REIMAGINING THE CADILLAC DESERT, Part 3: How are cities looking at water?

los-angeles-skyline-sliderboxPat Mulroy, LA DWP’s David Pettijohn, and Ventura Water’s Shana Epstein discuss their strategies for providing water to their customers in a future of increasing water challenges

Cities are finding it increasingly difficult to provide clean and affordable water service in the face of water shortages and rapidly changing regulatory, physical, and fiscal constraints.  In the last part of coverage of BB&K’s Reimaging the Cadillac Desert, Pat Mulroy, Senior Fellow with the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV and former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority;  David Pettijohn, Director of Water Resources, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; and Shana Epstein, General Manager for Ventura Water discuss water supply reliability for their regions in a panel discussion moderated by Scott Burton, Utilities General Manager for the City of Ontario.

scott-burtonThe purpose of the panel is to look at the state’s water supply situation from the city or the retail level, began moderator Scott Burton.  “I’ve been with the city of Ontario for about 15 years now, so retail is pretty much all I know,” he said.  “For all of us that are involved in this mission of water supply and water delivery, retail is where we cross the finish line and we provide the service to the end user. One of the things I have observed over the years is that there’s a lot more to it than the 24/7 operations of the system. We have a lot of regulations, we have new water quality standards coming out every couple years, and we have lots of different rules on water supply assessments, environmental reviews, any number of different things.”

After introductory comments were concluded, each panelist gave a brief presentation.

SHANA EPSTEIN, Ventura Water

Shana Epstein focused her presentation on the water development policy that was passed this summer.  She began with some basic information on Ventura’s water resource situation.

epstein-slides_page_02This is Ventura, and I know that many people just pass us on the freeway on 101, but we’re right in between Malibu and Santa Barbara,” she began.  “Our water resources come from the Ventura River, from three different groundwater basins, and the storm water capture project that was built in the ’50’s called Lake Casitas, which is where we currently get all of our water resources.  The Ventura River goes back to the time of the mission, so we really are a historical city and really have a long history with those water resources.”

epstein-slides_page_03She presented a cartoon, noting that for her, it describes everything about water.  “This is really indicative of all of our potential water resources in Ventura, being a coastal community,” she said.  “The real point of this is it’s the value of water – that any new water for us is 2-3 times more expensive, and that groundwater is vintage for us. The groundwater basins, in Ventura county, many of them have been over-drafted, and some have really poor water quality, so we have to think of ways of blending them and making them sustainable.”

epstein-slides_page_04In July of 2015, Ventura Water launched a potable reuse demonstration pilot project which ran for 6 months.  “It was only a 20 gallon per minute system, but it was a really important test,” she said.

I’m going to refer to potable reuse as potable reuse,” she said.  “Those of us in the water industry, we have damaged the use of potable reuse as a drinking supply because we have to differentiate it between indirect and direct. We’ve also damaged it by having purple pipe that has big signs on it that say, “Don’t drink.” We really need to start talking about viable water reuse for us as we move forward.”

This was their second study, and was focused on how to blend it with their other water resources, she said.  They also worked with students from UC Santa Barbara on the communications studies with our public to determine how much they would accept this project; they called people as attended public events to interview about 200 people.

epstein-slides_page_05What the students found was that there was tremendous support for using potable reuse in our community.  Ms. Epstein gave some credit to their former city manager, who five years ago, had the insight to say that they needed to make sure the customers had a partnership with them.  “We started a whole branding program that really talked about that we’re a trusted life source for generations, which really shows how going out to the community for 5 years helped with all of this.”

epstein-slides_page_06The demonstration project tested four different technologies: pasteurization, which was applied before the water went through the membranes; then micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultra violet.  They learned about cleaning needs for pasteurization, high flux leading to lower costs, optimum pH and chemicals to minimize fouling, and dose requirements to meet DDW targets.

We learned different things by using our actual water resource, so it’s really important for us to actually use our water resource that we were going to use, and see how it worked with all of these things,” she said.

epstein-slides_page_07She then presented a slide of results showing how clean the water was.  “We found very little constituents, and then with the constituents we found were all below regulation,” she said.  “That talks about a potential new water resource for us, and that is just one of many that we are pursuing.”

epstein-slides_page_08She presented a slide showing their water neutralization policy.  “I sum it up as ‘A minus B equals C,’” she said.  “A new project that comes in and you have to find out what the demand is going to be for that new project. We’ve condensed it, knowing that there are efficiencies already built in with building codes and everything else. You subtract out what the actual use was on that property, and then you have the demand. We call the demand offset because that’s what we essentially have to find to make it a neutral.”

They started developing the policy in 2010, because it was estimated that over 900-acre feet of water was not transferred with development when it converted from agriculture to municipal and industrial, she said.  “We want you to either give us your water rights, or your credit to do extraordinary conservation and for in California that goes beyond building codes and beyond the model landscape coordinates, or there’s a fee, or a combination of all three. This was a really important policy; it took years to develop and went through many committees and commissions. We’re really happy about this policy because it’s forward thinking.”

epstein-slides_page_09Ms. Epstein presented a slide showing the demand vs supply comparison, noting that the red is where they are in drought right now.  “We’re asking people to conserve, and that’s how we’re meeting our goals,” she said.  “We want to have a 20% buffer, and so what that means if we got the city council to approve that as we would always have, we would develop 20% over our projected demand in water supply.”

shana-epsteinOur community had a history of when it rains, saying ‘Oh, it’s all solved,’” she said.  “The crisis happens and we want to respond in a crisis, but that’s not the best time to respond because you can’t move that fast, especially with any of these large projects. We wanted to get a policy out there that the council and the community had agreed to do … We really think it’s a great way to move forward.”

This really takes leadership and there are going to be threats and it’s a change of how we move forward, but this is a way for us to make sure there’s water long into the future,” she concluded.

DAVID PETTIJOHN, Department of Water Resources

david-pettijohnDavid Pettijohn, Director of Water Resources for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, began with some background on his agency.  “We have a 469 square mile service territory, and we provide water for about 4 million people who are residents in the city of LA,” he said.  “That equates to about 482,000 acre feet of water every year that we serve to our customers. … If you don’t know what an acre foot of water is, if you look at a football field, and you inundate it with a foot of water, that’s an acre foot.   If you consider an airliner flies about 30 to 40,000 acre feet, 482,000 feet up into the sky is well over ten times that high, and that’s how much water we deliver our customers in LA every year.”

Los Angeles gets the water from ‘three straws and a bathtub’, as Mr. Pettijohn described it: a straw out to the Colorado River, a straw out to the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, and a straw out to the Owens Valley.

Mr. Pettijohn acknowledged there are a lot of water challenges in the state of California:

  • Supplies from the LA Aqueduct have been cut in half over the last 30 years or so as about half of the LA aqueduct has been re-purposed for environmental restoration in the Owens Valley and dust mitigation on Owens Dry Lake.
  • The Colorado River system has come under a lot of pressure, in 2018 there’s about a 50 percent chance of the first time in history being a shortage on the Colorado, and for the three following years after 2018, there’s about a 60 percent chance of shortage on the Colorado. “What I tell people is it’s not if we’re going to go into shortage on the Colorado; it’s only a matter of when,” he said.
  • The State Water Project has ecosystem problems in the Delta with salmon and smelt that have reduced exports from the Delta.
  • The San Fernando Valley groundwater basin has long been contaminated, and they are trying to come up with a solution to deal with that contamination.

pettijohn-slides_page_05There are challenges everywhere you look for water now,” he said, presenting a graph showing Los Angeles’ water resources from 1981 to present year.  He pointed out that in 1980, most of LA’s water came from the LA Aqueduct as represented in blue; the water from Metropolitan, shown in green, continued to grow over time.  “You can see that now the vast majority of our water, especially in dry years, comes from the Metropolitan Water District,” he said.

pettijohn-slides_page_06He presented a set of pie charts.  “Over the last five years, on the left, over 60 percent of our water came from the Metropolitan Water District; and the last fiscal year, and just about 70 percent of our water came from the Metropolitan Water District,” he said.  “We are really going to try and change it. The mayor has given us directive to do that, both in his executive order number five and also in the mayor’s LA Sustainable City Plan. Both require us to reduce purchases of imported water by 50 percent by 2025, and then to source locally about half our water by 2035.  These are huge challenges for the city of LA.”

