More Efficiencies, But Not More Water

More Efficiencies, But Not More Water

Aleta George

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Download: Estuary News, October 2013 PDF

The primary water use goal of the 1993 CCMP was to “develop and implement aggressive water management measures to increase freshwater availability to the estuary.” Given that one of the actions to meet that goal was water recycling, it is ironic that one of the best models of recycling in the Bay Area at the time had been designed to cut back on freshwater flows to the estuary.

The City of Santa Clara had started a program in 1989 to recycle treated wastewater after biologists discovered that freshwater coming into the bay from their treatment plant was converting salt marshes to brackish marshes. These habitat changes didn’t help the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse or California clapper rail.

North Bay salt ponds. Photo courtesy Russell Lowgren

The Regional Water Quality Control Board placed a limit on the amount of water they could discharge, says Steve Ritchie of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and “as a result they started to develop a fairly aggressive recycled water program, and that was a big step forward.”

Their project came online just as California had entered the worst multi-year drought in the state’s recorded history. “The 1988-92 drought reinforced the reality that California has a Mediterranean climate and that water supplies can be very limited,” says Peter Brostrom with the California Department of Water Resources. “Limited water supplies and battles over water go back to the gold mining days, but big dams and other water projects allowed the general public to forget about water for awhile.” The 1988-92 drought brought back that reality, he says, and the year we came out of that drought was the first of what was to become a 20-year effort to reduce water use in the state.

Reclaimed water has been used in California on a small scale for more than a century. A major factor limiting reuse is the cost of distribution, says Ritchie. “At the same time, it seems a pity to take very pure water from the Sierra Nevada, use it once, and throw it away.”

Water agencies in the region have added significant recycling capacity over the last 20 years. A 1987 report issued by the Water Resources Control Board said there were 18 reclamation plants in the Bay Area that recycled and reused 13,016 acre-feet of water per year. Today, 30 systems recycle about 60,000 acre-feet a year.

“Public opinion of recycled water has gotten better,” says Ritchie. “No matter what the commodity is, it’s second nature to recycle things now.”

The San Francisco Estuary Partnership’s 2011 State of San Francisco Bay report sought to tease out more detailed information on how recycled water might be putting a dent in demand for fresh Sierra snowmelt or groundwater. The report suggested that more than 35,000 acre-feet of recycled water is being used in the Bay Area to irrigate landscaping and cool and clean industries and oil refineries, freeing up an equivalent amount of potable, stream or groundwater. The report also found that between 2001 and 2010, total recycled water use in the Bay Area increased by more than 50 percent.

Recycled water use has greater possibilities. Ritchie believes that we will likely be drinking recycled water in the future. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but there’s more research going on now than has occurred any time in my career,” says Ritchie, who has worked for water agencies for nearly 30 years.

The CCMP also identified urban and agricultural conservation as an action needed to increase freshwater availability to the estuary. And nothing inspires real behavioral change like a drought. By 1993, water agencies were forced to implement conservation measures, and the state put a number of measures into place to encourage more conservation, such as low-flow toilet standards. A number of water districts followed suit, particularly those in Southern California.

Though the City of Los Angeles has a million more people than it did 20 years ago, it is using the same amount of water. “That’s a huge improvement in efficiency,” says Brostrom.

Western water consultant Barry Nelson also praises the work being done in Southern California. “Los Angeles recently launched the biggest groundwater clean up ever attempted, Orange County has built the largest water recycling facility in the world, and Santa Monica is planning to eliminate the use of imported water by 2020.” Similarly, the City of Los Angeles’ latest goal is to buy half as much imported water by 2035. To get that done, the city is utilizing water conservation, groundwater clean-up, storm water capture, and wastewater recycling, “the exact tools that environmentalists have been recommending for years,” says Nelson.

The cities to the south aren’t the only ones that can point to progress. Until a few years ago, Fresno and Sacramento were the largest cities in the state lacking water meters. “Just by selling water meters, and by telling folks they are going to get billed based on the amount of water they used, water use in Fresno has fallen from 320 gallons per capita per day to 250 gallons per day,” says Nelson. Other water agencies are doing innovative work with metering, conjunctive use, and partnering with other agencies, such as the Sonoma County Water Agency and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Peter Brostrom says it looks like the state as a whole is on track to reach its goal of reducing water use by 20 percent in 2020, though the official report won’t be out until June 2014. “The question is, as the economy bounces back, will water use go back up with it?”

There have been changes on the agricultural front, too. Brostrom, a former farmer, says that many farmers have shifted towards drip irrigation, and have seen that better water management results in better yields. “Statewide there’s an estimate that we’re over-drafting groundwater aquifers by a million acre-feet annually,” says Brostrom. Farmers are feeling the same pressure as everyone else.

“There’s no doubt that agriculture is still fighting hard to get more water out of the Delta,” says Nelson. “But if you look at what’s happening on the ground, the change is interesting. Farmers in the Westlands Water District are growing on less land than they were 20 years ago, moving to more high value crops, and investing in drip irrigation and other conservation practices. As a result, they are making more money with less water. Westlands and environmentalists still often disagree, but the farmers have shown an incredible ability to adapt.”

A revised CCMP in 2007 recognized that many challenges remain but it also recognized some successes. The CCMP pushed for integrating management across the region, for example, and Ritchie, who chairs the coordinating committee of the Bay Area Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, says they are close to finalizing an update of the plan. “It forces us to think across issue areas. It gets people out of the silos they sit in.”

On a more local level, many office parks and shopping centers have replaced water and chemical-intensive lawns with drought-friendly native plants, and are using recycled water to irrigate. For its part, the Partnership has been championing green infrastructure and low impact development.

When the people interviewed for this story were asked if we were on track to meet the water use goal of the CCMP, the majority said they felt optimistic about the work being done and the direction we’re headed. Leo Winternitz, the senior policy advisor for water programs at the Nature Conservancy, felt otherwise.

“The answer is no,” he says. The point of increasing freshwater availability to the estuary is to attain an even greater goal, he says, which is to restore ecological processes.

“We have a very, very changed system,” he says. There’s been a 50 percent decline in Delta outflow because of exports and upstream development; the whole system has become less variable, which favors invasive, not native, species; and fish have been in decline since the 1970s (see p. 4).

“It wasn’t good in 1993. How bad is it now? Well, it’s worse,” he says.

“Developing water recycling and water use conservation efficiency measures, while necessary and important, don’t necessarily—and have not— increased fresh water availability, because demand for water in this state is higher than available water supplies,” he says. The water we save is going towards other demands, like more people, or new ones, like fracking.

Clearly we need to both live more within our water means, or make more water. But ocean or bay water desalination have not fared that well, according to Rich Mills with the California Department of Water Resources. Winternitz sees a future with greater emphasis placed on a market approach guided by regulatory mechanisms.

Trade in this area may already be starting. “One of things happening in the Central Valley is a much larger water market than 20 years ago, farmers buying water from other farmers,” says Nelson.

With the Bay Area population still expanding, and continuing uncertainty about the replumbing of the Delta waterworks, not to mention shifts in water availability due to climate change, there are more reasons than ever to practice wise water use. “We’ve got limits in the Bay-Delta system,” says Nelson, “and those limits are pushing everyone in the system to adapt.”

Projects Implementing Water Use Goals 1993-2013: unknown

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