Drought Dries Up California Groundwater Sources

The importance of alternative water supplies, such as water reuse, brackish groundwater and desalination, continues to grow as organizations look to build diversified, resilient water supplies.

In most cases, the adoption of alternative water supplies is regionally specific. For instance, in the Southwest U.S., Texas and Florida, the emphasis is on developing potable reuse. Non-potable reuse continues to be broadly employed across the country, and desalination is being implemented in select applications where cost and environmental permitting can be overcome.

“There is most definitely a broader interest across the nation in alternative water supplies,” said Jon Loveland, who serves as the Global Practice Leader for Alternative Water Supply in Black & Veatch’s water business. “Even in so-called ‘wet’ states, the topic is showing up on the radar for reasons other than drought.”

Reuse Gains Popularity

According to the 2016 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: U.S. Water Industry report, non-potable reuse is finding its way as a good “middle ground” for utilities and the public to consider, Loveland said.

“Non-potable reuse for landscaping or industrial use enjoys solid public support, and we have a strong outlook for this type of program,” he noted.

For instance, nearly 25 percent of water utilities that serve power plants are implementing non-potable water reuse, a figure expected to rise another 10 percent over the next three years. Use of recycled water in cooling towers is expected to nearly double in the next three years, from 16 percent to 30 percent, and data center reuse will fully double in usage, according to respondents’ three-year outlook.

“This shows that there is a lot of room for growth, and utilities are demonstrating that they are willing to take on new areas that they’ve not delved into in the past,” said Sanjay Reddy, Client Director for Black & Veatch’s water business. “Given that these results are based on responses from the entire country – and not just regional responses from arid states – they highlight that utilities are making plans for strong expansion efforts.”

Reddy said that master planning for water reuse is another way to look at the broader acceptance of alternative water supplies. Nearly 50 percent of respondents said they either have or plan to develop a master plan for water reuse.

“This confirms a broad consideration across the country, even in non-arid markets,” Reddy said. “Many will be implementing plans for the first time.”

Diverse Drivers for Alternative Water Supplies

Drought is a dominant driver of alternative water supplies that is unlikely to abate despite recent rains in water-scarce areas like California and Texas. Utility leaders in these regions recognize that now is the time to address water supplies that are independent of rainfall.

At the same time, there is a growing sentiment toward drivers that demonstrate more holistic water supply practices. Resource recovery and treatment targeted to specific water uses (fit for purpose water) had relatively strong support as drivers, showing a broader dedication to sustainable practices. Resilience also posted strong sentiment, and again, scoring was higher from wet states versus the Southwest.

“This finding corroborates recent inquiries for studies on alternative water supplies that have come from some of the northern Midwestern states,” said Vasu Veerapaneni, Global Practice and Technology Leader in Desalination and Reuse for Black & Veatch’s water business. “Interest is evolving around environmental support, green initiatives, public image and reputation purposes.”

Dealing with Financials

Overcoming the cost of alternative water supplies requires leaders willing to work to gain cooperation and invest in systems that will support generations to come. Sixty percent of respondents listed costs/financial as the biggest challenge to alternative water supplies, while regulations and stakeholder support/public opinion drew a mere 11 percent each.

“Dealing with the financials is definitely a challenge, but there is a bigger picture here,” said James Strayer, Director of Planning and Asset Management for Black & Veatch’s water business. “We’re making investments for generations to come, and when you factor in added reliability and resilience, as well as other avoided costs, these programs provide tremendous value.”

He said that today’s alternative water supply leaders should move forward in many important areas related to costs, starting with a focus on communicating the value of water. Stakeholder involvement at the planning and development stages is also needed. Broader coalitions should be created to promote sustainable and secure water supplies and to show policymakers there is support to push onward.

Does New Moisture Change the Outlook?

In recent years, California and Texas have been key examples of fighting drought and developing alternative water supplies. The states had severe droughts, which led to major water restrictions being enacted. The past year, however, has seen some relief in California and periods of significant rain and even flooding in Texas. So, how will the public, elected officials and water industry leadership react? Will there be a push to ease some of the restrictions and lessen the move toward implementation of alternatives?

“Those who see the big picture know the answer: Nothing really changes,” Reddy said. “One good year of moisture is a welcome reprieve, but it doesn’t negate the past. California and much of the Southwest would need many years of abundant moisture just to begin to replenish what has been lost in reservoirs and the ground water table.”

For example, Reddy noted that the Central Valley section of California is estimated to have lost one cubic mile of ground water, or approximately 1.1 trillion gallons of water.

Loveland notes that “in Texas, rainfall has certainly slowed the urgency of some reuse projects, but we’re still seeing a continued commitment to developing alternative water supplies.”

The reality is that the on-again, off-again pattern of moisture is likely the new normal.

“A new age means that communities need to make resilience and sustainability a key focus and, therefore, begin planning and implementing alternative water supplies,” Loveland said.

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions.