Metropolitan water shortages: lessons learned the hard way

There’s nothing like a crisis to focus  the mind. News of Cape Town’s and Sao Paolo’s water shortage crises are  all too familiar to Southern Californian’s recovering from their worst  drought in history. When the Governor enforced an immediate 25 percent  water reduction the year before last, it felt like I was told to slip  into my high school blue jeans twenty years later. Depending on your  water provider, some customers fared better than others.

So what did we learn and what more do we need to learn?

Regional  cooperation among water providers is essential. Metropolitan Water  District, the regional wholesaler to 19 million customers, invested an  unprecedented $350 million in outdoor water efficiency. Seeing as more  than 50 percent of water consumption goes to outdoor use, this  investment went a long way toward ripping out water-guzzling lawns,  replacing them with a rainbow of native plants, and installing catchment  mechanisms to hold water onsite during future rains. Metropolitan’s  largest customer, the City of Los Angeles, used the subsidy to reduce  consumption by 20 percent among ratepayers and 25 percent  institutionally across public streets, parks, and buildings.

Another  customer, the City of Santa Monica showed that strong lines of  communication helped institute new rate designs. The City achieved  record-conservation by instituting water budgets for each customer based  on the number of occupants and square footage of outdoor space.  Customers were regularly informed about their consumption trends  relative to prior use and to their neighbors.  When customers exceeded  their budgets, they were charged a fee. When they exceeded their budget  multiple times, the City paid customers a visit. In fact, they reached  out directly to the top 10 percent of users across the commercial,  residential, and industrial sectors to provide tools and skills for  achieving greater water efficiency.

Remarkably, the Inland Empire  Utility Agency, a customer in one of the region’s hottest climates, had  so much water they were selling surplus to neighboring agencies during  the drought. How did they do it, you ask? The IEUA had invested $275  million in water resiliency over 20 years. They had developed regional  water supplies, including state-of-the-art recycled water and  groundwater recharge facilities, water use efficiency programs, and  infrastructure improvements that avoided leaks.

To be sure,  Californians suffered through the drought as well. Forty-nine  already-disadvantaged communities in rural California lost water at the  tap. Groundwater basins were depleted at such rapacious rates for  agriculture that the ground sunk damaging infrastructure and buildings  atop. Drought-stricken forests left nearly 100 million trees vulnerable  to the ravages of a bark beetle epidemic.

The drought was painful  for many and continues to be felt. But, a major takeaway is regions  must plan for scarcity. Inter-drought periods are becoming shorter and  water providers won’t have time to implement new policies or projects  when the next drought arrives. And if there's one thing we can be  certain of it's that the next drought is coming.

Last updated July 2, 2018

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