Innovation may save Drought-stricken California

Posted in: Drought, United States Water News, Water Conservation, Water Crisis, Water Technology
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Photo Credit: Ron Chapple

Article courtesy of Jaclyn Brandt | January 6, 2014 | Fierce Energy | Shared as educational material

California is facing one of the worst droughts in their history, causing a State of Emergency that has been in place since January 2014. Nearly a year ago, Governor Jerry Brown asked residents to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

Water has made history in many ways. Settlements have traditionally formed around sources of clean water, and it wasn’t until fresh water could be transported to all areas of the world that populations really flourished. But those blossoming populations may have overextended their resources.

“Some of the largest American rivers are victim to overuse, most notably the Rio Grande and the Colorado,” according to “Water Scarcity and Opportunity: Investing in a Thirsty Planet,” a report by Terra Verde Capital Partners. “The Colorado River is already dammed to capacity but faces rising demand from population growth in Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas. In addition to supplying 40 million Americans with water, the Colorado River generates hydroelectricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona, largely via the Hoover Dam; impounded by the Hoover Dam is Lake Mead, the largest reservoir at capacity in the U.S., serving 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water.”

Although residents throughout California have been asked to conserve water, the amount people are conserving by county varies significantly. Daily water use is being reported per person each month, which is showing officials how best to promote water savings by community.

“This new residential water use data, which is a first for the state, will inform localized conservation efforts and should start conversations in every community in California about the best and most judicious use of our precious water,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Board. “Every gallon saved today postpones the need for more drastic, difficult, and expensive action should the drought continue into next year or beyond.”

The state saw a three-month improvement in water usage — each month compared to the year before. But in September, that number leveled off — at 10.3 percent savings from September 2013 (August 2014 had a 11.6 percent savings over August 2013).

The new reporting requirement, called residential gallons per-capita per day (R-GPCD), has shown a wide variation — from the San Francisco Bay region at 85.2 gallons per person per day, to the Colorado River region, which averaged 251.9 gallons per person per day.

In September, the study also found that 87 percent of reporting agencies had instituted water restrictions outdoors.

“R-GPCD really does help us to gain a better sense of comparison than simply looking at percentage reductions, since different areas of the state have been conserving for far longer than other areas. It also shows us what is possible,” said Marcus.

Utilities and private companies are both finding new ways to deal with the crisis, but at much different rates. According to a report by Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, “In the United States, the clean energy sector has benefited from about $8 billion in public investment over the past thirteen years, while only $28 million in public dollars has gone to the water sector over the same period.”

Utility efforts

But utilities are doing what they can with what they have to deal with the water shortage in California. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) Water Conservation Response Unit (WCRU) has been out on the streets searching out water waste.

“The WCRU will help remind customers about our watering restrictions, the importance of saving water, and enforce the ordinance in a friendly yet firm way,” said LADWP’s General Manager Marcie Edwards. “They are also great sources of information on how to become more water efficient in your home and outdoors, where about half of all water is used.”

The team physically drives around the city with their eyes open to any wasted water. And the effort seems to be working. According to the LADWP, water usage is down 17 percent from California’s last drought in 2007.

Hydroelectric plants are particularly at risk during the crisis.

Although 14 to 19 percent of California’s energy supplies are provided by hydroelectric plants, 10 to 15 percent is provided by power plants located within the state.

According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), the amount of energy created by hydroelectricity has decreased, mostly due to the state’s commitment to renewable sources — from around 60 percent in the 1950s. However, water is still an important source of energy for the state.

“This year’s small snowpack means there will be less hydroelectricity generated by in-state facilities. These power plants will operate during fewer hours this year, especially during spring when water is being conserved and in the fall when water supplies may be severely limited,” according to the CEC. “Electric utilities can use stored water to optimize electric generation during hot summer days. Some facilities, though, have very little reservoir storage and little flexibility to schedule electricity production at specific times.”

The drought in California is not the state’s first, and they know they will not always be able to rely on their hydroelectric power. Utilities in the state are expected to produce more natural gas and renewable fuels than in other years — to help fill the gap left by hydroelectric.

“In addition, California normally imports hydropower from the Pacific Northwest and from Hoover Dam in the Pacific Southwest,” according to the CEC. “Indeed, additional energy imports from Pacific Northwest are often available, a condition that is expected in 2014. Conditions for hydroelectric generation in the Pacific Southwest appear stable through 2015, and the Pacific Northwest is projecting surpluses of hydropower through 2018.”

Hydropower is so valuable because it produces no emissions and is one of the least expensive types of energy. But, according to the CEC, “The effects of the drought and additional power replacement costs will not be immediately known.”

Start-up innovations

Start-ups are looking to cash in on the drought. WaterSmart Software is one such company that is using innovation to make a difference. They have created a cloud-based program to help customers understand their water usage, which, in turn, is meant to lower their use.

The East Bay Utility Municipal District is one of the municipalities that signed a contract with the company earlier this year — to launch a 10,000-home pilot project.

The Home Survey Kit given out by the utility helps customers “find and fix leaks, and check water flow rates.” They also provide tips for reducing water usage in homes and businesses.

TerrAvion is another startup that has thrived during the drought. The company helps fly manned aircraft over farmland, and returns with thermal images for farmers to find their irrigation trouble spots.

The company recently won an award from ImagineH20, a company that holds competitions meant to spur innovation and reductions in the energy industry.

“From an industry perspective, it’s exciting to see numerous entrepreneurs and startups around the world addressing this critical need for new technology for reducing water use in food production,” said Imagine H2O Judge Chris Morrison, assistant vice president of Global Water Technology Partnerships at Ecolab.

Celebrities are also getting in on the effort to save water. Conan O’Brien recorded a PSA for water conservation.

“Governor Brown has called for everyone in California to cut their water use by 20 percent, and that includes famous comedians,” said Steve Fleischli, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) water program. “Conan and Andy (Richter, O’Brien’s sidekick), true to form, offer their unique twist on how to cut water use in our everyday lives.  Mixing humor and advocacy is an effective way to reinforce the message that we can all do our part.”

Conservation is key

Although weather has been helping the drought, it doesn’t mean it’s enough to make a significant difference. Conservation is key to making it through the crisis, and innovators in the field are helping make it an easy decision.

California has weathered drought before, and will again with the help of the innovators in the field who are making it easier for consumers to reduce water usage and conserve all they can.

The Emergency Water Regulation is currently in place until April 2015. It looks like the road to recovery will be a long one, and the residents of the state need to be in it for the long haul.

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