Doubling Down on Drought Response

Here we go again – four years after California’s last drought ended, the state is once more facing severe to extreme drought conditions and ramping up response actions. Per capita water use is lower across the state now compared to when the last drought began, thanks in large part to aggressive water use efficiency programs incorporated into ongoing conservation efforts. Yet, the demand hardening from these programs leaves the state wondering how much additional conservation it can rely on to meet current drought conditions. However, our experience gained during the last historic drought has us prepared to proactively respond with some additional tools – including better data, more sophisticated means of communication, newly updated Water Shortage Contingency Plans, and a greater understanding of system water loss – that will help our clients address potential water supply shortages.

Balancing drought response actions with drought preparedness planning

Regardless of experience and tools, each drought poses new challenges and back-to-back droughts create unique obstacles. In the wake of the previous drought, many utilities implemented longer-term drought preparedness programs, such as adding Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), developing robust water use efficiency programs, identifying new water supply, developing water storage, and instituting new data collection and management. The current drought conditions are putting pressure on utilities to accelerate long-term efforts while simultaneously engaging in immediate drought response measures, such as shortage plan implementation, short-term water transfers and contracts, water use monitoring and reporting, applying for emergency funds, and responding to customer and media inquiries. Despite utilities staff being pulled in multiple directions, critical water resources management decisions need to be justified and made quickly to meet the rapid pace of changing drought conditions.

Woodard & Curran is focused on supporting our clients to expedite short-term response in concert with long-term planning efforts to ensure these decisions are meeting today’s needs while also working towards a sustainable future. In the city of Burlingame, we are conducting an AMI technology assessment to help accelerate system application to increase data collection, which will provide a better understanding of drought use patterns for future planning. In the city of Santa Rosa, we are assisting staff in preparation of a net-zero development ordinance, as well as considering future implications and strategies for growth-related water use.

Managing drought fatigue and demand hardening

Drought fatigue occurs as customers become less receptive to conservation messaging, especially when the request to conserve seems constant. Such little time between droughts and consistent messaging to consumers creates a higher level of drought fatigue, which results in less reduction in customer water use. This is coupled with demand hardening among utilities that were extremely successful in reducing water use during the last drought and maintained a lower per capita demand since. These utilities are squeezing additional efficiency measures from their most willing customers, which becomes increasingly challenging. As such, we are helping clients overcome these challenges by modeling demand and conservation to provide a rapid assessment of current water use patterns to target specific customers and water users with potentially lower levels of drought fatigue and demand hardening.

Woodard & Curran’s team of demand analysts and water use efficiency experts recently prepared a water use efficiency plan to maximize water savings for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). We also developed and implemented water use efficiency programs for SFPUC, including a Plumbing Fixture Replacement Program and an innovative leak alert program that leveraged SFPUC’s AMI system to expediate customer communication. Our support in fast-tracking the implementation of water use efficiency measures has helped our clients obtain the rapid results needed to make a difference during this drought.

Fast-tracking water supply development

While immediate drought response requires demand management, it also means utilities need to quickly secure additional potable water supply for immediate use. This certainly puts pressure on the utility, but also requires careful consideration of actions taken to secure immediate supply and the impact on viability of long-range projects that focus on future supply sustainability. Woodard & Curran has supported water supply agencies with immediate supply development and water transfers, as part of both long-range planning efforts and advisory contracts. We have partnered with Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) to arrange an emergency water transfer, while also fast-tracking the construction of a new pipeline along the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to enable the needed water transfers. This will provide up to 15,000-acre-feet of critical water supply to MMWD’s customers if dry conditions continue into next year. We are providing program management of the pipeline project for MMWD, as well as developing water transfer, wheeling, and storage agreements.

Funding drought response

It comes as no surprise that both short- and long-term responses to drought pose a significant financial burden on utilities. While conservation activities are important to manage supply, the consequence is shrinking rate revenue, exacerbating existing fund shortage and other financial implications due to COVID-19. Woodard & Curran’s funding team keeps close track of state and federal funding opportunities, including loans and grants, to help our clients manage the financial burden. We are closely monitoring the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, currently under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives, as it includes nearly $55 billion in water infrastructure funding. We are tracking potential opportunities to leverage that funding, as well as state dollars, to support drought contingency planning, water use efficiency programs, and data management. Furthermore, our rate specialists work with utilities on creative solutions, such as developing a tailored drought rate.


Persephene St. Charles Practice Leader Water Resources

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