Mr. Pettijohn said they were able to meet the governor’s statewide directive to reduce 25%; they were also to pass the state stress test scenario, so they are not currently under any state mandated reductions, but they are still trying to reach the reductions that the mayor has required.

pettijohn-slides_page_08He presented a slide showing gallons per capita per day for the city of LA.  “Not too long ago, every man, woman, and child in the city of LA was using almost 200 gallons per person per day; now we’re using about half that much – about 104.  We’ve done a lot of work in a pretty short period of time, most of this progress is due to our advances in our water conservation program. We spend quite a bit on conservation every year, about 30 million dollars a year on water conservation in the city of LA.”

pettijohn-slides_page_09LA DWP wants to develop more local water, he said.  “It’s a three legged stool: recycled water, storm water capture, and conservation,” he said.  “Two of the three legs of that stool are really dependent upon having healthy groundwater basins. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to recharge an impaired groundwater basin with advanced, treated, recycled water, or with storm water if you can’t pump the basin. If you’re going to accomplish those local water supply goals, you have to remediate those groundwater basins, and we have plans to do that. Pretty expensive plans, by the way – it’s about a $600 million fix in the San Fernando Valley to solve that problem.”

pettijohn-slides_page_10LA DWP has  ‘One Water’ approach that breaks down the silos and reaches out to the different city departments, the public, the individual stakeholders, universities and NGOs to incorporate them into the planning processes.  They have MOUs with Tree People and the Council for Watershed Health.

We work with the Integrated Regional Water Management Process, a county wide process that draws everybody who’s got a stake in the watersheds into a dialogue about how statewide money is going to be spent in those watersheds, and then of course, the Metropolitan Water District’s long standing collaborative process,” he said.

pettijohn-slides_page_11He then concluded with presenting a slide of where LA DWP would like to go in the future. He noted that the left is where LA is today; in the middle is where they would like to be in an average year by 2040; the right would be in a dry year in 2040; the more color in the pie chart, the more diverse the portfolio.  “You can see that even if we’re successful in reaching all our local water supply goals, when a dry year happens, we’re going to still need a really significant portion of the city’s water to come from imported, purchased water from the Metropolitan Water District,” he said.  “The Metropolitan Water District has always been the city’s backup water supply; it’s like our insurance policy for dry years and drought, and it’s going to remain that way in the future.”

PAT MULROY, former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority

Pat Mulroy began by noting that she comes from a very different place, one that resembles Death Valley more than it resembles parts of California.  “Las Vegas is the driest city in the United States, it gets perhaps two inches to four inches of rain a year; that usually falls in a one or two day period, and then the rainy season is over and we’re done for the year,” she said.  “We take 90% of our water from the Colorado River, Lake Mead is our fore bay, and 10 percent comes from local groundwater sources – that is the extent of the local freshwater supply.  We reuse 93% of our wastewater; if it hits the sewer system, it gets reused either indirectly or directly.”

pat-mulroy-speakingSince 2002, when we got the news that the runoff in the Colorado River basin was going to be 25 percent of normal, we embarked on an incredibly aggressive conservation plan that was coupled with regulations and permanent changes,” she said.  “This is not a plan that will ever, ever disappear. It is there in perpetuity. The net result of the plan, which involved heavily paying our customers to take their grass out, and restricting new construction with no lawns in the front and only 50 percent of the landscapable area of the backyard.”

