Exploring the California Drought and Measures to Reduce Water Use

The California drought is reaching its fourth year. State officials expect this winter’s snowpack—a valuable resource for summer water supplies—to be about six percent of normal, and the rapid depletion of groundwater from wells is causing water tables to drop, increasing the encroachment of seawater, and causing land to sink. Governor Jerry Brown recently issued an executive order directing the State Water Resources Control Board to achieve a 25 percent reduction in water use over the coming year, using 2013 water use as a baseline. The Control Board oversees 400 local water supply agencies, which serve 90 percent of California residents.

The 25 percent target is a statewide goal, and individual communities may be ordered to conserve more or less, depending on previous per-capita water use during July, August, and September of last year. For example, according to the Los Angeles Times, cities with a track record of successful summer conservation (like San Francisco where average per-capita consumption is 98 gallons per day) will need to reduce consumption by eight percent. Municipalities with higher per-capita use (like Beverly Hills, where average per-capita consumption is 284 gallons per day) will need to cut use by 36 percent. State officials expect to issue a final order in the beginning of May with enforcement beginning in July.

In Los Angeles, where cuts are targeted at 16 percent, residential users can take shorter showers and stop watering their lawns, but that alone is not likely to reach the 16 percent target. Last year, when conservation measures began in earnest, Los Angeles reduced its October water use 2.4 percent to its 2013 consumption, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Urban Versus Agricultural Water Use

Governor Brown’s executive order does not target the state’s agricultural industry for cuts, which by most measures uses approximately 80 percent of the water consumed in the state. (Agriculture, particularly the almond industry, is taking a lot of heat from conservationists.) The executive order does target the remaining 20 percent (urban use). Residential use consumes about 14 percent of that total, with landscaping accounting for the largest portion of residential water use. Commercial operations, industry (other than agriculture), and institutions (CII) use about six percent.

The CII figure is important to recognize. While it is a small slice of overall use, according to the Control Board:

There are no specific reduction targets for commercial, industrial and institutional users served by urban and all other water suppliers. Water suppliers will decide how to meet their conservation standard through reductions from both residential and non-residential users.

Thus, CII users may be targeted, but perhaps in a manner that may be different from a residential user. According to the New York Times, communities with high industrial users were among those who challenged the first draft of water rules. Since the targets are set based on per-capita use, communities with high agricultural and industrial users felt that they would be unfairly targeted because of high per-capita use. For example, the City of Vernon, home to meatpacking and other industrial operations, has the highest per-capita consumption in the state by far (94,111 gallons per person per day) because it only has 112 residents.

Can California Sustain Its Growth?

California is not only the nation’s largest food producer; it also leads the country in food processing. According to Forbes, in 2005, California had 11 percent of the country’s food-processing jobs. Steady growth has been projected for that industry for years. That growth is likely to change unless the state can solve its water issues. This industry will need to focus on smarter operations and water reuse or recycling in order to meet tighter water restrictions.

We have recently covered on our blog how the drought has limited the growth of some breweries in California due to conservation measures regulated by local water districts; however, it is possible to grow if companies learn how to implement water-saving technologies. Woodard & Curran has helped breweries in other states reduce water use through changes in operating procedures.

In California, Woodard & Curran helped a confidential beverage company facing water restrictions significantly increase production through the design/build of a 100 gallon-per-minute ultrafiltration/reverse osmosis water treatment system and new 2,200-ton closed loop cooling tower for process cooling at a hot-fill bottling plant. The water treatment system treats process wastewater for reuse as cooling tower makeup and other utility water uses at this site. The cooling tower provides closed loop cooling of product after the hot fill operations. The re-use of process wastewater for cooling tower make-up freed up a portion of the city water allocation to this plant that was then used to increase production capacity.

Is Wastewater Reuse the Solution?

California communities and industry have been reluctant to implement systems that reuse sanitary wastewater (due to either regulatory complexity or the public’s aversion to “toilet-to-tap”) for drinking water, irrigation, or groundwater replenishment. However, using current technology, the 1.3 billion gallons of treated wastewater that flows from Southern California wastewater treatment facilities into the Pacific Ocean every day could be used to offset its use of imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River.

Orange County, in Southern California, began recycling wastewater for non-potable use in the 1970s, “but only began contributing to the drinking supply in 2008, combined with a comprehensive PR and education campaign to allay public fears,” according to CNN. At the Orange County facility, wastewater is treated to drinking water standards and then sent to recharge basins where the water percolates into the underground aquifer where it can serve public drinking water needs. (Woodard & Curran has operated and maintained a similar facility, Water Conserv II, in Winter Garden, Florida since 1996.)

Still, even if wastewater-to-drinking water systems do not receive public approval in California, using reclaimed water for irrigation will be of significant benefit because of the high demand for urban and agricultural irrigation the arid region requires.

Victorville, CA WWTP

Victorville, CA WWTP

Since 2010, Woodard & Curran has operated a 2.5 MGD sanitary and industrial process wastewater treatment facility in Victorville, CA, which the firm also designed. The facility treats approximately 1.5 MGD of sanitary wastewater generated from the City of Victorville and a federal prison. Industrial wastewater consists of 1.0 MGD of process wastewater from a juice bottling plant. The treated permeate receives UV disinfection and is reused as California Title 22 water for power plant cooling tower make-up and irrigation water. (Read more about this facility in WE&T Magazine.)

Viable solutions to California’s water crisis have been known for many years. A report by the Pacific Institute released in 2003 indicated that…

California can save 30 percent of its current urban water use with cost-effective water-saving solutions. Indeed, fully implementing existing conservation technologies in the urban sector can eliminate the need for new urban water supplies for the next three decades.

The good news is that industry and municipalities have recognized the urgent state of affairs, and some are using innovative technology to conserve and reuse water. However, more needs to be done, and it will take political will, public support, and a much wider investment in infrastructure to achieve the Governor’s targets for reduction.


Lloyd Snyder

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