Stuck in a drought? Here’s how utilities are cutting water use — without cutting water supplies.


Four years ago, California lawmakers faced a terrible situation: Water is scarce and virtually everyone’s water rate had doubled, a little-noticed law change that was blamed for some residents’ worries that their water bill was going to rise even higher. The measure allowed utilities to raise their rates by an average of 2 percent every year, though not for five years.

Now, those who are struggling under the water squeeze might be wondering where their bill was going. For example, the Southern California Edison Company, which delivers electricity to nine million Californians, reported in late 2017 that it used about 2.5 percent less water than it did a year before. That would mean Southern California Edison is using about three and a half million fewer gallons of water every day now than it was a year ago.

Still, the water budget of the company is actually somewhat larger. So even though energy use at Southern California Edison is down, water use is actually a little higher in California than it was a year ago. This, while one of its biggest customers — the city of Los Angeles — has been in the throes of a severe drought for three years.

Tapping into a fresh supply

How can utilities like Southern California Edison achieve that? It turns out that most of the water they use has to be purchased. And even if that utility’s water budget is smaller, the supply that it uses is often less plentiful than its water budget.

“A lot of our water comes from local groundwater systems that are somewhat diminished,” said Jennifer Katz, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison. For example, a month after the Aug. 31, 2017 storm that dumped a record 30.6 inches of rain on the San Gabriel Valley, two reservoirs that supplement the Metropolitan Water District, the primary water distributor in Southern California, were running at just 51 percent of capacity. In fact, since 1980, the district has lost anywhere from 39 to 60 percent of the water it thought was in its reservoir system.

Companies like Southern California Edison and the Metropolitan Water District, as well as the farmers who contract for much of the water that they use, can tap into other sources of water.

“It’s really about the economy of scale and desalination,” said Michael Shames, the water supply manager for the Metropolitan Water District. For every drop of water that Southern California Edison takes out of the ground, at least one other person in the state — usually nearby — is taking in one too. Over the past year, the Metropolitan Water District had built a desalination plant at Deer Lake in Ventura County that eventually will have the capacity to pump 75 million gallons a day. That is still under construction, but more plants are planned, including one near Bakersfield that eventually will have the capacity to produce up to 55 million gallons a day.

Climate change also will soon influence the amount of water available in the region, Shames said. One reason is that with hotter temperatures, there will be fewer snow days that, in turn, will impact the irrigation of farms in northern California, which tend to grow more drought-resistant crops.

“On the North Fork of the Russian River, the water is already at about a third of capacity, and we may not be able to save it much longer,” Shames said.

Will the drought end?

One thing is clear: The drought is not going away any time soon. “The weather looks to be pushing Northern California toward a deluge,” said Jennifer Christiansen, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. Meanwhile, a summer storm in Southern California provided about four inches of rain on Jan. 29, the third wettest January on record. Shames said he suspects that number could be surpassed next month.

While the drought will be taking its toll in the coming years, the climate changes are only part of the story. On the one hand, increases in rainfall are good for Southern California. They are the “immediate reason the drought is over,” Shames said. Southern California Edison, though, will continue to maintain its long-term sustainability, he said. To that end, it manages to bring water to its customers while still feeding the state’s burgeoning economy.

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