facilities, upgrade all of their infrastructure, theoretically they'd be broke with no funds in the kitty. One horrendous emergency and the unthinkable dystopia could happen: Bankruptcy and chaos.
The ratepayers would cry havoc and scream holy hell because rates would HAVE to go up tremendously to replenish, to subsidize future expenditures. This would be fiscal suicide, yet droughts and their unpredictability are a clear and present danger, regard this graphic from 20th Century databases for the USA:
|Source: Dr. S. Sooroshian's Center for Hydrometeorolgy & Remote Sensing (CHRS)|
After attending the DRW, I think that we're on the verge of having tightened our belts pretty far and perhaps one more ratcheting notch is possible. We should probably just assume a worst case scenario and live each day as if in the middle of a drought cycle. Maybe another 10% of use reduction across the board for both irrigation and drinking water can presently be achieved. We've made tremendous headway but the conservation limit event horizon is looming.
Necessity being the mother of invention, people are planting more drought tolerant, zero or xeri-scape (native) landscapes everywhere. Some give up, put down synthetic turf or pave over their yards. Which is kinda stupid because these surfaces heat up like crazy, creating mini heat islands. This forces people into turning their AC (you guessed it) on more frequently and increases their carbon footprint. It's like putting a furnace in your yard, what else do you expect? Some trade-off, huh?
Unfortunately, impervious surfaces not only lessen subsurface groundwater (aquifer) recharging, a vital resource for future extraction and reuse, but the surface moisture content vital to those life-sustaining trees with their outward-reaching root systems. Tree canopies lower temperatures, provide shade for bushes and also provide habitat for various animal species. The roots help stabilize soil, lowering erosive effects and lessening slide potential on slopes.
"A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 lbs./year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings."- McAliney, Mike. Arguments for Land Conservation: Documentation and Information Sources for Land Resources Protection, Trust for Public Land, Sacramento, CA, December, 1993
Because of the increased impermeable surfaces and increasing solar gain (heating effect) you get lower oxygen values in your vicinity---And the runoff volumes are greater when it rains, thus contaminants migrate, piggy-back on the spillover. Impervious pavement==Pollution. So I'm not a big fan of artificial replacement---Buffalo grass needs only 20% of the same volume and fulfills basic aesthetic and biotic needs.
The overwhelmingly vast majority of public agency presentations at the DRW provided legitimate databases that reflect 50%-60% less is being used by their local So Cal clients as compared to the year 2000. That's not been widely understood, integrated, publicized and comprehended by critics. Someone is always trying to shove the fickle finger of fate, or at least point it, at a public agency----Scapegoats are easy targets, just ask Pogo.
Anti-water and sanitation NGOs, the harshest critics, keep repeating the same lies: That these agencies operate in stealthy undisclosed and semi-criminal regions, never post hearing notifications, that they continually breach transparency regulations, often circumvent or ignore so-called "sunshine laws" we call The Brown Act in California. Nothing could be further from the truth----The public just doesn't bother to look for notifications, attend meetings or track projects that affect them.
They now have monitoring capabilities unknown or unheard of only a decade ago, so they've maximized the opportunities to assure delivery. Progress is and will continue it's improving path, whether through better technologies, smarter customers or a combination of the two. Yet once again, we're getting down to basic math, driven by a growing population whether illegally here or not.
And puh-lease, rain barrel catchments in a region like So Cal have a very limited potential function. When the demand is greatest it doesn't rain and dispersion of the captured water is very reliant upon aggressive maintenance and even expensive mini-treatment plants for each dwelling.
We had bomb shelters in the 50s and 60s, now many believe that huge underground cisterns or catchments would work....or give up precious living space in your garage for a humungous holding tank.
Of course they don't mention the operations and maintenance costs to homeowners, let alone capital purchase outlay, plus the increased carbon footprint regarding the electrical demands for pumps and other devices that need high voltage, not low voltage solar power.
Leaves in your gutters and other debris sloughing off of your roof will need constant removal to keep the rain barrels efficient, and then they just sit there all around your house for 9 months or more out of the year. Oh swell.
And really, c'mon, imagine those same rain barrels as vector environs for rats and mosquitos. Can you say West Nile Virus? I knew you could. Ditto for digging holes in your yard or under your house to create the lined subterranean cisterns I noted. They'd also be a good pest medium and require almost constant sterilizing, plus stirring and/or pumping somewhere, anywhere. And retrofitting sub-surface could destabilize not only your home but adjacent down-gradient properties.
If everyone did, one good seismic jolt and in cities like mine with steep hills we'd all have beach front property----If you like being in a communal, slope failure rubbled heap that is.
Early in 2000, everyone in the industry pretty much agreed that residential dwellers each used about 100-125 gallons per day (gpd). The most recent challenge by the State of California Department of Water Resources is their 20/2020 Campaign----A 20% use reduction in 7 years.
So just for fun, let's assume that by then we'll have cut that 100 gpd in half, by 50%==50 gpd/person. Unfortunately, regressing back to our known numbers 20 years prior to that target date, by the year 2020 with our projected population growth, we'll be back where we started a la Groundhog Day...or perhaps like those pitiful hamsters who get busy but go nowhere, in a vicious under-supply cycle.
Dr. Soroosh Sorooshian (try saying that 5 times and you'll sound like Sylvester The Cat) was to me by far the most interesting speaker. He spoke right after the buffet lunch, and although he didn't come right out and say it, in a way he obliquely challenged much of the data and opinions previously (and subsequently) presented.
|Dr. Soroosh Sorooshian, Distinguished Professor and Director,|
Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote Sensing, UC Irvine, spoke on state-of-the-art drought prediction.
"Presently, the accuracy of regional scale climate model predictions fall short of meeting requirements of water resource planning."
He did toss us all a tidbit slide, a morsel that was typified as a "trend":
Moving on, a man I'd already seen and heard at the CalDesal Conference, Dr. David Smith Managing Director, WateReuse California, provided some interesting database information in his presentation.
The slide about California Water Facts was of tremendous value to someone like myself, the enormity, the mind-boggling millions of acre feet per year (MAF/Yr) we use was difficult to comprehend.
He admitted that there are several variables expressed as growth scenarios. In addition, when doing Q & A, he adeptly handled several of my questions over the use of reclaimed water, basically low-value irrigation water, to fight fires.
Dave is a graduate of UC Davis, he received a B.S. in Aquatic Ecology and a doctorate in Environmental Engineering. So he brings a highly educated and yet industry savvy portfolio, he's a walking archive and encyclopedia, not some ivory tower academic.
My hometown has no infrastructure, no piping to transport what we call Title 22 landscape water to hose down flaming carnages. Our fire hydrants only carry potable---So fire suppression of burning buildings, or open field blazes like the one that nearly burnt us to the ground 20 years ago, in a sense waste our drinking.
Once again cost trumps everything: To dig up, then bury a second series of pipes parallel to our potable lines, repave an entire unplanned community with streets running pell-mell would take milions and millions that no one has. There are no grants in the hundreds of millions of $$$ throughout South OC---besides, EVERY city would justifiably compete for the $$$ if there were, setting city vs. city.
There's an interesting 10 minute interview with David that might be of value to readers:
|Dr. David Smith WateReuse California|
Modeling is the ultimate inexact science, it's always subject to correction, to recalibration with moving targets as subsequent data comes in. If you doubt me, try studying the frustrating US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) watershed or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) models.
They drive me nuts in their ambiguities and many times inaccurate conclusions or projections. The USACOE watershed models have changed about 5 times here in South Orange County since I clocked in some 15 years ago.
One regionally relevant slide at the DRW stood out that helped inform attendees from Orange County about comparative energy demands. Orange County Water District's Groundwater Replenishment Project (which I've written about previously) is about on par with OC's brackish groundwater desalination installations....which I also covered previously.
Importing our water (actually some object and call it theft) from the Colorado River or Northern California costs a lot more energy-wise---We do get more volume, but all of those pumps gobble up the grid. Recycled water costs comparatively little but then again provides little. And you still have higher concentrations of toxin-laden waste via reuse that have to be dumped somewhere watery, polluting, acidifying and contaminating streams, lakes estuaries, and/or the near-tidal portions Pacific Ocean.
That said, Dave's Recycled Water Use Trend slide has some pertinence, it reflects our increased commitment but I'd add our increasing alarm. Everybody says don't hit the panic button, it's never smart to make even short term, let alone long term decisions, in haste-filled fear.
Yet I can't help but feel that we're about to go over a "water cliff" of deficiency like the fiscal fiasco in Washington right now-----Except those career politicians can strike a deal, a compromise about our financial and taxation portfolio. This imminent water resource crash is linear, it's inevitable, looming and perhaps not even preventable.
Unfortunately, if everyone was paying attention, for all of the trending the current and projected usage metrics are pulling away from the supply side potential. It's like a rocket traveling 100 million miles per hour trying to catch another one approaching, moving at the speed of light (700 million miles per hour). Or use that expanding universe concept...we'll never reach the outer fringe because it's not possible.
And our unquenchably thirsty, increasing population growth outstrips our ability to provide. Northern California in the future will need all of their native water, because during droughts they and their ecosystems especially suffer from our pilferage. Our neighboring states that have Colorado River rights are in the same boat. Nevada has grown exponentially, it's been estimated that California is drawing 15% over its intended rights.
And what would these conferences be without Ron Wildermuth? Ron just cracks me up. His style is so casual. It's like he's sitting in your living room slamming down some brewskis, just having a friendly chat.
Ron's formal title is Manager of Public and Government Affairs for West Basin Municipal Water District (WBMWD). He's more like their genial ambassador at large.