Guest column: Integrating water and energy: California’s response to climate change

Guest Column by Cynthia J. Truelove

When I received the invitation to participate in Chautauqua’s focus on the American West, I anticipated speaking about the demands that climate change has placed on local, regional, state and federal actors across the West to overcome barriers to the integrated management of water and energy. I particularly expected to reveal California’s path-breaking, yet tortoise-paced, evolution from the siloed management of water and energy resources to its integration of water and energy resource management as a means to lowering statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By reducing the energy used by California’s water and wastewater sector, and by developing the means to monitor and to regulate the quantity and quality of water employed in the production of energy, integrated resource efficiency is a key component of California’s celebrated climate change legislation.

The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 mandated statewide GHG emissions reductions to 1990 levels by 2020. The Act’s 2008 Scoping Plan particularly underscored the importance of reducing the energy in California’s water supplies by calling for the implementation of the following six water-energy measures:

1. Water systems optimization for water and energy efficiency such as leak loss detection and eradication, and groundwater pump efficiency.

2. Water use efficiency to reduce urban water consumption per capita statewide by 20 percent by 2020.

3. Low-impact development/green infrastructure such as stormwater capture and reuse.

4. The development of renewable energy resources in the water/wastewater sectors through solar, biomass/biogas, and/or in-conduit hydro.

5. Increased production of recycled water.

6. Expanded financing for the implementation of the latter measures.

Fast-forward just five months after my invitation from Chautauqua in January, and the prospects for extensive statewide integrated water and energy policy and regulatory alignments, as well as on-the-ground implementation, are vastly escalated. In the face of the state’s worst drought on record bringing an estimated $2.2 billion dollars in economic losses expected to exceed $5 billion by year’s end, with the loss of almost 20,000 agricultural jobs due to fallowing, with at least 20 rural communities without water, with 80 percent of the state in “extreme” drought conditions, and with significant declines in the state’s hydro-electric generating capacity, Gov. Jerry Brown has issued two Drought Emergency Proclamations in January and April of 2014. These proclamations have singularly facilitated the rollout of major policy, regulatory and funding realignments thereby hastening the integrated management of the state’s water and energy resources. 

As a consequence of the Drought Emergency Proclamation and legislative mandates bringing enhanced resources to all aspects of water conservation and water use efficiency, $19 million from the state’s climate change GHG emissions allowances cap and trade program auction funds have been given to the California Department of Water Resources to fund the state’s first water-energy competitive grants program. Operating under the authority of the Drought Emergency Proclamation, the state’s Water Resources Control Board has just issued new water recycling guidelines which will enhance the production of recycled water, and particularly allow for expanded uses of recycled water where it can be safely employed to recharge critical groundwater supplies. Also, recent amendments to a California Public Utilities Commission water-energy proceeding emphasize that agency’s recognition of integrated resource management including water conservation and water use efficiency, and commits it to pursuing greater collaboration with the state’s principal water regulatory agencies.

The three-year-long drought has also had profound effects upon California’s energy resources portfolio. California’s first source of clean energy — that energy with the lowest carbon emissions — is hydropower. While 18.2 percent of the state’s energy came from hydropower in 2011, 2012 reflected a decline of hydropower to 11.7 percent. As hydropower supplies decreased, carbon-emitting fossil fuels stepped in to fill the energy supply void and California’s GHG emissions were up by 1.7 percent in 2012. 

Other unpredicted events further exacerbated California’s energy stability during this drought episode and heightened the urgency for the integrated management of water and energy. In January 2012, a perfect storm emerged, ramping up the urgency for the water and wastewater utility sectors to double down on their energy efficiency and demand management efforts in southern California. Due to aging infrastructure, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) experienced problems with two of its three reactors and they were taken offline. Within a year, the utility which owned SONGS, Southern California Edison, informed the California Utilities Commission that it would be fully and permanently decommissioning the entire facility as it was not cost-effective to repair it. By mid-2013, Southern California’s electric grid faced the loss of 20 percent of its total power supply, and the governor’s office immediately convened joint meetings with many of the region’s water and energy utilities to directly encourage the implementation of energy efficiency and demand management measures in the water and wastewater sector. Though executive crisis intervention has not resolved all of the regulatory challenges to integrated resource management, it signaled to the water and energy utility sectors that the state would begin to explore a broad array of funding mechanisms for water and energy projects.

With the loss of hydropower due to drought, and reductions in nuclear-generated power from San Onofre expressed in a statewide decline from slightly more than 18 percent of the state’s energy from nuclear sources in 2011 to 9.3 in 2012, California must balance energy reliability from increased fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, with a heavy emphasis on the rapid development and deployment of renewable energy in order to reach its goals of reducing GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Once again, the fundamental importance of the integrated management of water and energy resources is paramount. Scarce surface water supplies result in California’s agricultural sector turning to groundwater supplies for water requiring substantial energy to power groundwater pumps thereby placing greater demands on the grid.

Investments and regulatory reform incentivizing the development of renewable energy sources from the water and wastewater sector have never been more urgent to decrease California’s reliance on fossil fuels. Similarly, the short- and midterm demand for natural gas, and other fossil fuels, will be accompanied by heightened demands placed on the state’s scarce water supplies for use in energy extraction and production. 

While this most recent drought has rapidly escalated California’s integrated water and energy resource planning and management, the long-term conjoined management of these resources will require even greater regulatory innovation and funding resources from both state and federal sources. California’s experience with water and energy integration shall surely inform the nascent water-energy nexus policy reform across the West, and will particularly be of keen interest to federal agencies distributed across the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior, which have begun to explore integrated water and energy. The opportunities such as this one at Chautauqua to discuss the water-energy nexus could be neither more timely nor of greater national import.