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January 20, 2010 > Water, water... is it everywhere? (Part II)

Water, water... is it everywhere? (Part II)

As an almost unconscious act, consumers ask for and receive the essence of life - water - on demand many times each day. Abundance or scarcity of this compound controls how and where we live. In the Tri-City area, the venerable Alameda County Water District (ACWD) has been meeting the challenges of water distribution since its inception in 1914.

Last month, TCV spoke with Paul Piraino who retired as General Manager of ACWD and current ACWD General Manager Walt Wadlow to discuss past and future challenges and accomplishments. This is the conclusion of that interview (Part 1 can be found in the January 6, 2010 issue of TCV).

TCV: The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is currently retrofitting its Hetch- Hetchy pipeline. In the event of a major disaster, can they restrict our usage of water from that source?

Piraino: We have a proportional agreement that allows access to Hetch- Hetchy water. If we are cut back on supply, they must cut back as well. In the long term, San Francisco will need to practice more conservation to meet their population demands. Capacity of the pipeline is not increasing but the reliability of delivery even in the event of a large earthquake will increase dramatically.

Wadlow: Our contractual relationship gives us water rights and assurances that San Francisco cannot take excess water and restrict their suburban customers disproportionately. SFPUC has not had the opportunity for maintenance of existing infrastructure in the Irvington Tunnel because of continuing demand for water. Construction of the new tunnel will allow maintenance of the old tunnel and allow use of new construction methods.

Piraino: San Francisco has the right to take more water than they do now, but because of environmental issues, they have made a commitment not to do this for the next 20 years. What they get from the Tuolumne [River] and their local watersheds is what they will get. Anything they need in addition to that will have to come from local sources including conservation, recycled water and maximizing groundwater basins where available.

TCV: Is ACWD the only water agency to use desalination?

Piraino: We are the only agency in the Bay Area at this time.

TCV: Are other water districts considering this?

Wadlow: Marin is looking at a slightly different form of desalination. We desalinate brackish or slightly salty groundwater. Marin is looking at seawater desalination. They are looking at this on the Central Coast - Santa Cruz and Monterey areas but we are the only agency that currently desalinates.

Piraino: There is a consortium of agencies including San Francisco, Contra Costa Water District, Santa Clara Valley Water District and East Bay MUD that are looking at creating a large desalination facility. This is in the early stages and may or may not happen.

TCV: Why is it feasible for ACWD to do this and problematic for others?

Piraino: There are three answers to that... location, location, location. We were in an area that had an overdrafted groundwater basin up until the 1960s. There was a lot of brackish groundwater that was not moving anywhere. This needed to be removed to maintain the fresh water of the rest of our groundwater. We had been pumping this out to the Bay since the 1970s. When technology advanced, it became cost effective for us to treat the water and make it a potable supply. Even the discharge of this process is technically considered fresh water so it is inexpensive to treat the water and dispose of the concentrate.

Wadlow: The key is that this is salty groundwater instead of ocean water. Even though we call it brackish, it has a much lower salt content and concentration than seawater. Getting the salt out of seawater is a much more expensive proposition. It is cost effective for us and has the additional benefit of allowing the restoration of our groundwater basin resource. We remove the salty water and recharge the fresh water which is a key part of our water plan.

TCV: How long can this process continue? When will the brackish water disappear?

Piraino: Maybe 50 to 100 years.

Wadlow: It's a long timeline. We are currently in the process of doubling the capacity of our desalination facility. That will be as large as it can be. This a viable part of our water supply for many decades.

Piraino: If we ever did deplete the brackish water, the plant could be used to remove salts to create softer water. The plant would not go to waste even under those conditions.

TCV: In the event of an emergency where water supplies from Hetch-Hetchy and the Central Valley were cut off, how long could we survive? Would other districts take water from us?

Wadlow: There is no state mandated reserve for dealing with an emergency situation. Each agency in the state has different access to emergency reserves. Even if ACWD becomes severed from our supplies, one of the benefits especially with the seismic retrofit of San Francisco's pipeline we are likely to have water from them even following a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault.

