From The Editor | July 7, 2015

Surviving Drought: Utility Action Plans That Work


By Kevin Westerling,


After more than three years of severe drought, utilities in California can attest to the value of preparation — even if they found out the hard way, through inaction. But drought is not just a California problem; most of the West is in the same (grounded) boat, and water supply challenges are predicted for much of the Northwest, Midwest, and Southeast. Despite the warning signs, many at-risk states are largely unprepared. For utilities that have yet to construct a game plan for dealing with drought, or perhaps just need a better one, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) is lending a hand.

WRF is hosting a free, four-part webinar series throughout July to educate utilities on best practices for sustainable drought management and communications. In advance of the series, I spoke to WRF Executive Director Rob Renner about the purpose and importance of the webinars.

“Because of the mandatory state water restrictions in California, many utilities are looking for ways to effectively reduce water demand,” said Renner.  “This series will highlight successful short- and long-term strategies that utilities have used to reduce demand during drought.”

According to Renner, the format is unique for its “peer-to-peer” perspective, offering real-world drought lessons from those on the front lines.

“Each presenter comes from a utility that has experienced significant drought,” he said. “Sharing their experiences is invaluable to other utilities that may be addressing extreme drought for the first time, or need fresh ideas to revamp their current drought plans.”

Read more about each webinar below (overviews via WRF), and click the links to register.

Webcast 1: Turf Replacement Programs

Date: Thursday, July 9, 2015

Time: 2‒3:30 p.m. EDT

Overview: Turf replacement programs are usually a component of larger conservation programs; however, the development and implementation of a successful turf replacement program can and does have significant impacts on residential demand reductions. This webcast will highlight the turf replacement programs developed by three utilities. The presenters will outline their utility’s program, how barriers were overcome, and offer guidance to those who want to implement turf replacement programs.

Presenters: Kent Sovocool, Southern Nevada Water Authority; Bill McDonnell, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Carlos Michelon, San Diego County Water Authority

Renner’s take: “It’s estimated that outdoor water use represents close to 50 percent of residential water use, much of it going to landscapes.  Replacing water-intensive landscapes with more climate-appropriate vegetation is a key strategy to reduce residential water demand.”

Webcast 2: Using Cost-Benefit Analyses to Compare Drought Management Practices

Date: Thursday, July 16, 2015

Time: 3‒4 p.m. EDT

Overview: Utilities need reliable data on the potential impacts and costs associated with drought versus mitigation strategies. This webcast will cover the results of project #4546, “Drought Management Under a Changing Climate: Using Cost-Benefit Analyses to Assist Drinking Water Utilities,” which reviewed how a cost-benefit analysis may be used in drought planning and the issues and challenges that drinking water utilities face in implementing drought management practices. This project was funded under the NOAA Climate Program Office, Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP): Coping with Drought with the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS).

Presenters: Richard Krop, The Cadmus Group, Inc.; Nupur Hiremath, The Cadmus Group, Inc.; Luis Generoso, City of San Diego Public Utilities Department

Webcast 3: Financial Resiliency During Droughts

Date: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time: 3‒4 p.m. EDT

Overview: Utilities need to maintain their financial stability during droughts and be well-prepared for future drought-related events. This webcast will answer the following fundamental questions related to financial resiliency and drought:

  1. What is the financial cost of a drought?
  2. How should the financial cost of the drought be recovered? Which approach is best suitable for our community?
  3. Who should cut back their water use and by how much?
  4. What is the impact to my customers due to the restriction in water use and the associated drought pricing?
  5. How can water rates help you achieve your goals?

Presenters: Sanjay Gaur, Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc.; Robert Shaver, Alameda County Water District

Renner’s take: “Drought conditions can force utilities to restrict water use. This can have significant negative financial impacts since water sales represent the majority of revenue for water utilities. This webcast will discuss pricing, policies, and procedures that can help a water utility navigate the potential financial challenges of a drought.”

Webcast 4: Customer Communications During Drought

Date: Thursday, July 30, 2015

Time: 2‒3:30 p.m. EDT

Overview: Conservation communications to customers is a dynamic process. This webcast will highlight the communication programs used by three utilities with a focus on barriers to implementing effective programs, solutions to working through those barriers, and recommendations and best practices to employ for all drought-related communications efforts.

Presenters: Jessie Saich, El Dorado Irrigation District; Luis Generoso, City of San Diego Public Utilities Department; Jeff Tejral, Denver Water

Renner’s take: “Effectively communicating to your customers during a drought can have significant impacts on water demand.  It’s important to develop a communications strategy that resonates with various customers.”

My take: If we continue to preach the value of water, it borders on hypocritical not to have a plan for running out of it. My hope is that this overview points utilities facing water shortages in the right direction — toward a more resilient, secure future.

Image credit: "Rays onto the Desert," Michael C. Rael © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: