A Critical Issue – Water Resiliency

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It took a drought of epic proportions to force the Australian nation to radically reform its water policies and practices. California is now in the fourth year of its own serious drought, with growing negative impacts to economies, communities, and ecosystems. While there’s great value in California adopting similar actions that Australia took to manage a dwindling resource, there are great challenges as well.

For starters, California’s water laws are irrational. Senior and junior water claims are based on the timing of gold rush era prospectors nailing pieces of paper to trees adjacent to water sources. Some industry experts estimate that it would take 30 years of full time work just to sort out the claims and hierarchies on water sources before an overhaul could be started. That would be a daunting task here and in other western states governed by similar claim precedents. But it gets worse. California’s water consumers are also irrational. In California, 90% of the state’s water is dedicated to agricultural use. Much of that agriculture is focused on water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa. If you’re wondering why a desert climate is producing crops that are better suited to regions with significantly predictable precipitation, you’re not alone.

At that December water conference, California officials seemed most interested in the physical improvements that could be mandated in building codes (such as rain catchments) but deflected questions on how legislation could change California water laws to encourage conservation and agriculture models more suited to desert climates.

There’s an additional complication. California’s primary source of water is winter precipitation that is conveniently stored in the form of snow. It’s very difficult to measure exactly how much snow falls in any given season and accurately predict how much of that snow will melt into useable water in the ensuing summer. Snow water equivalent describes the amount of water contained in snow pack. As you can intuit, dry snow contains less water than wet snow, and sometimes the differences can be as extreme as thirty inches of dry snow for one inch of water versus five inches of wet snow yielding one inch of water.

California’s snowpack, or lack of it, is not just an important source of drinking water. It is also a source of electricity generation in the state. A shrinking snowpack impacts the hydropower that can be generated. It’s a uniquely Californian take on that energy/water nexus, and it’s not a sustainable strategy. There’s a real lack of resiliency in the current water infrastructure that also impacts energy.

There are more available solutions to address hydropower reductions than potable water reductions. The electricity infrastructure is more amenable to optimization through ongoing applications of innovative technologies, policies, and financial capital.   More distributed generation plus energy storage can replace some hydropower reductions. But as far as water infrastructure goes, these systems are much more inflexible and much less optimized than their electric grid counterparts. It’s just the early days for deployment of Smart Grid technologies into water infrastructure in California and much of the rest of the USA.   But more than that, we’ll need smart water policies and innovations in financing the necessary water infrastructure upgrades to address critical resiliency concerns.


What A Down Under Drought Can Teach California About Water

Two important drought-related events happened in California late last year. The state received much-needed rainfall in December, and it convened a daylong conference in Sacramento to compare Australian and Californian water policies. Australia recently survived a “millennium drought” of twelve years duration. The experience resulted in development and deployment of innovative water management policies that serve as excellent examples for California and the rest of the USA.

The Australian government’s complete overhaul of water allocation rights is truly revolutionary. They threw out the old rules and started over. They separated urban and agricultural usage in their policy design and then completed a systemic overhaul of the agricultural water market. An online system documented exchanges and eliminated trade restrictions on water. In essence, it’s a cap and trade system, but instead of carbon emissions the units are water volume. Farmers with the flexibility to grow crops with less water intensity could sell their excess allocation to farmers with water-intense crops.

As is often quoted about electricity, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s equally true about water. Australia invested significant time and financial resources to calculate the amount of water in reservoirs required to sustain the 90% of the population that resides in the southeast. The policy-makers understood the need for a data reset, acknowledging that past data is not necessarily predictive of future outcomes – something especially true as climate changes impact patterns of precipitation and water supply assumptions. As a result, their new policy approach combines technology and data to maximize efficiency at every stage of the water supply chain. If you think this sounds like a Smart Grid philosophy, you are right.

The government also designed incentives to get consumers to conserve as much water as possible. I’ve written before about the value of gamification to increase awareness.  The government published a daily report about the liters per person (LPP) used the previous day. This required infrastructure capable of measurement precision, but by publishing daily usage data with 24 hours turnaround, people could recall how they used water the previous day and were thus more fully engaged in personal and community efforts to lower the LPP number.  And even though the drought is over, those conservation behaviors are persistent and Australians consume significantly less water now.

Technologies that had the largest water savings impact included decentralized storm water capture and lining aqueducts with impermeable material to prevent seepage and evaporation that results in large losses of useable water. On the data side, accurate measurement of total water supplies and the flow of water through distribution grids identified potable water leaks for immediate repairs. New hydrology data about stream flows and source levels is now monitored to provide very precise allotments of water with minimal losses and overhead.

Australians had a shared pain – they were all in the drought together, and had to put aside political differences to address severely dysfunctional policies that prevented smart water management. They invested in big infrastructure with the aim to increase water supplies with desalination plants and reduce systemic losses through pipeline upgrades. They embraced big data for precise agricultural irrigation and other water saving measures. They harnessed shared social affiliations to engage all consumers in persistent and sustainable water conservation efforts.   They did everything with an eye towards protection of the natural resources and especially the riparian ecosystems so important to water supplies.

Could California adopt similar measures? We may be forced to find out if this drought does not end, but there are significant challenges in the way of developing smart statewide water policies and practices, as next week’s article will cover.


Could California Become a Leader in Smart Water Management?

California, the Golden State, can legitimately claim a number of superlatives. It’s the ninth largest economy in the world. It has the largest living tree in Sequoia National Park. It has the highest and lowest points (Mount Whitney and Death Valley) in the continental USA. Death Valley is also the hottest and driest place in the USA. And California has the most variable climate in the USA. This last distinction has some downsides.

The state relies on a relatively small number of winter storms to recharge groundwater sources and restore snowpack that furnishes most of the potable water in the state. But in times of drought, the state relies on groundwater. Some estimates indicate that as much as 65% of water is sourced from these supplies.

Shamefully, California also stands out as the only state that doesn’t regulate groundwater – pumping is not monitored or measured.  As noted about electricity consumption, if it is not measured, it is not managed.  The state has 127 basins that supply groundwater for residential populations and agricultural users, and many of these sources are being stressed by over-pumping.  That’s created a situation that is akin to strip-mining, with similar permanent damages.

As underground sources are pumped dry, the result is subsidence – the ground sinks.  In San Joaquin Valley, which is part of California’s Central Valley, unregulated groundwater pumping had sunk some parts of the valley by 28 feet (8.5 meters) by the early 1970s.  The pace of drilling new and deeper wells has intensified in the extreme drought that California in experiencing, resulting in more subsidence. This has expensive impacts on water infrastructure repairs to canals, dams, and pipelines, as well as built environments.  Many areas are permanently flattened due to a condition called inelastic compaction.  There’s no sponge effect to restore this compacted land to its former condition.

That’s a real tragedy, because the state needs those aquifers.  Groundwater storage is cheap compared to other forms of storage.  On average, it costs $10 to $600 per acrefoot to store groundwater.  In contrast, storage in reservoirs, recycling water to potability standards, and desalination can run as high as $2500/acrefoot.  Compacting underground storage areas by pumping beyond sustainable levels carries a very high cost replacement options are considered.

There’s a federal component at play when it comes to water in Western states.  Both federal and state governments could learn several valuable lessons from the Australians, who, as a result of a devastating national drought, rationalized their laws about water rights and strongly reinforced the concept that water is a public good, and publicly owned.  The Australians were true innovators when it came to smart water management policy.

California has a history of innovative policy to look to for inspiration. The loading order the state enacted for energy sources in 2003 and continues today is an important example.  That policy put first priority on energy efficiency and demand response to reduce overall energy needs, then renewable energy sources and distributed generation, and finally clean fossil?fueled sources and infrastructure improvements.  This strategy has paid off in reduced CO2 emissions and diversifying the state’s energy mix.   It also happened to reduce the average Californian’s energy bill to one of the lowest in the country as noted in a recent Department of Commerce report on consumer spending.

