California Summit—Water: Protecting California’s Lifeline

December 09, 2015

Solutions require low- and high-tech strategies, state and local infrastructure

And despite Californians' faith in technology, we should stop imagining there is a tech-driven "silver bullet" out there that will solve the water crisis, said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor at USC's Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Instead, the fix will be developing myriad solutions that typically won't strike the public as terribly exciting, Sanders and other panelists said. That would include, for example, capturing much more of the water that flows out of Southern California's mountains to the sea during and after the rainy season.

Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation said the extreme drought of the last few years has exposed the serious shortcomings of the state's reliance on storing Sierra Nevada mountain water and shipping it long distances, or bringing it from the Colorado River.

"The entire economy of California was built around imported water systems," said Snow, a former secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency. "The problem is that none of those systems is capable of delivering the water they once delivered. They all have become less reliable." And that won't change even if this winter brings heavy rain and snow, he said.

Snow argued that the state, along with local governments, must focus on developing a "well-diversified portfolio" of water resources to reduce our reliance on long-distance sourcing.

"There's a whole local water supply infrastructure that is coming around, and it's the wave of the future," said Martin Adams, senior assistant general manager of the water system for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He cited the need to catch city storm water and store it, for example. "It will be a new era of infrastructure locally," he said.

In regard to waste water, "the future of this is really going to 'short circuit' the water cycle," Adams added. "We basically want to take the water that is leaving homes or businesses and get it back into the drinking water system by the quickest way possible," which will involve more localized treatment systems.

Several panelists cited the need to bring more businesses into the discussion—both as constituents in decision-making about resource allocation and as partners in developing novel supply solutions.

One of the biggest facilities coming online is the Carlsbad Desalination Project in San Diego County. The concept was hatched in the 1990s, and construction began three years ago, said Carlos Riva, CEO of Poseidon Water, the project's private developer. The plant's output of 50 million gallons a day will make it the largest in the Western Hemisphere. All will be sold to the San Diego County Water Authority.

"Carlsbad is a real test case for how projects can develop in the future for California," Riva said. "One of the key success factors is the relationship we developed with the San Diego County Water Authority." Rather than arranging a traditional private/public relationship between a vendor and a customer, Poseidon sought a "partnership" with the agency that involved much more transparency in their dealings, he said.

Even so, Riva agreed with other panelists that desalination is limited as a water supply solution, in part because of environmental issues.

Finally, the panel noted that agriculture's heavy water use has made it a favorite target as the drought has worsened. Many people question whether California’s farmers could be more efficient.

"Ag often is pointed at as evil," said Paula Landis, executive officer of the California Water Commission, which advises the state's Department of Water Resources. "The question is, why doesn't ag change? But it has changed a lot, and continues to change." What's more, she said, new laws governing groundwater management "are going to have a huge impact on agriculture."

USC's Sanders said that large-scale industrialized farming in the Central Valley is threatened not just by the drought, but by decades of soil depletion. And farming provides economic benefits to the state, she noted. By contrast, Sanders said, "we're still doing things like irrigating lawns, which really provides little economic value."