Piraino: We are first in line on that pipeline.

Wadlow: Because we have the desalination facility and groundwater wells, we can turn to our own groundwater sources and make use of those. We are also investigating with the Department of Water Resources in San Francisco to see whether we can make a connection between the South Bay Aqueduct where our state supply comes from and the Hetch-Hetchy system so if our supply from the aqueduct was interrupted, we could use an alternate pipeline to bring that water to us.

TCV: Is emergency water management a 'hot' topic at the state level?

Piraino: Emergency services personnel are always working on a regional and statewide basis.

Wadlow: From the state perspective there is a lot of focus on the Delta not only because of the ecological issues and water supply issues, but also from the impact of an earthquake on the levees. This would lead to salt water intrusion and potentially devastating effect on the water supply from the Delta which would affect the Bay Area and the rest of California south of here. All water agencies not only work on our own supplies but interconnections with others to get us through times like that.

TCV: Who uses the most water?

Piraino: In the State of California, eighty percent of developed water is used by agriculture.

Wadlow: A lot of water supports environmental purposes not necessarily through development. In the ACWD area, residential use is by far the largest demand. We plan 20 to 30 years in advance because it takes a long time to make sure an adequate water system is in place. The water business is infrastructure heavy -pipelines, plants and pumping stations. The days of finding a new, large water source in California are gone so we have to use conservation and recycled water use to meet increased demand. We think that with our portfolio if we have a reliable state supply, the existing supply from Hetch-Hetchy, our groundwater basin and additional investments in conservation and recycled water, we can meet the demands of our area.

Piraino: As we become more water conscious, our behavior changes to conserve through legislation and devices such as low flow shower heads, toilets and appliances. Behavioral changes are evident in the reduced use of water.

We also offer incentives with PG&E and Union Sanitary District. We have seen an increasing number of rebates. As appliances wear out, people purchase even more efficient products so we are seeing cycles of conservation. This becomes a part of the way people live their lives. As a water district, we need that type of behavior from individuals - that must be part of the overall water portfolio that lets us accommodate an increasing population.

TCV: As people become more conservative in their use of water, will this increase the cost?

Wadlow: One of the challenges we face is trying to explain to someone who has conserved water and followed the 'message.' Why are my rates going up? Water is different than many other businesses. We are an agency that secures, treats, produces and delivers water. Unlike other businesses, even as we conserve, we cannot shut down part of a treatment plant; we have to maintain our facilities. Also, we do not really buy the water rather we pay for the facilities to bring it to us. There is a large fixed cost component.

(This concludes the interview)

I am writing this letter to commend three of your employees who came to my mother-in-law's home, the day after Christmas, to repair a water leak that was seriously bubbling up in her front yard. Three employees, Noah, Mike and Charlie did a beautiful job of fixing the broken saddle that was supplying water to the home across the street from my mother-in-law. My wife, who is creative, wrote this little poem that we would like you to share with them.

T'was the Day after Christmas and all through the lawn
Were bubbles of water; what had gone wrong?
The driveway was flooded out into the street. Was this Santa's idea of a last minute treat?
Then from the street there arose such a clatter.
I jumped from my chair to see what was the matter. On fire truck, on water trucks to tend to the mess. It looked like a broken water main was my very best guess.
The workers were busy while digging in the mud,
I sat in the sun and avoided the crud. Soil disappeared as the hose sucked up the dirt. I noticed the cute workers and began to flirt.
The pipe we soon saw was in terrible shape.
With holes all around, a sorry sight it did make. Hour after hour the workers did toil. And we saw how their clothes were all covered in soil.
The job was soon finished much to our delight.
And soon all the neighbors would have water tonight. With praise to the workers, their job now was done. So off they went home to clean up and have fun.

Thank you again for your service and such competent and thoughtful workers.

Dean & Margaret Lewis

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