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UCLA summit explores future of water in southern California, forges vision for local source development

By Ayala Ben-Yeyuda and Colleen Callahan
Originally posted by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation

Even as a proposed bond to fund local water source development faces an uncertain future on the November ballot, efforts to reduce Southern California’s dependence on imported water have gained critical momentum.

“A growing population, climate change, and the rising cost of transporting water is increasing the need for a more self-sufficient water future for Southern California,” J.R. DeShazo, director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, summarized in his opening to the policymakers who gathered on January 27 to present a framework for a sustainable water future. The urgency of addressing our water challenges was underscored by opening speaker Glen MacDonald, director of the UCLA Insitute of the Environment and Sustainability, who explained that "Climate models indicate that by mid-century enhanced aridity will be the norm and the resulting water resource challenges will be exacerbated by episodic droughts peristing longer than those experienced in the 20th century." 

The one-day summit, “The Future of Water in Southern California,” was hosted in downtown Los Angeles by UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Water Technology Research Center. Sponsors included Xylem, State and Regional Water Boards, the Urban Water Research Center at UC Irvine, State Building & Construction Trades Council of California AFL-CIO, and the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (see below for full list of sponsors). The event drew over 250 leaders from water agencies, universities, the private sector, government and non-profits. Attendees explored the feasibility of replacing more imported water supplies with local alternatives such as recycled wastewater for potable and non-potable reuse, cleaned-up groundwater, desalinated ocean water and more effective conservation measures.

Financing a transition to more local water sources will be difficult in the short term. An $11 billion bond that invests in wastewater recycling, groundwater remediation, conservation and above-ground water storage will have to be reduced to under $10 billion or postponed from the November ballot, state Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg remarked during his keynote address. Yet this bond presents significant long-term opportunities.

The bond’s immediate future notwithstanding, the stakeholders in attendance at the water summit made it clear that investment in local source development is important. According to summit speaker Robert Lempert of RAND Corporation, Southern California’s demand for water could increase by as much as 50% by 2060. By that time, almost half of the region’s water supply will need to come from new local sources and conservation to meet that potential demand.

Stakeholders in attendance also highlighted how the science, policy and public acceptance challenges of sourcing more water from these local alternatives may have turned a corner. “Local source development promises greater reliability, water security and progressively more cost-effective sources of water,” said J.R. DeShazo of the Luskin Center.

James McDaniel, senior assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s water system, presented a plan by which the utility will increase local supplies from 12% of its supply portfolio to over 40% by 2035. “It’s extremely important for us to develop local water supplies to take some of the stress off some of these imported sources and become less dependent on them,” said McDaniel.

Proposed changes in state health regulations will allow water agencies more flexibility in meeting quality standards for converting wastewater to drinking water through groundwater recharge. Kurt Souza, regional engineer for the California Department of Public Health, said the new regulations would specify a reduction in pathogens for drinking water sourced from recharged groundwater, rather than a specific technology for meeting that reduction.

A more direct path from wastewater to drinking water, known as direct potable reuse, still faces permitting and public acceptance challenges. The researchers on the “Direct Potable Reuse: In Search of Safe & Sustainable Supply” panel asserted that environmental buffers of the type used in indirect potable reuse projects are not essential to assuring water quality. Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health is  developing criteria for real-time monitoring and response to system failures. Speakers from the West Basin Municipal Water District and the Surfrider Foundation noted that in both Orange County and San Diego, public acceptance of indirect potable reuse projects hinged on broad coalitions of community, business and environmental organizations.

David Nahai, former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, moderated a panel that underscored that the goals of local water source development will require a sustained coalition of the public and private sector, academics, environmentalists and labor unions. Mike Massey, executive director of the PIPE Labor Management Trust Fund, told this panel that 35-50% of union pipe fitters are currently unemployed and ready to work on local water infrastructure projects.

The public sector’s fiscal crisis has also created opportunities to partner with the private sector on innovative solutions to wastewater treatment and energy needs. The City of Los Angeles is seeking a private partner to design, build, operate, own and finance the Hyperion Treatment Plant Digester Gas Utilization Project, which will use biogas generated in the wastewater treatment process to run the plant. Ownership of the project will revert back to the city after the private partner’s investment is paid off in ten years. Board of Public Works vice president Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza told the summit that the project can save the city $25 million a year in energy costs.

Cost issues around local water source development were raised throughout the event. Keynote speaker Jeffrey Kightlinger, chief executive officer and general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, told the summit audience that the utility’s water rates have effectively tripled since 1990. LADWP’s McDaniel estimated that by 2035, the cost of importing water will begin to exceed that of delivering nonpotable reclaimed water.

Desalinated ocean water, a relatively expensive local option, is not yet a significant source of retail water in southern California. Jeff Mosher of the National Water Research Insitute moderated a panel entitled “The Pacific Ocean: Saline Solution?” that examined the transferability of Australia’s experience with desalination and the potential effects of brine plumes on aquatic life, in addition to cost. Yoram Cohen, professor of engineering and director of the UCLA Water Technology Research Center, highlighted advancements in technology that help to overcome environmental and financial challenges, but some participants expressed continued concern.

A less controversial local water source—conservation—has been a significant source of local supply, even in wet years. Edward Osann, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Long Beach Water general manager Kevin Wattier argued that significant water savings potential can still be gained through automated metering and a regional cap-and-trade market for water conservation.

Mark Gold, now the associate director for external relations at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, spent his last day as Heal the Bay president pressing for a statewide low-impact
development ordinance and more funding directed specifically to stormwater capture and reuse. Gold’s co-panelists on the “Groundwater Management: Advancing Quality and Quantity” panel described how groundwater quality and level monitoring, in addition to better utilization of the state’s surface water rights enforcement authority, could improve basin management. Rhead Enion, Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Loaw and Policy at the UCLA Law School highlighted ideas from his Pritzker Brief "Under Water: Monitoring and Regulating Groundwater in California" about the need for California to establish an enforceable framework for groundwater monitoring and regulation that would be implemented by regional and local entities.

On state-level water policy reform, California Water Resources Control Board vice-chair Frances Spivy-Weber told the audience, “UCLA and those of you in this room…can help lead this state in a better direction in the future.”

UCLA is commited to just that. This summit was the beginning of a continued dialogue and collaboration to help identify and move forward solutions for water sustainability in southern California.

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The Future of Water in Southern California was sponsored by:

Xylem; the Urban Water Research Center at UC Irvine; State and Regional Water Boards; State Building & Construction Trades Council of CA, AFL-CIO; the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling; MWH Global; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Environment Now; Malcolm Pirnie, the Water Division of Arcadis; Water Replenishment District of Southern California; and National Water Research Institute.

Steering Committee members included:

Ayala Ben-Yehuda, Water Summit Coordinator, UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and Candidate; Master's in Urban & Regional Planning, UCLA, 2012

Yoram Cohen, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Director of the Water Technology Research Center

Bill Cooper, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Director of the Urban Water Research Center at UC Irvine

J.R. DeShazo, Director, UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, Luskin School of Public Affairs and Associate Professor of Public Policy

Madelyn Glickfeld, Assistant Director of Outreach and Strategic Initiatives of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

Glen MacDonald, Professor of Geography and of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

Jeff Mosher, Executive Director of the National Water Research Institute

David Nahai, President of David Nahai Consulting Services; and Partner of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith

Michael K. Stenstrom, Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science

Fountain image credit: Flickr, jbarreiros