California always seems on the precipice, for better or worse. It can symbolize hope and prosperity — from the fortune seekers of the gold rush to today’s would-be Hollywood stars, it’s the place where a brighter future awaits (or, at least, where the sun always shines). Or, it can portend certain doom — a state on fire, both literally and figuratively, where (over)population and natural disasters eventually coalesce into catastrophe.
Those extremes may be hyperbolic, even a bit cartoonish, but the perception persists among outside observers. You only get such charged reactions, however, if you’re truly important (as baseball great Reggie Jackson said, “Fans don’t boo nobodies”), and there is no denying California’s importance.
Ranked against countries, California has the fifth-largest economy in the world and a population greater than all of Canada. That’s a lot of people, industry, and business … and therefore a lot of water customers. Add to that Nevada — also with a growing population and shrinking resources — and you now have the massive territory covered by the California-Nevada Section of AWWA.
I spoke to Andrew DeGraca, chair of CA-NV AWWA, for insight on how water managers are safeguarding water and preparing for an uncertain future in the region, with impact that will be felt well beyond — for better or worse.
What are some measures being taken to ensure a sustainable water supply in your region?
A sustainable supply requires that both supply and demand are appropriately managed. Progressive utilities are looking at providing different water quality supplies so that the appropriate quality supply is used. Recycled water is a better option for industrial process water or golf course irrigation. Utilities are also continually taking steps to reduce per capita demand, current levels of which were clearly not believed possible a generation ago.
What water loss control lessons have you learned that are universally applicable?
Informed by California’s water loss activities, water loss technical assistance programs have sprung up across the nation that are based on the AWWA M36 methodology and AWWA Free Water Audit Software. These programs all encourage water systems to identify internal water loss teams. Data informing the audit is often maintained by several work groups, and it is critical that all data owners participate in compiling the water loss audit. Year-to-year fluctuations are to be expected as sources of supply and water delivery volumes change. It may take several years to fully understand water loss trends, implement water loss reduction projects, and correct systematic data errors. System-specific water loss reduction plans should consider local conditions, priorities, and economic constraints to ensure they are achievable and designed to achieve the optimal economic level of intervention.
In what ways have you seen digitalization affect the utility workforce?
I started in the water industry in the 1980s. At that time, paper records were the norm and record quality was pretty good. The biggest challenge was gathering all the needed records. In 2020, digitalization has resulted in an overabundance of data with variable data quality that can be easily accessed. Big Data/analytical tool development and digital data quality control will be critically important for utilities to turn this data into information or, even better, knowledge. We need to be careful that staff members don’t overly depend on technology at the risk of losing intuitive understanding and critical thinking. During or after an emergency, utilities will need staff who will be able to operate without some digital systems.
How do you feel about the changing nature of the water workforce?
I’m encouraged, but I do have some concerns. New professionals have passion for their community and environment, and impressive digital skills. Yet new professionals are likely to switch jobs every few years. We need to sell new professionals on the benefits and rewards of working in the water industry and work hard to retain them. Otherwise, we will spend lots of time training new staff without realizing the longer-term benefits.
What about challenges to water quality? What are the biggest contamination threats?
With current treatment technologies, we can take any water supply and produce a very high-quality product. The biggest contamination threats will likely shift to areas of the water system where we have less control: distribution and premise plumbing. Contamination threats will include Legionella, materials in contact with treated water (e.g., lining material), degraded infrastructure, and cross-connection control for utilities without programs.
Are there any regulations you would like to see enacted, or go away, in order to maintain healthy and sustainable water systems?
The Safe Drinking Water Act has an “anti-backsliding” provision that generally prevents removing existing standards, so my concern is with new regulations. With little federal regulatory activity for two decades, many states have started to fill the void — in many cases through “regulation by legislation,” which is far less scientifically rigorous and limits public review. The federal government generally has a much more rigorous and robust regulatory development process. I hope that federal leadership comes back, along with necessary resources for federal agencies. If not, we will need to see improvements in state regulatory processes to ensure our customers see benefits that justify the costs they will have to bear. The primary need for new regulations will be for alternate water supplies both at the utility (direct and indirect potable reuse) and building (reuse including potable) scale.