As California's drought persists, local food manufacturers are feeling the pressure to cut water use in their factories without changing the taste and quality of the products they sell.
The food processing and manufacturing sector produces everything from salsa, to baked goods, to bottled beverages. It's a water-intensive industry, since factories need countless gallons for sanitation and their production process.
At La Amapola, Inc., the Santa Fe Springs-based business makes masa and tortillas. The process of making the masa starts with filling tanks with 400 pounds of dried corn kernels and 500 pounds of water.
"We have our own way of doing it which makes our product taste a certain way," says Vice President and CFO Carlos Galvan, Jr. "We can’t compromise on that. It would destroy our business."
The family business has been making masa and tortillas in the LA area since 1961, when Galvan's father and grandfather opened up a South Los Angeles storefront. Galvan has paid close attention to the news of California’s drought... and his water bills. But he knows he can’t remove any water from his family's recipe for masa.
"We’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work," he explained to KPCC. Nearby, a worker brought the tanks of corn to a boil until the white kernels started turning yellow. Then it was left to cool and soak overnight. "The corn requires a certain amount of water for absorption. If there isn’t enough water then the corn stays hard and dry and when you’re grinding it, you need it to come out with enough water so that the finished product comes out sticky and pasty like a dough. "
Galvan says Amapola makes more than 40,000 tortillas each month. A back-of-the-napkin calculation shows each tortilla requires between a quarter and a third of a cup of water. Since he can't change that, Galvan constantly pushes managers and employees to save water in other parts of the factory, including the clean-up process.
A broom...not a hose
The process of grinding cooked corn into masa and then baking that into tortillas is messy, leaving lots of kernels and dough pieces on the floor. But the mantra heard both at corporate headquarters and at the Downey location remains: Don't use a water hose like a broom. Instead of hosing it all down, employees clean up gradually during the day with brooms and squeegees, buckets, and brushes.
"We were wasting a lot of water with the hose, but not now," said Jesus Lopez, who works in the tortilleria at Amapola's Downey store.
"There are some machines that we need the hose to clean under," said store manager Rosie Rocha "That's the only time we need it."
Save more...or pay more
Carlos Galvan says the Downey store has cut its water use by about 12 percent in the last six months. But he worries his company will be asked to save more water – or that his bill will go up.
That's a common worry among the state's food manufacturers, according to Rob Neenan, president of the California League of Food Processors. Water agencies in some communities - especially those with fewer residents and more manufacturers - have started pressuring food processors and other manufacturers to save more water. But Neenan says there's only so much a food processing company can do.
"If you’re making food, there’s a certain amount of water you absolutely have to have to (manufacture) a safe and sanitary product," Neenan told KPCC. "There’s not a lot of flexibility in many food processing plants in terms of reducing water use."
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is L.A. County’s largest water retailer, and about 10 percent of its customers are businesses. It offers businesses rebates to help them install more water-efficient equipment. In fiscal year 2012-13, the program oversaw 28 installation projects. In fiscal year, 2014-15, that number was up to 198.
LADWP Water Conservation Supervisor Mark Gentili said those projects range from turf reduction on commercial land to the installation of water-efficient cooling towers.
The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation says food manufacturing is responsible for nearly 38,900 jobs in the county, with more than a quarter of those in bakeries and tortillerias like La Amapola’s. Company Vice President Carlos Galvan says some employees need regular reminders that wasted water also hits the company's bottom line.
"It's not their water, and they figure ‘oh…(the company) can afford it.'" Galvan says. "After a brief explanation of basic economics, they realize that anything that cuts into our profit margin affects what we do for them."
In more than five decades of tortilla making, his company has survived recessions, riots and even past droughts. Galvan's planning to get through this one, too.