Water was never abundant in California, and the state has gone to great lengths to engineer a landscape where millions of people can live. As climate change grows more severe, it is only going to be more challenging to meet the water needs of city dwellers, farmers and nature.
But certain technologies and policy changes offer hope. California can recycle wastewater, capture stormwater and desalinate seawater, and policymakers can rethink water management. In this episode of the UCI Podcast, David Feldman, a professor of urban planning and public policy and the director of Water UCI discusses the options for overcoming worsening droughts, including the most important change of all.
In this episode:
David Feldman, professor of urban planning and public policy, and director of Water UCI
Water UCI, an interdisciplinary research center at UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology dedicated to applied water science, technology, management, and policy.
Aaron Orlowski, Host: Dwindling reservoirs. Vanishing snowpack. Water curtailments for Central Valley farmers and restrictions for city dwellers. In California, drought is never far away. But even as climate change puts water supplies in peril, the state is leading the way in developing new solutions for a worsening problem.
What innovations might help California overcome water shortages? And are technologies sufficient to prevent future droughts?
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski, and you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.
Today, I’m speaking with David Feldman, a professor of urban planning and public policy, and the director of Water UCI.
Professor Feldman, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
David Feldman: Thank you, Aaron. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Orlowski: So earlier this summer, the governor asked Californians to voluntarily reduce their water usage 15 percent, which is a signal that the drought is in fact back, if it ever left in the first place. So how severe is this current drought in California right now?
Feldman: It’s quite severe. Snowpack and the Sierras, which is our principal water source in the state, is down considerably. Streamflow and the state’s major rivers are considerably low, and this is true also for the Colorado River, which is shared with six other states. Precipitation levels are very low. And I was just reading this morning that the Glen Canyon Dam — Lake Powell — which is in the Upper Colorado Basin before the water gets to water-thirsty California is also at near record low levels. So this is a very serious drought and it looks like we may be pushing some records.
Orlowski: So with these water supplies at such low levels is California actually using more or less water than we did in the past?
Feldman: It’s interesting. There have been a number of studies about this and on a per capita basis Californians are using less water than we have in the past. This is true for domestic and urban uses. It’s also true for agricultural uses. So it kind of begs the question: What’s the problem, if we’re using less water? And the answer is we have less water to use because of climate variability. And also even though we’re using less water on an individual level, there are more of us to share the water with.
Feldman: Well and you just mentioned climate variability, but in the long run climate change is also going to have an impact on our state’s water. So how will climate change affect these water shortages?
Feldman: Nobody is exactly sure, but the best theories available suggest that a couple of things are likely to occur, and we’re already seeing strong evidence of this right now. One is that we will have periods of more intense and longer droughts. And these periods of long, intense droughts will be punctuated at times by very severe precipitation events. And what I mean by severe precipitation is we will get rain, lots of it, unfortunately, too much to be stored. So this tremendous variability within precipitation levels is significant. Also of course, as climate change takes place, temperatures will warm, at least in some locations in the state and water demands might increase, particularly for power generation and so forth. So there’s a lot of things that are likely to happen that are not very positive.
Orlowski: And with the increased flooding events and the increased precipitation at certain times, not all the time, that’ll just make our challenges of storing and managing water more difficult.
Feldman: Precisely. If you remember a few years back Lake Oroville, which is now approaching a near record level of elevation — and this is the reservoir that it’s the very top of the state and the top of the state’s so-called Water Project, which provides water for agriculture in the Central Valley, and also for cities here in the Southland. Lake Oroville a few years ago was at record low levels. And then all of a sudden we had this tremendous series of rain events in February 2017, which nearly overtopped Oroville Dam. It was very dangerous. You might remember it did severe damage to the spillway system.
Orlowski: So yeah that is going to be a major challenge going forward. You’ve mentioned different users of water in the state, including all of us city dwellers and then agriculture as well. Farmers use much more water than urban folks. So why do we need to reduce our consumption when they use so much more?
Feldman: In thinking about water use, you don’t want to just think about the end use, but you want to think about the overall value of that end use. And to use water to produce food and fiber are certainly pretty beneficial things to society, particularly since California produces some 40 percent of the nation’s produce. And it’s a very significant industry in terms of employment and in terms of economic value, aside from the fact that we all need to eat. From the standpoint of urban users, however, why do we need to save? And there’s a couple of answers to that. Most cities in California, this is certainly true in the Bay Area and here in the Southland, we draw our public supplies from sources that are already severely overtaxed: the Owens Valley, the Bay Delta, and of course increasingly the Colorado River. So even though we may use less water than agriculture, the sources from whence we derive that water are severely taxed. So that’s one reason. Second reason is because the water that we are drawing from the Owens Valley, the Bay Delta is also shared with the environment and that means fish, who need water every day. So if we’re going to balance the needs of the environment with the needs of society, those are good reasons why we want to think about conserving and using water more wisely.
Orlowski: And if you’re a city dweller and you’re kind of frustrated with the fact that farmers are using so much more than maybe just take a look at the green lawn outside your front yard and think, do you want to have a green lawn or would you rather have some strawberries or other food on the table?