We promote artificial turf because our customer’s view of desert landscaping was a cactus, rock, and a dead cow skull; that was their view and we needed to move them,” she said.  “Having built an eight acre dessert botanical garden, we’ve been very successful in teaching them that there are some native plants in the Mojave that are very beautiful, and others that we can bring in from other desserts that are equally water efficient.”

The net result of the conservation was that Las Vegas added 500,000 people and cut water use by 40% and in a very short period of time; they invested heavily in leak reduction and prevention, and their leakage rate hovers around 5% and is one of the most leak-proof systems in the U.S., she said.

Las Vegas has never looked at stormwater, Ms. Mulroy said.  “I laughingly told my customers years ago that I’d go to Walmart, I’d buy every one of them a thimble, they could put it out when it rained, and there’s our storm water capture program; we’re done,” she said.  “It’s not a very smart investment of our financial resources.”

At one time, the groundwater basin was severely overdrafted and the subsidence was dramatic – 40 feet or more.  “The community had avoided building expensive facilities to the Colorado River for generations, and the net result was a dramatically over drafted groundwater basin,” she said.  “So starting in the mid 1980’s, we began an aggressive recharge program of potable water. We took our excess potable water in the winter months, when the community uses three times less, and injected it into the groundwater basin. We have somewhere around 350,000 acre feet now stored in our groundwater basin. Subsidence has stopped, and the basin is completely stable.”

pat-mulroyWhile Ms. Mulroy was the General Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she also served as the General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.  “I had a very different perspective on what I viewed as local supplies and what it was going to take to create true resiliency for a community as vulnerable as southern Nevada,” she said.  “When we created the southern Nevada Water Authority, we did one thing that was really, really smart: first of all, we threw away our priority water rights and pooled our water resources, we pooled our wastewater resources, we got rid of priorities, and we agreed that every single year, we would adopt a 50 year resource plan.  Every single year, we look at what are the economic changes, the demographic changes, the hydrologic changes, and what is it that’s impacting this community’s water resilience.  That has allowed us to tweak our system and make course corrections as we move forward.”

Far more important is to build strategic partnerships, Ms. Mulroy said.  “As you become more self-contained and as you become more internally resilient, you also become that much more vulnerable, and the only way to buffet against that vulnerability is through strategic partnerships. Thinking on a larger basis and for us, those strategic partners are Metropolitan, the Central Arizona Project, and the country of Mexico, where so much movement of water is going around that it is helping everyone be that much more resilient.”

Metropolitan would have been in severe trouble last year had they not banked water in Lake Mead and had Southern Nevada not said, ‘Our conserved water you can use this year,’” she said.  “There would have been a very different reality here in southern California, because nothing was coming from the bay Delta.  During a year, when Lake Meade was going to drop like a rock anyway, Met had to take all the water they had banked in Lake Meade in order to keep Southern California in a water supply.  Not one person on the Colorado River screamed. Nevada didn’t say anything, Arizona didn’t say anything, and we were the ones that were going to feel the consequences of that. We knew that that strategic partnership was one day going to have to benefit us.”

It is that kind of larger regional thinking, whether it’s neighboring cities or state to state, is the only way the west is going to make it through a protracted drought period,” she said. “There is an effort right now on the Colorado River that we all conserve and leave that water in Lake Mead with no one’s name on it. Why? Southern Nevada invested a billion dollars to put a third intake in Lake Meade, where we can go below dead pool.  However, at elevation 900 feet, nothing comes downstream anymore. There will be no water coming from the Colorado River to the Metropolitan Water District, because there will be none getting to Lake Havasu. There will be no water going to the Imperial Valley, because it never can leave Lake Mead; it is physically impossible. It is in everybody’s best interest, because if the Central Arizona Project is dry, Southern California is dry, the only one who sits above Hoover Dam is Nevada.”

The efforts on the Colorado River going on right now recognize that we have a common future that doesn’t allow for finger pointing, blaming, or revisiting history; it’s over and we need to get past it, she said.  “That kind of regional thinking is going to become all important.”

