Article | March 10, 2014

In California, Come Rain Or Shine, Upfront Efficiency Is Always In Style

Jim Lauria

By Jim Lauria


Caught between a withering drought and floods from winter storms, California faces the worst of both worlds—dealing with scarcity as well as stormwater.  America, and much of the world, is watching to see how this trendsetting state handles those challenges.  After generations of setting America’s style, from cowboys to Beatniks to Beach Boys to Silicon Valley billionaires, California can set perhaps its most important trend yet—it can lead the way to a more water-efficient America.  It has to.  The good news is that it can.

High Stakes

The Sierra snowpack—a significant water supply source in California—is just 17 percent of what is normal this winter.  Even with the early-March storms, the state is desperately dry.

More than 35 million Californians are going to have to share what little water flows out of the mountains this year.  That’s a population bigger than all of Canada, and an economy that would rank number 11 in the world if California were an independent country.  Nearly half of all of America’s domestically produced fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced in California, contributing to a massive, $44 billion statewide agricultural industry that puts more than $18 billion in exports on our nation’s balance sheet each year.  California has America’s largest port, massive power generating infrastructure, and a huge manufacturing sector for products big and small.

All of that is threatened by drought and at grave risk of damage from flooding.

Floods: The Immediate Challenge

Stormwater is a challenge under the best of circumstances.  Inches of rain falling on thousands of square miles of pavement, parched arid land, and precious topsoil amplifies it tremendously.

As most operators know, stormwater conveyance systems, water plant headworks, and industrial intakes are vulnerable to damage or stoppage from flood-carried debris.  California is particularly prone to flash floods and mudslides.  Those can wreak havoc, throwing solids at intakes ranging from trees, boulders and trash to sand and silt.

After more than 20 years in the water industry, I’ve developed a “first things first” philosophy.  As any good process engineer knows, loss of efficiency at the head of a plant can never be regained—it just leads to further inefficiencies downstream. The most valuable piece of equipment in a stormwater situation may well be the least glamorous: the screens at the headgates or intakes.  Screen technology is not sexy.  It’s not high-tech.  But that technology has to be well-designed, well-specified, and well-built.  Because trying to pull a tree, gather trash, or clear sediment to get a system back online isn’t sexy either.  By any means.

Still Scarce

Tragically, most of the water that washes across California in floods will end up in the Pacific Ocean in a matter of hours.  That still leaves the state suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history.

Water’s like land in the old adage about real estate: it only gets more valuable because they’re not making any more of it.  California has squeaked by in the past, but population pressure, agriculture (including a recent shift of thousands of acres to permanent tree and vine crops that offer farmers no option to skip a year of irrigation) and the recognition of the environment’s claim on water rights have outstripped the capabilities of even the nation’s most ambitious system of reservoirs and canals.

As Peter Gleick, president of The Pacific Institute, told the Los Angeles Times, “we’ve given away more than nature provides.”

Under this kind of pressure, Californians (and their desert neighbors) are without a doubt America’s most water-savvy citizens. But there’s still a long way to go.

Households still use too much water (and too much energy, which is generated in a hugely water-intensive process).   Despite advances in irrigation technology and timing, 40 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland is flood irrigated, which requires massive flows.  Farmers who don’t receive irrigation water from the state or federal water projects—which will be pretty much everybody this year—may still tap groundwater with impunity, as unlike other states, California lacks a comprehensive system of monitoring or regulating groundwater pumping.

That’s a big blind spot.  According to the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at University of California, Davis, groundwater accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s water use in drought years, up from 30 percent in normal years.   Expect 2014 to blow the doors off the records: The Business Journal in California’s Central Valley reports that groundwater levels in the region around Fresno are dropping by 10 feet per year, and that nearly 900 well drilling permits were issued by Fresno County alone by the end of last year.

No Lack of Models

Recycled water could—should—become a vital resource in California.  In that department, though California may be America’s fashion trend-setter, it can clearly gather inspiration from other places.  For instance, its Mediterranean climate, agricultural system, and population pressure are remarkably similar to Israel, which recycles more than 80 percent of its wastewater for use primarily in irrigation.  Spain, another nation that looks an awful lot like California, treats and re-uses as much as 12 percent of its wastewater.  That’s four to six times the rate America does.

Singapore’s Public Utilities Board is a global leader in toilet-to-tap wastewater recycling.  Its NEWater system has set the global standard for both wastewater treatment and civic engagement in accepting—even coveting—treated wastewater for industrial and municipal use.

Israel and Australia have lessons to share on water use efficiency and irrigation management, and California farmers have been eager to learn.  Companies from both nations have established themselves in California to an enthusiastic welcome.

Israel and other Middle Eastern countries have aggressively pursued seawater desalination.  It’s energy intensive and expensive, but it could be a lifeline for California.  We’re seeing desal research at Port Hueneme, in Ventura County, and some commercial desal plants, like those in Santa Barbara or the Marina Coast Water District, may be re-commissioned to help deal with the current drought.

Promising Projects

Don’t get me wrong: California’s down, but not out.  There are some outstanding projects that will lead the country after all.  One of my favorites is the collaboration between Chevron and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (East Bay MUD) in Richmond, Calif.  There, the district feeds 7.5 million gallons per day (GPD) of tertiary-treated municipal wastewater to Chevron’s refinery, which pumps the water into its cooling towers.  Some of that water is then recycled by Chevron up to a dozen times before it’s treated for discharge or dissociated for hydrogen, which is used in the refining process.  The result: Chevron has an efficient refinery and Richmond ratepayers have 7.5 MGD more potable water to work with—water that isn’t needed to feed the refinery.

Ladies and gentlemen, THAT is how it’s done.

There are plenty of other great examples of progress.  California leads the way in aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects, in which water is stored as groundwater in wet years, where it acts as a buffer against saltwater intrusion as well as a hedge against drought.  Some systems direct rain or river flow to their ASR sites; Orange County has gone a step further, supplying tertiary treated wastewater to its ASR program, as well as its reservoir system—foresight that earned it this year’s prestigious Lee Kuan Yew water award.

Santa Clara’s direct potable reuse system is due to come online this year, and southern California megalopolises like San Diego have at least started the conversation about the need to convert wastewater back to potable water.

Low-irrigation landscaping is catching on among homeowners and commercial landscape designers.  Farmers are adopting drip irrigation and low-volume watering systems, along with state-of-the-art management tools that reduce water use by monitoring weather, soil conditions and even the water consumption of individual plants.

Most important, ratepayers recognize the challenges and are ready to support—and pay for—solutions.  A survey of 1,000 California voters just released by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 82 percent of the respondents agreed that “California’s water supply problems are so severe that we need to make investments now to pay for them.”   Large majorities—over 70 percent—reported they’d pay more for groundwater cleanup, water-efficient technologies, rainwater capture and water recycling plants to enhance local water supplies. 

With those levels of commitment and awareness, Californians are ready to take the lead.

First Things First

Of course, planning is going to be the vital first step.  As with managing stormwater, success with water reclamation hinges upon getting the upper hand by staying efficient from the very start.

All these solutions require clean water right from the start.  Irrigation water—whether it’s straight from the well or pumped from a wastewater treatment plant—will plug a drip irrigation system in minutes if it’s carrying silt or sand.  Solids in water, from the size of trash to the nearly microscopic, can bring the most state-of-the-art treatment plant to a standstill and cause costly damage to expensive filtration systems downstream.  Sand or bacteria in water injected into the substrata as part of an ASR project can plug formations and create an underground disaster.

The key phrase is “first things first.”  Protecting the headworks, the intakes, the well heads and the irrigation inlets is absolutely vital.  So is recognizing that every well, every canal and every pipe is an invitation and a challenge for California to find ways to protect, reduce, reuse and recycle its water.

I’m not a big follower of fashion, but that’s a trend I can get behind.

Jim Lauria is Senior Vice Director of Bilfinger Water Technologies’ Water Treatment Business Unit.  Jim has over 20 years of global experience as a senior executive in the water industry, and holds a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from Manhattan College.  You can reach him at or (805) 338-9352.

Image credit: "_MG_5065," © 2007 Fikret Onal, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: