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Water Works: Jim Fiedler on the Drought’s Impact on Water Management

Jim Fiedler discusses the goals and ambitions of the Santa Clara Valley Water District for “Water Works” – our series that goes behind the scenes with some of the leading voices in California water management.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center, run by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, provides recycled water that is a key component of the region's long-term water supply strategy.Tara Lohan

The Santa Clara Valley Water District provides water and flood control to nearly 2 million people in 15 cities and owns and operates the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center (SVAWPC), the largest advanced water purification plant in Northern California.

Jim Fiedler is the chief operating officer of the San Jose-based organization, and leads its water program. He spoke with Water Deeply last week about his work and the challenges his organization faces five years into the drought. “The biggest challenge we face is for the water agencies, the regulators and the environmental community to work better together as we think about some of the important water challenges, like water infrastructure and the Delta,” Fiedler said. “We have to realize that with climate change, with the drought and its impacts on California’s economy, we need to work together to overcome the water challenges.”

Water Deeply: What does your day to day as the chief operating officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District look like?

Jim Fiedler: We spend a lot of time in meetings, evaluating area reports and giving direction to staff. But each morning at Santa Clara, all my direct reports and the chief operation staff have a short meeting to look at some of the key issues of the day. Our work now involves both all the traditional aspects of water management operations like maintenance, project delivery and ongoing planning. One of the challenges is to find a balance between doing the things that are urgent and critical and making sure that we’re doing due process on those things that are critical but not necessarily urgent.

Water Deeply: How have your organization’s priorities and approach shifted amid the drought?

Fiedler: Like many other water utilities, we anticipated and had planned for drier years. However, what’s been challenging about this drought is that it required a lot more effort. Because of our lack of supply of local water, as well as water imported through the State [Water Project] and the Central Valley Project, we had to expand the requirements for conservation savings from our customers.

Our short-term demand reduction went up to 30 percent of customers’ 2013 usage, which is pretty astounding. But we also increased our incentives. Our turf rebate program went from $1 per square foot to $2 per square foot. We really tried to incentivize conservation savings in our community, creating not just an immediate but a long-term impact on water use efficiency.

Water Deeply: Has the drought changed your job?

Fiedler: Our drought response strategy was pretty effective and a district-wide effort. We looked at our operations and figured out where we could do better maintenance, take advantage of the opportunity that the drought presented for us, and make great efforts in our own water use savings. We had more staff to support this effort, with a number of new positions in the conservation program as the demand for rebates, water house calls and inspections went up. We also developed a monthly report for our board, in which we really helped them understand the progress we’ve been making. We also looked at ways to accelerate programs that would be of benefit during the drought, like our expedited purifying water program, which looks for ways to accelerate our efforts to make better use of recycled water.

I’m particularly proud of our conservation rebate program. Prior to the drought we had about 130,000 to 150,000 square feet (12,000 to 14,000 square meters) of turf replacement per year. That went up to more than a million square feet as a result of really advertising the consequences of the drought conditions to people and pointing out that each individual needed to do their fair share. Having rebates available was a way of easing the pain.

Water Deeply: What do you see as California’s biggest water challenge?

Fiedler: The biggest challenge we face is for the water agencies, the regulators and the environmental community to work better together as we think about some of the important water challenges, like water infrastructure and the Delta. How do we make people come together for the common good and realize that everyone’s coming in with a different perspective? We have to realize that with climate change, with the drought and its impacts on California’s economy, we need to work together to overcome the water challenges.

Water Deeply: What’s your biggest challenge in the coming months?

Fiedler: The biggest goal this year is to continue our focus on rehabilitating aging infrastructure and to look at ways to shore up our water supplies. A part of this is our program of developing purified water, taking wastewater to advanced treatment and then bringing that to better use to develop a locally controlled, drought-proof water supply.

Water Deeply: How does direct potable reuse figure into your water supply picture in the future?

Fiedler: We think there’s great promise in our county for indirect potable reuse. We rely on groundwater for a good percentage of our water needs. We have a number of recharge spots where we not only percolate local runoff water but import water into our groundwater basin. We feel that purified water can supplement that. In addition to being groundwater managers, we also operate advanced water treatment facilities. There’s great promise there in treating water to the level necessary and have that be a source for our conventional water treatment plants.

Read More in Our Water Works Series

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