Panel: 9 ways Southern California could reduce its water use
There’s no shortage of ideas for tackling California’s increasing water shortage, at least based on the wide-ranging comments from five water experts Aug. 21 when KPCC and the Milken Institute sponsored a discussion on the future of water in Southern California.
Nearly 300 people packed the Milken Institute auditorium in Santa Monica to hear the discussion, led by Larry Mantle, host of KPCC’s AirTalk. You can listen to excerpts from the discussion on AirTalk or watch the whole talk above, but here are some of the suggestions that came out of Thursday's talk:
- Mandate that everybody rip out their lawns. Well, no, that wasn’t really a proposal. When Mantle asked if it was time for such a law, the audience half tittered, half gasped, and the panelists paused, but not for long. Los Angeles and other SoCal communities have to rethink their water allocation for landscaping, said Jim McDaniel, senior assistant general manager of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We’re realizing in Los Angeles, and the Mediterranean climate we have, we are probably not going to be able to afford having plants you need to water more than three days a week,”
- Prepare for mandatory allocations, aka rationing, by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California if the drought hasn’t abated next spring. The MWD, which provides water to most of Southern California’s utilities, spent $4 billion shoring up its storage capacity after the drought in 1990, including building the Diamond Valley Lake reservoir in Riverside County. Two years ago, that reservoir was full; today it’s at 55 percent, said General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. “We did rationing in 2007, another bad year, and we’ll have to take a hard look at it next year, but because of our storage we haven’t had to for the last two years. It was smart planning, but it took a lot of money,” he said. “We would ration across Southern California from Ventura all the way down to San Diego. That’s 19 million people, which is half the state, and then it would be up to the agencies how they would distribute the water at the local/retail level.”
- Take advantage of incentives to pull out water-thirsty lawns and re-landscape with drought tolerant plants. Since increasing the rebates for replacing lawns from $1 to $2 a square foot, and even more in some communities, the interest in re-landscaping has skyrocketed, said Kightlinger. “It hit a tipping point about a month ago. We went from processing about 200 reservations a day to about 700, and we’re seeing the money move quickly, which is what we want. Normally we budget $20 million (for re-landscaping incentives) but this year we said we’d budget $40 million and we’ll go well past that.” Learn more about the rebate programs in Southern California.
- Don't fuss too much about utility leaks, despite the nearly 20 million gallons lost earlier this month, when a large water main broke outside UCLA. “We just completed a third-party water loss audit, where we track all the water coming into the system and going out through the meters….and we found our actual water loss is just 3.5 percent, which is extremely good for this business,” said McDaniel. “It does mean (losing) millions of gallons of water, but you’re dealing with a company that serves billions of gallons, and there are utilities in the East Coast that lose a third of the water they treat due to leaks, so 3.5 percent is very good, but we’re going to track that down and do better.”
- Recycle treated wastewater for irrigation and other uses instead of sending it into the ocean. “We have 200 to 300 million gallons of treated water going out of our treatment plant into the ocean every day that’s ultimately reusable….and we need to use it,” said McDaniel. Learn more about Orange County's successful 'toilet-to-tap' program.
- If you’re a farmer, reconsider what you’re planting, or whether you should plant anything at all. Patrick Cavanaugh, owner of the California Ag Today radio network and editor of numerous agricultural publications, took exception to stats that say agriculture is the biggest water user in the state. Almond and pistachio growers are the most efficient in the world, he said, because they use drip irrigation, and almost all of California’s strawberries are grown with recycled water, especially around the Monterey Bay. But he did agree that farmers have to rethink the way they’ve planted in the past, if only because banks won’t be lending money to growers without water.“If you’re planting a long-term permanent crop, you should have more than one source of water,” Cavanaugh said. “if you don’t have more than one source of water, you should reconsider planting at all.”
- Follow Australia’s model by tearing up all the water rights agreements in the state and starting fresh. “There was an interesting study this week about how we have issued water rights in the state of California for more than five times the amount of surface water we have in California, so it’s very hard to rationalize that system when we’ve over-allocated to that extent,” said Kate Poole, director of litigation for water issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Groundwater is a big, big problem for us. We are the only state in the western United States that doesn’t have a system of groundwater regulation and we are suffering the problems associated with that today, because it’s basically a pump-whatever-you-can system, and we have vastly over-pumped our groundwater aquifers….”
- Reduce our overall water use through a variety of means, such as more efficient irrigation (i.e. no more flood or furrow irrigation), re-landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, and installing water-efficient appliances. “There are a lot more efficiencies we can do while maintaining our lifestyle and still reducing our water use by 20 to 30 percent,” said Sanjay Guar of Raftelis Financial Consultants, who helps utility companies set pricing for their services. “The challenge will be collecting the same amount of revenue. The average water bill in California has more than doubled in 12 years from $30 to $66, outpacing the Consumer Price Index. Income hasn’t gone up like that, so proportionately, what you pay for water is going to go up because of the efficiencies (people reducing their water use) and to pay for infrastructure replacement.”
- Pass the proposed $7.5 billion water bond in November to boost the state’s water supply and infrastructure; all five panelists agreed with that. “A third of that money goes to (creating) storage, and that’s something we need,” said Cavanaugh. “The water structure we have in California was put together for 15 million people and with 40 million people, we need to create a better water storage program for the future of California.”