Feldman: Exactly right. And when we talk about irrigation, we often think about irrigating farmers’ crops, but we also have to think about irrigation as lawns. We have to think about it as golf courses, public parks and so forth. So we need to use water more wisely.
Orlowski: So we talked a lot about the water shortages that California is facing. Let’s also talk about some of the solutions to see if there’s a way to get through this and get past it. Maybe the first one we can address is water recycling. What kinds of recycling do you think are most promising?
Feldman: I think the most promising path for recycling is to think of recycling as basically different grades of water fit for purpose. So for example, using Orange County as an illustration, the Orange County Water District recycles wastewater, and then through a very pioneering process, one of the largest such projects in the entire world, it purifies that water to a high degree and then injects it back into our groundwater basin and eventually pulls it back out. And that’s a major source of potable water, drinking water for people here in Orange County. However, there are other ways you can recycle water. You can, as is done, for example, by the Irvine Ranch Water District and some of our other local water agencies, you can recycle water to what’s called secondary treatment. (Editor’s note: Irvine Ranch Water District clarified that their recycled water goes through three stages of treatment, so it’s actually tertiary treatment.) You wouldn’t necessarily want to drink it, but you can certainly use it for landscaping. And the UC Irvine campus is in fact irrigated through that recycled water. So thinking about grades of water is really good because if you can use recycled water, that isn’t good enough perhaps to drink, but you can use it for other societally beneficial purposes, you are in effect conserving precious and expensively treated drinking water.
Feldman: And Orange County has been a leader in this field for many decades. And you mentioned a couple different projects. For long-time residents, you might remember that the Irvine recycling system is called the purple pipe system. That's right.
Orlowski: So that’s a great example. How else do you think that Orange County has been a leader in this water recycling field?
Feldman: Well certainly in terms of fit-for-purpose end uses. I think also in terms of the potability of water, the Orange County Water District. A couple of other ways, I think we’ve been really innovative is in terms of public education and public outreach. This is something I think where we’ve actually taught much of the rest of the world that has adopted recycled wastewater as a water source a great deal. Oftentimes when you talk about drinking recycled wastewater, people’s reaction is kind of negative. The yuck factor, as we often say. Or toilet to tap — the media likes to use that phrase. And one of the things that Orange County has done extremely well is to be very transparent in developing recycled water options in reaching out to various people within the community, including underrepresented populations, and making head-to-head comparisons among water options to illustrate why recycled wastewater is an option that is in the long run not only makes sense from the standpoint of public health and safety, but environmental protection and economics. It’s cheaper than some other options.
Orlowski: Well, and if you think about it, all water is recycled in some sense.
Feldman: Exactly right. Or some as some of my students like to say, ah, my goodness, the dinosaurs bathed in this water. And it’s true. It is. But again overcoming public reluctance and public concerns over the purity and the safety of water, understandably very important and water agencies here in the Southland are getting much better. In Los Angeles, for example, in San Diego where this option is also now being weighed, are becoming savvy on the need to educate, inform and make transparent the need for this option to the public.
Orlowski: Well and another way of getting water from a source that is not something that people think of immediately is stormwater. When it rains, just capturing that stormwater that falls on the streets and everywhere else and storing that and using it. How has Orange County conducted stormwater capture?
Feldman: Yeah, this is interesting. A lot of people are not fully aware of this, but our most common way of harvesting stormwater here in Orange County is the Santa Ana River. There are a number of impoundments. One is Anaheim Lake, which in fact capture rainwater and high flows on the Santa Ana River when those rare events occur, and then store the water. And it eventually percolates down into our groundwater basin, the same basin that’s used by our wastewater recycling plant in Fountain Valley. And it’s a very efficient way of harvesting water. And of course, since you’re storing it underground, it pretty much drought proof.
Orlowski: Well and as that water runs across the roadways and everywhere else, does it pick up pollutants? And is that something that we should be worried about?
Feldman: Great question. It does pick up pollutants and this is a huge challenge in making stormwater harvesting an effective option. What do we do? How do we do it? Well, there have been many technologies that have been developed. We see these technologies in places such as Singapore, Australia, parts of Western Europe, and increasingly here in the U.S., where water can be stored in lagoons and through what are called biofiltration systems, where in fact, you can grow plants that actually in effect eat up many of the nutrients, the substances that are collected by the stormwater. And then after you store it and remove some of the contaminants, you then of course have to treat it to various grades before it can be used. And certainly if you’re going to drink it, it has to then be treated to a very high degree. These innovations are not cheap. They require sophisticated ways of approaching both the harvesting of the water and land use practices and of course, public information and education. But they can be very fruitful means of augmenting our water supply.
Orlowski: Well so what would it take to implement more of this type of stormwater capture across the state of California?
Feldman: I think Los Angeles is learning this lesson right now. A few years ago, they passed a bond measure, which requires property owners to pay a small surtax into a fund that will in fact build stormwater harvesting projects. These projects are not easy or quick to build or design. For one thing, you have to, in many cases, acquire the land. For another, you have to be able to figure out where you’re going to store that water. Are you going to percolate it into a groundwater basin, assuming you have one? Or are you going to store it on the surface? Are you intending to use an immediately, for example, to irrigate parklands. Or are you seeking to eventually use it to supplement domestic water supply for homes? It’s a challenge and it requires a very holistic view of both water and land uses.
Orlowski: Well another option that is perennially appealing, especially to us in California with our hundreds of miles of coastline, is desalination, which involves taking the salt out of seawater. The largest desal plant in North America was built just a few years ago in Carlsbad, and the same company that built that plant is in the process of obtaining permits for another one in Huntington Beach. So do you think that desalination is a potential answer to California’s water shortages?
Feldman: I think desalination has to be thought of as a part of the mix. And in some areas of the world where you have really few other choices, the Middle East, Israel, even Singapore, certainly Australia, it may be your first, best option, assuming that you can satisfy the energy demands, assuming you can satisfy public concerns over coastal aesthetics and, again, land use issues. And of course that you can justify the costs, because thus far, because of the energy consumption, desalination is still a relatively more expensive option than some of the other options. Here in California, it has its place. And you mentioned the Carlsbad plant. It turns out that north San Diego county really at the time had few other options that seemed to be tractable. They were limited in how much water they could draw from the Colorado River. They do not have a groundwater basin of substantial size. So desalination made sense. Does it make sense in Huntington Beach? Hard to answer. What I would say is that whether it is, or is not, has to be determined by the efforts of water agencies to show that they’re being responsive to public concerns over coastal access, coastal aesthetics, land use, costs of operation, maintenance, water security, those sorts of questions, which I think arise whenever you’re applying an elaborate technology to solving a social problem.
Orlowski: We have talked a lot about technology, but I do want to talk a little bit about policy as well. So here in California, we have a system of private water rights where if you own the rights to the water you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. But so here in California, when do those private water rights get superseded, if they do at all?
Feldman: Yeah that’s a great question. It’s kind of like the Electoral College or the third rail in American politics. You don’t want to touch water rights.
Orlowski: Sorry for bringing it up.
Feldman: It’s all right. In point of fact, however, there are limits to water rights or private water rights. For example, here in California even people who have rights to withdrawing water lying under their property or adjacent to their property in rivers and streams, do not actually own the water. The water is owned by the state. It’s a very important fact. And in fact, from time to time, the state of California has employed rules governing what is called beneficial uses. If you’re not using the water that you have access to in a beneficial way, that right can be amended. And that has been done from time to time. In addition, during emergencies, such as droughts, water users that have what we call junior appropriative of rights, that is to say their rights to the water arose later than more senior controllers of the water in their district, can also be denied the right to withdraw large amounts of water. There’s no question that water rights doctrines could stand to be modified and perhaps managed in ways that are most beneficial to the public, particularly in times of drought emergency. But we do have in place systems that allow it. I think more significant than the water rights is being able to manage and control those rights in ways that are perceived as fair and equitable by everyone having access to the water.
Orlowski: So what would that look like? More, more fairness and equity in making sure people have access to that water?
Feldman: For one thing, making sure that underrepresented populations and those who need water for drinking potable uses have the highest priority to that water. Making sure that whatever water is withdrawn is used beneficially and not wastefully, and encouraging the use of the water in ways that are highly efficient. For example, moving toward more efficient irrigation technologies, rather than just spraying water in a field, using more drip irrigation systems and those sorts of things. And of course being careful in what you grow, what kinds of crops are suitable to what environments. These things by the way are being done in California. Some would say, they’re not being done quickly enough, but they’re being done gradually.
Orlowski: You just mentioned that we are learning to use water better. And we talked a lot about these different technologies that have been developed and are being used increasingly. So when you look at the big picture, do you think that California has the capacity, the desire, the ability to actually implement these solutions and hopefully make future droughts less severe?
Feldman: I certainly think we have the capacity to do so. And perhaps most importantly, between our universities and our water agencies and our officials and state government, we have the intellectual engines to be able to come up with innovations, both in the technological and the policy realms to do so. But to the other part of your question, do we have the willpower? Do we have the political will to move ahead? That’s always been a question mark in California. When droughts arise, we do take action. As you alluded to the governor’s action in recent weeks, and of course, a number of water agencies here in the Southland have begun to take even more stringent measures, for example, by banning, in some cases, or proposing to ban, unnecessary outdoor uses until the drought emergency ends.
But every time the droughts end we kind of go back, not completely, but we kind of bounce back to our prior habits. And I think what we need more than anything is a long-term attitudinal change. We have to stop taking water for granted. We have to understand that while it can be a renewable resource, it can also be an exhaustible resource. And it’s not free. Somebody has to acquire it, treat it, transport it. And these are things that should, I think, compel us to value water as a more precious commodity than we do. If we could get over the hump of changing our attitudes toward water and thinking of it as something very precious, something that has to be guarded and taken care of with great regard, I think we’d be on a better path than we are now.
Orlowski: Professor Feldman, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Feldman: It’s been a pleasure.