A similar approach could reduce statewide water consumption and leverage non-traditional water sources.  Aggressive statewide water efficiency standards are an excellent first priority.  Regulating groundwater pumping is another important step.  Diversification strategies should increase the use of recycled graywater for landscaping and other non-potable uses.  A diversified water portfolio also has to consider backup sources of potable water to improve water infrastructure resiliency.  A focus on more distributed, community-based water storage could help, capturing valuable precipitation for future consumption, rather than immediately dumping it into storm drains for treatment and release.  Existing water infrastructure can also be upgraded, replacing aging pipes to eliminate leaks and improve systemic resiliency to failures and threats.

Could California be first state in the USA to adopt these policy innovations to be a leader in smart water management?  The first bill to regulate groundwater, SB1168, is wending its way through the law-making process.  Time will soon tell if water policy will change to a more rational approach that supports better management.


Reimagining Infrastructure

Walt Disney said it best:  “If you can dream it, you can do it.” That’s the challenge for this generation and the ones succeeding it when it comes creating Smart Grids out of today’s infrastructure for energy and water.  We’re much further along in terms of envisioning a modernized electricity grid than we are when the aging infrastructure under consideration is water.  That’s easy to understand.  Electricity is less of a challenge and less of a stretch to re-engineer.  Starting with the traditional supply chain of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption, electricity is a walk in the park compared to the problems and complexities of water.

Consider the overall infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers produces a very informative report every four years on US infrastructure.  The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure graded critical infrastructure systems and identified the following investment needs:

  • Electrical grid – D+.  Will require $57B (billion) by 2020 to upgrade.
  • Drinking water grid – D+.  Will require $13B per year now and growth to $40B per year by 2040 – a staggering $1T (trillion) investment*.
  • Wastewater grid – D+.  Will require $300B by 2033 to upgrade.

At $57B, the costs for upgrading the electric grid to a Smart Grid are relatively cheap compared to the investments for water grid modernization.  A Smart Grid for electricity can rely on one set of wires to move electricity around the supply chain.  Of course, there must be equipment upgrades and new technologies in place to support a bi-directional electricity flow as consumers also become producers or prosumers and can sell electricity back to the grid, but today’s existing infrastructure can be upgraded to accomplish it.

In contrast, water needs anywhere from two to four sets of pipes depending on the amount of built environment needed.  There’s the pipeline grid for clean drinking (potable) water.  There’s another grid for wastewater, and sometimes a third grid for stormwater to handle the runoff from urban, suburban, industrial, commercial, or agricultural sites.

The remaining water grid is one for reclaimed water.  There is growing recognition, particularly in water-stressed areas, that it is sheer insanity to use potable water to flush toilets or water lawns.  Reclaimed water could do the job, as could gray water – the water from showers, laundry equipment, and bath sinks before heading back into the water grid as wastewater.

It is easy to find many solutions that generate locally-produced electricity that can be consumed onsite (as promoted in the distributed energy resources model), but the technologies are not nearly as numerous when it comes to gray water.  Nor are the discussions about the pros and cons of various solution alternatives.  Does it make economic sense to divert gray water on a highly decentralized basis – such as onsite reuse, or is the better solution to divert this gray water to centralized plants for treatment into reclaimed water – meaning it is safe for body contact but not for drinking – and then into specialized non-potable uses.  Either configuration requires new grid infrastructure to handle gray water.  The retrofit challenges are significant – new plumbing and equipment would be needed to divert, treat, and reuse gray water on site.  And what about the energy/water nexus – do we consume less energy with decentralized gray water solutions or with centralized reclaimed water solutions?

Some jurisdictions have decided that a centralized solution is best.   Some state and local governments are requiring new water infrastructure for new buildings, known as purple pipe.  This typically entails creation of dual piping systems for commercial and industrial buildings to accommodate reclaimed water when it is available for outdoor landscaping or indoor toilet flushing.

The use of reclaimed water is the closest that the water grid gets to being bi-directional in terms of Smart Grid configurations – it’s a very intriguing closed loop on a small or large scale.  But it eludes the reasonably straightforward upgrades that we can plan for the electricity grid.

As I’ve noted before, the three primary drivers for the Smart Grid are technology, policy, and money.  There are many innovations in these drivers that have accelerated the transition of the traditional electrical grid into a Smart Grid.  We need similar innovations for water use – particularly consumption and treatment. We need to dream up some very different scenarios in order to transition our water grids – potable and non-potable – into Smart Grids too.

*By way of contrast, the Iraq War cost US taxpayers almost $2T so far, with ongoing, and growing costs for all veterans benefits.  Perhaps “Make infrastructure, not war” should be our new slogan.


Drought and Energy – An Interesting Water/Energy Nexus

The water/energy nexus and the ramifications of this closely intertwined relationship, particularly with energy generation, needs to gain awareness beyond policy wonks in the western states of the USA. These previous blogs about California’s water issues and the water/energy nexus provide good background about climate change impacts to water and energy.

If we look at water as a supply chain, it is easy to spot the similarities to the traditional electricity supply chain, which consists of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption. The water supply chain is comprised of water sources (similar to generation), transport (similar to transmission), treatment (similar to distribution) and consumption.  The Smart Grid is transforming the electricity supply chain into a value chain in which consumers can also become electricity producers or prosumers.  The Smart Grid will also play many vital roles in the connections between energy and water.

There are serious problems at every stage of the water supply chain starting with sources.  Water sources can be grouped in three categories:  1) precipitation in the form of rain or snow; 2) groundwater sources such as rivers, streams, and underground aquifers (all rely on precipitation for resupply); and 3) conversion of briny and brackish water into water suitable for plant or animal (including human) consumption.

The current news focus in California has been on possible delay of once through cooling rules to address the unexpected closure of a nuclear power plant in southern California due to safety concerns.  Once through cooling is a technique that uses water drawn from older coastal and bayside power plants in the electricity generation process.  It is extremely destructive to marine environments.   Seawater intake – up to 16 billion gallons per day – is expelled at high temperatures.  Both intake and outflow are harmful to the aquatic life, which confronts many other challenges caused by climate change, environmental pollution, and overfishing.    New power plants are designed to use air instead of water, eliminating this environmental peril, and many older plants in California are in the process of retooling or retirement.

Northern California, which includes the San Francisco Bay Area, has different power concerns that are caused by climate change and the current drought, which is labeled extreme to exceptional for most of the area.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) notes that between 8 to 17%

of in?state generation comes from hydropower.  Approximately 75% of this in-state hydropower is produced by 150 high elevation hydroelectric plants situated in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.  The supply reservoirs for these plants typically contain less than a year’s storage capacity.  Most rely on snowpack for water storage.

Snowpack is perfect time-release water storage when it is available.  However, every climate change model forecasts that most of the west will receive less precipitation in the coming decades.  That precipitation that does occur is increasingly likely to be rainfall instead of snow.  We are facing a future in which these hydro plants have lost their predictability for use.  If a hydropower plant operator releases water now to generate electricity, there’s no certainty that there will be sufficient annual precipitation to resupply that reservoir for future generation, or that it will be conveniently time-released in melting snowpack.

Demand response (DR) is a tactic that utilities use to reduce peak electricity use.  In California, most utilities have summer peaks that correspond to very hot weather and the need for electricity to power air conditioning across a region.  These utilities have DR programs that induce residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural customers to voluntarily cut back their consumption during the hottest days.  We can all connect the dots to realize that there will be a greater need for DR programs and participants as all regions of the USA will experience higher temperatures due to climate change.  But when you connect these dots, you also realize that regions and utilities that are reliant on hydropower will have to leverage more demand response (DR) to conserve water in hydropower plants that are at risk of limited resupply – particularly if that resupply comes from snowpack.

Demand response for water conservation – it’s one aspect of the water/energy nexus that has received little attention, but it will certainly play a larger role in western states that rely on hydropower in the future.   Electricity prosumers, producing predictable negawatts to offset peak demand, will play a critical role in this particular intertwining of water and energy.  As important as DR will be, its only part of the energy supply solution as overall temperature rises are predicted from climate change.  Western states will have to rely on more distributed generation from other clean, renewable energy sources to compensate for losses from hydropower as its predictability of supply and timing are disrupted by climate change.  Smart Grid technologies can certainly help integrate renewables and other distributed energy resources as a creative response to conserve water and manage the intricacies of the water/energy nexus.


Recommended Beach Reading

It’s almost the fourth of July for Americans, and that means a holiday with time to read. Two interesting reports were released in June, and while not the typical frothy-light paperback novel genre, they are good reading for the beach. Spoiler alert – both reports conclude that your beach won’t be there in a couple of decades.

The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities report was created by the US Department of Energy (DOE) resources, with contributions from multiple national labs and other federal entities like the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Agriculture, plus academic support. It frames the future in terms of climate change and energy security. It’s a sobering assessment of the future of these two inextricably linked things – water and energy.  We need water for energy – it is an essential component in energy production for fossil fuels as well as manufacturing renewables technologies. As hydropower, it generates electricity. We need energy to extract, transport, and treat water.

The report identifies four trends that represent challenges and opportunities for Americans:

1)    Climate change is already impacting temperature and precipitation patterns in the USA

2)   Americans continue to move to parts of the country that already have stressed water supplies and energy infrastructures

3)    The pace of innovation in energy and water technologies could have dramatic influences on future consumption

4)    Water rights policies and increased demand for water in energy production (such as fracking) are creating conflicts between politically important stakeholders like agriculture and natural gas companies.

Every Californian can bear witness to these four trends. Much of its water is collected in winter in the form of snow, except when it doesn’t precipitate. The state is in an historic drought. Warming temperatures will reduce the amount of snowfall and increase the amount of rainfall, requiring appropriate storage facilities, which will be expensive. The alterations to the present weather patterns will significantly impact hydro generation in the state, too. The luster on the Monterey Shale formation may have recently dimmed as the estimates for recoverable oil were reduced by 96%, but agricultural interests still voice concerns about the risks to shrinking ground water sources from fracking technologies.  The situation sounds dire, yet people continue to move to the Golden State and put increased stresses on existing energy and water infrastructure. The good news is that California continues to lead in clean tech innovation, so perhaps we can invent our way out of the hole we’re in.

The other report is titled Risky Business:  The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.  It is a publication from the Risky Business Project, co-chaired by Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City; Henry (Hank) Paulsen, former US Treasury Secretary; and Thomas Steyer, retired founder of Farallon Capital Management.  The distinguished – and important to emphasize in the USA – bipartisan committee includes Democrats and Republicans who have been federal cabinet secretaries, senators, and corporate leaders.  The report’s findings were reviewed by an independent expert panel of leading climate scientists and economists.

The basic premise of the report is that human-caused climate changes have measurable economic impacts.  Yet until now, there’s been virtually no risk assessment with done on climate change, nor one that drills down to regional perspectives.  The greatest risks and impacts will be evidenced in damage to coastal property and infrastructure; changes in agricultural production; and impacts on productivity and health from temperature increases.  That covers all the regions in the USA – no one is insulated from climate change.

Peering through water-energy nexus lenses, have you noticed how much electricity production and water treatment infrastructure is located near water?  Consider it at risk from rising sea levels and increased runoff (warmer atmospheric conditions lead to heavier precipitation where rain exists).  As outside temperatures get warmer, there will be greater demands for energy to power air conditioning in regions that don’t need it now, and for greater durations of time in regions already using it.  That will increase demand for water in energy production – particularly cooling down overheated generation equipment.  We had better build Smart Grids and Smart Infrastructures that can adapt to changing conditions.

So as you head to your favorite beach to cool off from the July heat, read about a summer day just a few decades away when that beach has been overtaken by the sea, and its far too hot to be outside during daylight hours.  Is that really the future we want for the next generations?