What California is doing in all the efforts is becoming legitimate participants in a larger conversation,” she said.  “The rest of the basin thinks you’re the world’s biggest water waster’s and that’s simply not true.  The more you can continue this conversation and but think, there is a next chapter that has to be written. That’s the chapter of overcoming old hostilities, overcoming old cultural barriers, overcoming all those things that have become culturally ingrained in each one of the communities in the west, and realizing that there is a common future. Whether that’s a common future within the state of California on the Bay Delta, or whether that is a common future as part of a larger partnership on the Colorado River, that will really be what will make all of us that much more resilient.”

Southern Nevada has over 600,000 acre feet banked in Arizona’s groundwater basins; they have a virtual bank with Metropolitan.  “Our virtual bank allowed California to use it when they most desperately needed it, and we can take it back when times get difficult for us,” Ms. Mulroy said.  “That common pooling – think about how many more groundwater basins you can recharge. Think about how much more reservoir storage you can create when you stop thinking of competitors and enemies and past foes, but think of your neighbors, be they within the state or outside the state, as that which may save your community somewhere in the future.”

Thank you.”


Moderator Scott Burton began the discussion period by asking Ms. Epstein and Mr. Pettijohn how they implemented the Governor’s conservation mandate.

We actually had to ask our communities to conserve more than what the state asked us to conserve, because it was based on something that wasn’t real to our water resources,” said Ms. Epstein.  “We had asked the community to conserve 20% even though the state was asking 16%.  We put in water shortage rates before any of it became mandatory and so our community responded.  We could not be where we are without our community responding. They are taking it very seriously, and the conversion from grass to natives or to ocean friendly gardens, as like we like to call it, has really be very receptive. We continue to thank our customers.”

david-pettijohn-1We were able to meet our conservation goals that the state set for Las Angeles,” said Mr. Pettijohn.  “We had already done quite a bit of conservation so it got pretty difficult, but we did implement our water shortage contingency plan through the ordinances that the city has and they worked fairly well.  We did some other things; We put out some pretty extensive conservation incentives for our customers. In LA, we’ll give you $100 for a residential toilet, $200 dollars for a commercial toilet, and $500 for a water-less urinal if you want to install one of those; $300 if you want to put in a highly efficient clothes washer. We’ll give you $500 for a cistern.  We incentivize you to take your turf out, we still do that. We’ll give you $1.75 per square foot to take your turf out.  A lot of the $30 million dollars goes towards those incentives that we provide.”

Mr. Pettijohn said that they also put a lot of prohibited uses in place, such as not letting water runoff your property, not watering when it’s raining, or not watering between 9am and 4pm.  “Things that just make common sense. If you violate, we’ll warn you, give you a chance to comply. If you refuse to comply, then you start getting fined.”  They changed their two-tier water rate structure to a four-tier structure, he said.

We also implemented what’s called decoupling in our rate structure,” he said.  “In our new rate structure, we have a revenue target. If we collect more than that revenue target, then we’ll rebate that money back to the customer through lower rates in the following year. If we under collect, then the rates will adjust a little in the following year so that we meet that revenue target. Then, you can really hit the mandated state wide mandates pretty hard and really aggressively, and not really be too concerned about the bottom line all the time, which I think keeps some water agencies from really working on it.”

Scott Burton then turned to Pat Mulroy and asked her if she were advising the governor of the state of California, would she have implemented the drought reductions in that fashion?

I think he did it in the only way he could at the moment,” she said.  “He was put in a position those reductions had to happen pretty quickly. However, I’m not sure I would have relaxed them. I would have perhaps made the necessary regional changes and allowed communities to come in, but I at least would have forced the communities to transition to a permanent conservation plan.  Drought measures are a reaction to a shortage rather than the recognition of a permanent state, which is where we live in the west. We live in a permanent drought, and it’s only going to get worse over time. That’s the only thing I would have done differently.”

