California ended the 2014 water year on September 30 with the overwhelming majority of the state experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Extreme drought conditions are characterized by widespread water shortages or restrictions leading to increased fire danger and the potential for major agricultural losses. Exceptional drought conditions mean even greater fire danger, the potential for widespread and substantial agricultural losses, and significant shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells, which create water emergencies. Since January, nearly thirty California communities have faced the prospect of running out of water altogether. As Californians anxiously await the start of the rainy season, forecasts of a dry winter have some wondering if this is the beginning of a mega-drought (an extreme dry spell that can last a decade or longer).
While all eyes have been on California this summer, it is not alone. The majority of the southwestern United States, Texas, and a significant portion of the Great Plains have also experienced drought this year. Even the southeastern states, which are historically wetter, have just recently emerged from a multi-year drought.
A recent National Science Foundation-funded study conducted by scientists at Stanford University found that the atmospheric conditions associated with the California drought are “very likely” linked to climate change. California may be feeling the impact of climate change right now, but it is just providing a preview of what other areas may experience in the future. Now is the time to begin the long, hard process of changing habits and expectations about water.
One of the first steps is to reframe the way we think about water. Traditionally, water has been viewed as a single-use commodity. That is a luxury we can no longer afford. Wastewater disposal should be seen as an opportunity, not a problem. Recycled water can be used for landscape irrigation, industrial processing for manufacturers, and cooling water for power plants and refineries – all of which free up potable water for drinking and hygiene. Recycled water can also be used for groundwater recharging, in which it is pumped or percolated to groundwater aquifers, later to be pumped out, treated, and used as drinking water. Just as it is now the norm to recycle our bottles, cans and paper, it should become the norm to recycle our water as well.
We also need to examine how we use water and make sure that we are maximizing efficiency. Conservation can’t just be a lifestyle choice; it needs to be built into our communities. For example, even in drought-stricken California, there are still approximately 200,000 homes and businesses without water meters. There are similar pockets of unmetered water users throughout the country. These customers pay a flat rate no matter how much water they use. The connection between meters and reduced water usage is clear and well-documented. This basic step is necessary for efficient and responsible use of water resources.
Other “built in” options include mandating efficient fixtures and facilities in local building codes and regulations. Requiring high efficiency toilets and shower heads in new residential construction, conditioning restaurant permits on the use of low-flow pre-rinse sprayers, and giving favorable treatment to construction with water recapture or recycling systems are all examples of “built in” conservation.
Removing disincentives for conservation is also important. Homeowners associations routinely require green lawns or shrubbery, and residents may be fined for failure to maintain lush landscaping. These types of requirements need to be reexamined or removed. Maintaining a large green lawn in a desert community is not the best and most efficient use of water. Agricultural water subsidies should also be examined. Water used to grow water-intensive crops in an arid region could be more effectively deployed in a different way.
Finally, we need to realize that even if we aren’t going to run out water completely, we may be running out of cheap water. Although American water rates are currently relatively low, that may need to change in order to maintain a safe, efficient and reliable water supply. Inclining block rates, which charge customers more per unit for water used beyond a certain base level, are an important conservation tool. Beyond that, however, significant investment in water-related infrastructure projects will likely be necessary. Water projects are rarely cheap – these are multi-million dollar, or even billion dollar, projects. Nonetheless, if multi-year droughts become increasingly common, the communities that thrive will be the ones making the hard choices regarding water investment right now.
One of the most effective ways to address water reliability is to invest in water storage. Additional water storage options help communities by capturing water in wet years to be later used during dry cycles. Dams have long been used for water storage by creating reservoirs. Environmental and other concerns, however, can make it difficult to construct a new dam today. Underground water storage using aquifer recharge may be a better option. Additionally, aquifer recharge can be configured to use reclaimed water, meaning that stored water could be increased even during drought periods.
In certain cases, it may not be enough to maximize the efficient use of existing water – a new water supply may be necessary. Desalination is one of the few ways to create a new potable water supply. Desalination is drought-proof, since it is not dependent on rainfall. The desalination process is energy-intensive, however, and the cost of desalinated water is usually more expensive than recycled water or water from rivers or groundwater. When compared to the cost of having no water however, the math begins to work out. Construction of a fifty million gallon per day desalination plant is underway in Carlsbad, California, which, when completed, will be the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere. If drought conditions continue and spread, similar projects may become more common.
The era of cheap, plentiful water, in California and elsewhere, is coming to a close. Expectations, habits and use of water must change. While there are few easy solutions, decisions made now can help avoid or ameliorate the effects of water scarcity in the future.
Lori Anne Dolqueist is a partner in the Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and is based in the San Francisco office. She focuses her practice on water regulatory matters and regularly represents major water companies, as well as smaller water utilities, in various aspects of state and federal regulation. Ms. Dolqueist can be reached at (415) 291-7452 or email@example.com.
This column is part of a series of articles by law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice. Earlier columns in the fourth edition of this series discussed Guidance Pending from NEPA on Climate Change, California’s Proposed Overhaul of Standards for Transportation-related Environmental Impact Analysis, CPUC’s Energy Storage Rulemaking, EPA’s Proposed Rule for Reducing Carbon Emissions from Power Plants, Nanomaterial Safety Research Plans, the Obama Administration’s Plans to Reduce Methane Emissions, US Ban on Oil Exports and Environmental Risks in Buying Contaminated Properties.
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