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Will California Get Smart About Water?

california farm drought

The California drought is big news for the state and the nation.  California’s agriculture sector, which supplies about half the nation’s fruit and vegetables and uses about 80% of the state’s water, will have to idle about half a million acres because of the lack of water.  That will have negative impacts on local economies in the vast expanse of irrigated farmland called the Central Valley and nationwide in the prices of food.   The current water shortage reflects a failure of imagination and courage on the part of policymakers, water utilities, and agricultural, industrial, commercial, and residential consumers.

We must create policy and apply technologies for water like we do for electricity.  We need a Smart Grid approach to water.  How would that work?  Here are some ideas:

  • There is a loading order for electricity in the state of California.  This order reflects a statewide energy policy that focused on “decreasing electricity demand by increasing energy efficiency and demand response, and meeting new generation needs first with renewable and distributed generation resources…”  There’s no similar loading order for water.  There is no similar coordinated and cohesive policy to decrease water demand through improved consumption efficiency.  There are fragmented programs and policies enacted by 3000 local water agencies, the state water agency, and the federal government.  Contrast that to the multiplier effect of the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of 33% renewables by 2020 and how that has stimulated a boom in Smart Grid technologies, programs, and correlated policies.  Leveraging and coordinating the actions of the 3 large investor-owned electric utilities plus the 50-60 municipal and rural electric utilities in California offers much greater potential for positive momentum than what is accomplished when dealing with 3000+ agencies that compete for water.
  • Create a water agency equivalent to the California Energy Commission (CEC) that focuses on how we consume water.  The CEC creates statewide water efficiency standards that require manufacturer compliance in order for those products to be sold in the state.  These energy efficiency standards have caused our per capita electricity consumption to remain flat.  There is a Department of Water Resources, but its role is focuses on protection of water resource quality.  A State Water Resources Control Board allocates water across all competing consumers ranging from agricultural and industrial to residential, but sets no standards on efficient water use. This agency could also conduct research on better ways to store rainwater or how to reduce stormwater runoffs through more permeable pavements and landscape designs that result in new zoning codes for statewide use.
  • Decouple water revenues from water consumption similar to how electricity is decoupled.  Today, any water agency that actively encourages water reductions hurts their bottom line, and usually raises rates to recoup revenues lost to conservation efforts.   In California, electric utilities are decoupled, which ensures that they are not financially harmed by reductions of electricity use through energy efficiency programs.
  • Create a statewide demand response initiative for water that funds water agencies to rollout new rate designs and programs that financially motivate consumers to reduce water usage on a more consistent and continuous basis.  For instance, landscaping accounts for almost 50% of all residential water use.  Why not pay Californians to reduce and permanently replace lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping?  Reductions in water consumption have the added benefit of reducing energy use to pump and treat water.

There’s significant room for improvement in California’s water policy.  It will require real political courage to make the changes necessary to treat water more like electricity.  First and foremost, we need to rationalize the unwieldy number of water agencies.  Agency consolidation would be helpful to pool assets and help create a more resilient water supply.   Second, water agencies need to support decoupling initiatives.  For example, California will spend upwards of $700 million this year in drought assistance to hard-hit farms.  While that’s an admirable activity, a better long term solution would be to spend that much funding and more in paying people to adopt landscaping suitable for persistent droughts; create statewide zoning regulations that encouraged rainwater storage and graywater use; and re-think what the state’s agriculture sector should be growing in a desert.  Third, let’s emphasize Smart Grid technologies for our water grids.  By state law, California water agencies have until 2025 to install a water meter for every customer connection.  Incredibly, there are towns and cities in California that do not have water meters now.  Contrast that to the statewide effort that rapidly deployed smart meters for electricity, and all the benefits that these meters have delivered – better consumption knowledge, better outage management for reduced service disruptions, and better distribution grid management.  Water consumption awareness and automated leak detection would be two extremely beneficial outcomes of Smart Grid policies and technologies.  California knows how to intelligently plan and manage electricity – it needs to apply those lessons to water too.

Photo Credit: California and Water Policy/shutterstock

Christine Hertzog's picture

Thank Christine for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 26, 2014 5:13 pm GMT

Christopher, thanks for a most informative post.

The water situation in California has always been a tussle between competing interests which seems to flare up in (non)coincidental synchronization with El Niño. I believe Christine is correct that the flaws in  this piecemeal approach are escalating periodic droughts to crisis-level proportions. Establishing a centralized water authority would help to set our environmental priorities straight and plan for the future. It shouldn’t add involve extra levels of bureaucracy but a transfer of authority to the state level.

I’m in the process of tearing out my own lawn and replacing it with drought-resistant, er, rocks. I’ll be paid for doing so by my municipal water district, but I believe a state-level initiative would be better able to promote these programs. While everyone in a modern society has a right to clean water, excessive use should be taxed heavily (groundwater recharges basins at a rate of approximately 1 meter/year; any changes we make now will take decades to show results).

What’s creating the problem is people, more people require more water, and efficiency can’t create water where there is none. The largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere is under construction in Carlsbad; by 2016 it will provide 50 million gallons a day to Southern California. Desal also uses ridiculous amounts of energy, and with 15 new plants in the works we have to consider not only reopening San Onofre but building new nuclear, or California’s carbon emissions will go through the roof.

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