Executive Summary for January 5th

With winter under way, it’s a good time to take a hard look at future water demand, and Orange County provides a model. Also: The latest monthly statewide water conservation results will be released today, and they are expected to show progress slowed in November.

Published on Jan. 5, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

How Much Water Do We Really Need?

It’s a surprisingly simple question, but it doesn’t get asked often enough. Now they’re asking it very pointedly in Orange County.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County is in the midst of a major study to determine the region’s true water demand in 2040. It’s a difficult exercise, because it comes with a host of variables, including weather, growth, ratepayer behavior, political actions and the availability of imported water.

So the result will be presented as a variety of scenarios, from best case to worst case. The district’s board will then chart a course, based on one of those scenarios.

In the months ahead, the district will look for “low regret” projects that will be beneficial and cost-effective regardless of whether the future brings much rain or hardly any, according to Karl Seckel, assistant general manager and district engineer.

“What are good investments for all possible scenarios?” Seckel said to the Orange County Register. “You’re not always looking at what’s the worst case, but you need to keep an eye peeled that way.”

While there are many variables in predicting water demand, there are always only two basic solutions: acquire more water and reduce consumption.

Orange County is already a leader at this: A decade ago, long before the current drought, it opened the nation’s largest wastewater recycling facility, which treats sewage to drinking-water standards, then uses that water to recharge area drinking water wells.

The ongoing drought has also helped reduce consumption, but Orange County is being realistic about this. It expects all that conservation to fade as soon as the drought ends. People will forget about the drought, and go back to their old habits.

“They will on a temporary basis cut back on watering the lawn,” said Rob Hunter, the district’s general manager. “Then when the crisis is over, people, quite frankly, like their lawns.”

This is a difficult but important thing to admit. All of California’s water agencies need to prepare for this. It means they need to look elsewhere for long-term water savings.

One simple “no regrets” solution is to sharply reduce water consumption in new developments, both housing and commercial. New state laws will help in this regard, including one that requires a smaller lawn area at new homes.

But local water agencies can do more. Although they generally don’t have direct control over development rules, they can press cities and counties much harder to make development rules more water friendly by requiring smaller yards, native landscaping, stormwater capture, ultra-efficient appliances and even on-site water recycling.

Water Conservation Falls Short Again

Californians in November again fell short of the required 25 percent water conservation requirement.

This is not unexpected, given that water conservation becomes more difficult in winter without the “low-hanging fruit” of summer lawn watering to trim away. But it raises the prospect that the state will miss its 25 percent target for the year come February, when the annual cycle concludes.

“It’s a smaller percentage, but it’s still pretty good,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, told the Associated Press.

Marcus declined to reveal the exact conservation total for November. It will be disclosed at a meeting of the water board set for today in Sacramento at 9 a.m. PST.

Conservation efforts also saw a setback in October, when Californians posted a 22 percent saving. Regulators said at the time that since enforcement began, the state cut water use by a combined 27 percent, leaving some wiggle room – but not much – to meet the 25 percent goal for the year.

Marcus urged the public to continue conserving water, even amid a strong El Niño. The weather phenomenon is expected to make for a wet winter, including a series of storms sweeping the state this week.

“We’re in such a deep hole,” Marcus said. “We need to have a lot of water in storage and snow in the mountains to let us relax at all.”

The storms arriving this week are bringing rain across much of the state and crucial snow to the Sierra Nevada. But they seem special only because they are framed by four years of drought.

In reality, these storms are merely the normal sort that California sees routinely in an average winter. They are not huge water producers. The Bay Area and Central Valley can expect around an inch of rainfall through Wednesday morning, while high elevations of the Sierra could see 18in (45cm) of new snow, according to the National Weather Service.

Top image: In this Wednesday, July 29, 2015 photo, Jason Dadakis, left, of the Orange County Water District, talks about the water filtration system at the water treatment plant in Fountain Valley, Calif. The district is working on a major study to plan for its water demand in 2040. (Chris Carlson, Associated Press)

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