Water Technology

Smoke on the Water: Valor Staff Tours California’s State Water Project

By: Maryana Pinchuk

Smoke and fire may have been in the air (literally) in California these past few weeks, but water is never far behind as a subject of concern for residents of the state. Earlier this month, while fires raged from Los Angeles to Sacramento, my colleague Renee and I accompanied staff from the Municipal Water District of Southern California, as well as other water utility staff and interested citizens from Southern California, on an inspection trip to learn more about the California State Water Project.

As Municipal Water District of Southern California Director Larry McKenney pointed out at the start of our trip, the state of California has the 5th largest economy globally (just ahead of Britain), and its productivity depends largely on the mostly water-scarce state’s ability to move water. The State Water Project is a system of dams, pumping stations, reservoirs, and aqueducts that conveys water from a small water-rich area in the northernmost part of the state to the dry but highly populous communities in the middle and south. The project is the largest provider of water and power in the state, and one of the largest in the world.

Sunset over the San Luis Reservoir, the fifth largest reservoir in the state.

Sunset over the San Luis Reservoir, the fifth largest reservoir in the state.

This sophisticated system of water conveyance begins in the Feather River near Sacramento. Water from the river collects in Lake Oroville and passes through Oroville Dam before proceeding on to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The water then travels down the California Aqueduct to the San Luis Reservoir, where it is pumped further south to meet the water needs of Southern California communities, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the west (via the Castaic and Pyramid Lake reservoirs), and San Diego and Orange County to the east.

Pyramid Lake Reservoir, completed in 1973, is the deepest lake in the state. Here, water is held and conveyed to Castaic Lake Reservoir and from there supplies northwestern Los Angeles County.

Pyramid Lake Reservoir, completed in 1973, is the deepest lake in the state. Here, water is held and conveyed to Castaic Lake Reservoir and from there supplies northwestern Los Angeles County.

The State Water Project may not exactly be the most well-known tourist attraction in the state, but it is the secret engine that powers some of the most iconic features of California, from the glitzy pools of Hollywood to the more modest groves of California almond trees – a crop that, like asparagus, melon, cotton, and other local cash crops, thrives in the dry and temperate Mediterranean-like climate of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

Cotton growing in the Delta. We learned that California cotton is sold and prized worldwide for its high quality and even ends up in some products marketed as “Egyptian cotton”!

Cotton growing in the Delta. We learned that California cotton is sold and prized worldwide for its high quality and even ends up in some products marketed as “Egyptian cotton”!

Joe Del Bosque discusses almond cultivation and shows us his trees

Joe Del Bosque discusses almond cultivation and shows us his trees

Almonds, we learned from longtime Delta resident and farmer Joe Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms, are a cousin of the peach tree, and farmers have learned to graft almond saplings to the hardier peach roots, which are less susceptible to rotting in heavily irrigated soil. But the ingenuity of the Delta farming community is meeting its match in the precarious ecology of the Delta, where a system of levees built in the 1800s to turn marshland into farmland is beginning to show its age, and where soil erosion and earthquakes threaten the $50-billion-a-year agricultural business.

Over breakfast in the state capital, with the lingering smell of smoke providing an uncomfortable reminder of the increasing danger posed by climate change and extreme weather, we were shown a presentation about the challenges facing the Delta in the next 50 years. We watched a model simulation of the probable effects of a major earthquake – long overdue in the area – on water quality in the Delta. We all winced as the model showed the levees disintegrating and a cloud of salt water from the San Francisco Bay pumping steadily eastward hour by hour. According to the simulation, by the end of a week after the initial quake, all of Southern California’s water supply would be rendered non-potable.

Suisun Marsh , one of the few preserved tidal marshes that showcase how the Delta looked before it was transformed by agriculture.

Suisun Marsh, one of the few preserved tidal marshes that showcase how the Delta looked before it was transformed by agriculture.

To address the very real possibility that gradual (through levee erosion) or sudden (through a major quake) salinization may one day cripple the Delta leg of the State Water Project, the Municipal Water District of Southern California is proposing to create a set of tunnels through the area. This would ensure that fresh water could continue to be channeled through the Delta to consumers in the south, even if the Delta were flooded with brackish water. The proposal, called the Water Fix, has raised objections from some conservation groups that argue against diverting flow from the rivers in the area. However, others contend that what the wildlife that already struggle to thrive in the agriculturally-dominated waterscape of the Delta need is not higher throughput in the rivers, but other conservation practices – e.g., fish weirs and controlled flooding of fallow farmland to allow fish fry to mature in a predator-free environment before returning to the river system – that are not incompatible with the Water Fix.

A fish weir near Sacramento – during a major rain event, fish and water will be directed into this fallow field to mitigate flooding and provide a safe environment for fish fry to grow in.

A fish weir near Sacramento – during a major rain event, fish and water will be directed into this fallow field to mitigate flooding and provide a safe environment for fish fry to grow in.

We wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, the last stage that State Water Project water passes through before being delivered to SoCal customers. In the hills to the north of the plant, the Los Angeles Aqueduct (not part of the State Water Project) delivers an additional supply of water from Mono Lake to the city of Los Angeles. As evidenced by the heated history of that water infrastructure project, culminating in the legendary California “Water Wars” depicted in the 1974 noir film Chinatown, controversies around water are far from new in this state. And yet, through over a century of conflict over water rights and allocation – as well as the additional issues posed more recently by increased water scarcity – California’s water infrastructure has continued to rise to the occasion and meet the ever-growing needs of the state and its residents. California’s water supply may seem precarious, but water utilities and their staff are certainly used to facing and overcoming challenges, and the successes of the past point to hope for the future.

Maryana and Renee from Valor at the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the background.

Maryana and Renee from Valor at the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the background.

Zero visibility: Issues in Water Use Data Resolution

BY DAVID WEGMAN, CTO, VALOR WATER

In the beginning -- that is, before HD television -- there was standard definition television.  Back then, nobody complained much about the quality of the image.  In reality, the reason why people didn't make a fuss was that they didn't know what they were missing out on.  The same goes for the transition from cassette tapes to CDs and a host of other evolutionary enhancements in audio/visual quality over the years.  Ignorance is bliss.

Doing the Right Thing: Ending Water Cutoffs

By Janani Mohanakrishnan, PhD

Intro

“What keeps you up at night?” This was a question posed to George Hawkins (GM at DC Water), at a recent water conference. He promptly replied “Figuring out how to keep providing water to my growing population of low-income customers”. Later that week, a colleague mentioned her displeasure at having her water cutoff because of a system error. She had paid her active utility service deposit, had no history of nonpayment and was still cutoff without notice. Guilty until proven innocent!

Utility Data Management BMPs v1.0

Utility Data Management BMPs v1.0

Here in California, the mention of BMPs (Best Management Practices) to any water utility practitioner brings a look of frustration, and perhaps fear.  This may be due to the use of BMPs by the state to promote certain practices in water conservation, rate making, and more.  This may explain why while attending a water utility data conference at Stanford a few weeks ago, a wholesale water engineer proposed the idea of Water Utility Data BMPs, and this got a chuckle from the audience.
 

How Can Utilities Cope With Mounting Financial Challenges?

Water utility financial practices are constantly evolving. According to Dr. Christine E Boyle, the optimal strategy for each utility to meet challenges successfully is to minimize risks associated with external changes and to increase internal financial resilience.

Rate changes are often used by utilities as a way to cope with financial problems. Budget-based rates, also known as individualized rates, have emerged as a way to meet efficiency, cost-recovery, and social equity goals (Mayer et al, 2008). Valor Water Rate Simulator helps utilities understand revenue profiles and plan strategy and visualize the impact of new rate structures like budget-based rates, peak set rates and customer select rates, and has been successfully leveraged by utilities in California and South-East USA.

In addition to rate adjustment, efficient water use can also be important in minimizing risk and building financial resilience.

The cycle of the conservation - revenue resilience is presented below:

  1. Conserving water allows utilities to cut operation and maintenance costs and defer expensive supply expansion projects.
  2. As conservation policies go into effect, the seasonal fluctuation of water use decreases, resulting in more stable customers use and associated customer sales.
  3. Reducing seasonal use eases the pressure to supply water during peak seasons and also helps achieve revenue stability.
  4. Minimizing costs and stabilizing revenue are help utilities strengthen their financial and credit standing with rating agencies. This is a major shift from previous views in which conservation was evaluated as a credit weakness that would result in decreased revenue.

To read the full article on Adapting to change: Water utility financial practices in the early twenty-first century, click here. 

We welcome your comment and questions. Feel free to contact us at [email protected]

Untangling Public Benefits of California’s Prop. 1

On November 4, 2014, California voters overwhelmingly approved Assembly Bill 1471, Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, more commonly known as Proposition 1 or the Water Bond. This bill unlocked $7.12 billion in bond funds to pay for water projects throughout the state. Many aspects of the bill were written in rather general language, and this and subsequent pieces aim to unravel key elements of the bill.

Excellent descriptions of the full bill have been written by the Association of California Water AgenciesSPUR, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, as well as others.

How Technology is Solving the Drought

California Governor Jerry Brown recently imposed mandatory water restrictions to combat severe drought that “demands unprecedented action.” Many investors have grown familiar with the global trends changing in the way water is supplied, transported, treated and used. Those mega-trends, however, have not translated into much action from the venture community.

Valor Selected by SAWPA to Deliver Water Rates Simulator for BBR Conversion

Valor Water’s Water Rate Simulator has been pre- selected as a grant-qualified vendor for water utilities to model Budget-based Rates, run weather and economic scenarios, and forecast demand under new rate structures. Valor’s rate setting tools also includes Cost of Service assessment tools for a comprehensive and Prop 218 compliant rate setting solution.