Moderator Scott Burton then turned to the issue of technology, and asked for the panel’s thoughts on how some of the newer technologies that can help with water supply.

shana-epstein-1I think our main meter infrastructure is the next real wave of conservation,” said Ms. Epstein.  “Most of our customers get a delayed bill of showing their water use 60 days, 30 days in arrears after they’ve used their water.  With this, you can see your water use on a daily basis and it really has people engaged. They can set it up so they can know if their water is running continuously, and they get a notified leak on their own. That’s really, I think, the future of using technology for the end user.”

Mr. Pettijohn agreed that AMI technology is going to be helpful, noting that they currently have some pilot programs underway to test out the technology.  DWP also offers a technical assistance program for businesses.  “If you have a way of using water in there that you think you can improve, but it’s going to cost you money, we’ll incentivize you to save water up to a quarter million dollars in your business, based on how much water you’re saving, and that’s through our technical assistance program. That’s been a really good program as well.”

The other thing DWP has done is recently funded the 3.2 acre La Kretz Innovation Center in the arts district in downtown LA.  “It focuses on clean tech industry ideas and brings together people who are interested in thinking about green infrastructure and how to come up with new business models to push out green infrastructure ideas into the community, so we’re trying to think of new ways as well as old ways to achieve some of these goals,” said Mr. Pettijohn.

Ms. Mulroy said they’ve invested heavily in technology and have partnerships with universities and other organizations where they are doing joint technology development; they put out RFPs to the world, and receive proposals from entrepreneurs who may want their new technology tested, or young companies that have been struggling to get into the US market.  They have brought several of these companies to Southern Nevada.

One of the big challenges aside from water quality and an ever-shrinking Lake Mead is leak detection.  “We found an Israeli technology that is a sensor technology that we’ve installed in our most vulnerable, large diameter pipes with the Las Vegas strip being our most vulnerable pipe line,” said Ms. Mulroy.  “We can actually see when the pipe weakens.  I am not a engineer, but they tell me that you can tell by the vibrations that there is a change and a potential for a break, and so we can send out a regular maintenance crew out there to address the problem before we have a break.”

An audience member asked Pat Mulroy if they raised water rates and are they tiered?

We have four tiers which step up to the largest users,” said Ms. Mulroy.  “We also found that when the great recession hit, we had problems.  We had a large debt service rate, because during the 25 years I was there, we grew from a population of around 500,000 people to over two million. You can imagine the amount of infrastructure that had to be built. If you have that big of a debt burden sitting out there, that debt has to be managed and the more we encouraged conservation, the less we were collecting.”

pat-mulroy-1She said they went through this painful process of uncoupling fixed costs from their commodity rates.  “We put in facilities charges. In other words, what’s your potential of drawing from the system? There’s a difference on the impact and the amount of backup infrastructure that a three quarter inch residential meter needs from an eight inch compound meter sitting on the Las Vegas strip, or fire line. That was very difficult for the community; I still have scars on my back from that little exercise. It allowed us to keep those commodity charges as the trigger. When our largest customer at one point was at the Sultan of Brunei, what would you like me to charge this man that he’s going to care about? His doorknobs were $500,000. He was the single largest residential user, using 17 million gallons a year and didn’t care one iota what we charged him.  That’s where regulations came in, and that’s why that balance between rates and regulations is also important.

An audience member asked Ms. Mulroy how she would recommend the same regional partnerships such as she described happening for the southwestern region be established between northern and southern California?

I think there needs to be a definite uncoupling between facilities being built and how they’re operated,” said Ms. Mulroy.  “I think the notion for any of us to think that we are going to take the same amount of water from the same place every single year, as we go through these erratic weather patterns and this changing climate, is nuts. The governor has now brought Bruce Babbitt in to help facilitate between the contractors and the parties. I think if you can find a partnership on how to operate facilities, I think you can overcome the ‘Let’s stop it even from being built.’  You have 700,000 acre-feet that just washed to the ocean; it didn’t save a single fish, it didn’t help a single fish in the Delta, it didn’t benefit anything, and it was an enormous lost opportunity for southern California. It is an attitude thing. Change our language; let’s start with that.”

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