Truelove champions integration of water, energy in California

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Cynthia J. Truelove discusses issues surrounding California’s water conservation efforts as part of this week’s lecture series on “The American West” on Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

Just as white settlers displaced, divided and exploited many native groups in their expansion across the West, they conceptually and practically split up the West’s natural resources, said water and energy policy analyst Cynthia J. Truelove on Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

“Over time, we saw the damming of rivers, the dewatering of farms throughout the West, and what I would call the making of a highly contradictory system,” she said. “Because it’s one that allowed us to grow, to progress nationally, to experience increased economic abundance. We made fast gains … at really high costs.”

That historical division and exploitation of natural resources in the West has survived to this day, Truelove said. Not integrating water and energy soon could mean disaster.

“If we do not find our way to integrate the use and management of water and energy together, certainly across the West, but across the nation and even the world, we cannot expect to sustain these most fundamental resources,” she said.

The railroads in California, Truelove said, symbolized some of the first elements of modernization and progress across the West.

Agriculture in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the source of most of California’s water, marked the beginning of the California water utility framework when the Gold Rush spurred the growth of private water companies.

Those private water companies, Truelove said, set a model for the local management of water resources. To this day in California, water is regulated by local water boards, mostly elected across different municipalities with their own rate-setting and policy-setting powers. The California Public Utilities Commission, in contrast, is a gubernatorially appointed commission empowered to set electricity rates, and thus wields a remarkable amount of control over California’s power entities.

Eighty percent of California’s water is publicly managed by local water boards. The state’s power is just the opposite: 80 percent is privately managed by companies like Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.

The other 20 percent is generated by the state’s hydropower through the state water project, or through public power utilities like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The state’s publicly managed energy and privately managed water, Truelove said, means a different set of paradigms for these two resources. And those differences create “a sense of otherness” between energy and water regulators.

Water regulators lack the federal integration of energy regulation, making it “extremely difficult” to integrate the two resources. The time has come, Truelove said, to “look seriously” at integrating.

In the early 1990s, CPUC deregulated energy in the belief that the state could benefit by letting the market regulate energy, instead of the state government.

The result of this deregulation, Truelove said, was a massive energy crisis in California, including brownouts and blackouts. In response to this, the state created the nation’s “first and most thoroughgoing” energy efficiency program, a regulatory pact to ensure energy efficiency, long-term energy reliability and grid stability.

In the early 2000s, the California Energy Commission and CPUC financed research to find out how much energy was being used by the water sector. Almost a decade of research found that 19 percent of California’s electricity and 30 percent of its natural gas is used to convey, treat and distribute the state’s water.

“The bullseye was very clear: that for a true energy efficiency program to be successful in California, energy efficiency had to also be brought to the water sector,” Truelove said. California’s chili pepper-shaped water delivery system is highly energy intensive because so much water has to be transported from Northern California to Southern California, she said.

In the 1970s, the state built the California State Water Project to transport residential and industrial water to Southern California, pushing huge amounts of water over the Tehachapi Mountains, using pumps that comprised the nation’s most energy-intensive water system.

“In a way, it’s a marvel,” Truelove said, comparing it to Hoover Dam in the Colorado River, which also feeds water to Southern California. But using this much energy on water, she said, requires the state to pay attention to the water sector in reducing energy use.

“With this kind of water structure in California that’s so energy intensive, you can see why it was very important for us to target water in energy efficiency programs,” she said.

In 2006, California set a national precedent by passing the state’s first climate change legislation. The main goal of the legislation was to commit the state to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

Then, in 2008, the Scoping Plan laid out six measures to reduce emissions in the water and energy sectors. Those included water systems optimization, groundwater pump efficiency, water use efficiency, the promotion of low-impact development, the promotion of renewable energy generation, and financing. The first five measures are achievable, Truelove said, but the sixth is more difficult. California’s energy efficiency program costs $1 billion per year, $400,000 of which comes from a public goods charge on energy bills.

Crisis, Truelove said, has been one motivator in integrating the water and energy sectors.

In January of this year, the snowpack in Northern California’s Sierra Mountains decreased 20 percent, and had a water quality of less than 12 percent. California’s economy has faced $2.2 billion of losses in 2014, a figure estimated to rise to more than $5 billion by the end of the year. Meanwhile, energy-intensive groundwater pumping has increased.

Lower reservoirs have meant that the state has less hydropower generation, dropping from 18 percent of California’s clean, renewable energy in 2011 to 11.7 percent because of the drought.

The drought, she said, is not just a water crisis: it is an energy crisis.

The connection between the two is clearer than ever, Truelove added. The State Water Resources Control Board recently worked with the Department of Water Resources and the legislature to bring $19 million from the greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade auction fund to pay for energy-saving projects and renewable energy generation in the water sector.

$19 million is not much, Truelove said, “but it was a really important statement to take cap-and-trade dollars, sacred cap-and-trade emissions dollars, and invest them in water. That is paradigm-shifting. And that’s just the beginning. We must start co-investing at the federal level in saving water and energy together.”


Q: Can you comment on the water usage of the energy sector? How has the growth of renewable energy affected water usage?

A: Thanks very much for asking that question. Because one of the things, the very first thing it focuses on is the issue of the water used in energy production. Of course, we all know that the most important bridge fuel, moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy, because — let’s face it — we aren’t going to have sufficient, certainly not in California, enough renewable energy supplies to replace all the fossil fuel that we like. So natural gas becomes the bridge fuel. We hear that a lot. But what does that mean? First, regardless of what anyone thinks about hydraulic fracturing, so called “fracking,” and I’ll talk more about that in a minute, it is hugely water intensive. Hugely water intensive. And there are lots of different technologies. They’re all hydraulic fracturing. I am not an engineer, but what I have learned [is that] all hydraulic fracturing is not created equally. Some kinds of fracturing are more energy intensive, some have the greater prospect for causing problems to groundwater supplies. Most importantly, certainly in California, we simply lack enough information about our groundwater supplies to know whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And my own belief — and I think that of many people in California — is that when you don’t have the data about something as foundationally — no pun intended — important as groundwater, it’s best to take the conservative route. Get your groundwater measurements in place, and then move forward with using those resources for whatever means.

On the renewable energy front, in California — I’m not sure if I used this data point, but it’s important to know: The demise of hydropower just this year because of the drought has increased our emissions by 1 percent. 1.7 percent. So we’re bringing more renewables online, but drought is pushing our emissions back up. We are trying to ramp up our renewable energy as quickly as possible. We are trying to do the innovation necessary to make renewable energy possible. Thirty-three percent by 2020 is our statewide goal. Maybe that will change, but it’s minimal at least. We are doing a fairly good job at bringing more renewables online. We need every scintilla of renewable energy we can get from the water sector, and technology will help make that even more possible. And financing.

Q: NPR had a story recently called “Toilet to Tap.” It said that Southern California, Orange County, replenished the aquifer with water so pure, it required the addition of minerals. Can this be replicated?

A: Thank you so much for asking that question. Someone’s very astute. NPR’s always my favorite. The reason why the state water resources control board could do the very thing I said in the last couple of weeks, which was to increase the ability of the use and application of recycled water across the state in response to drought in doing things like injecting recycled water in groundwater wells. Blending it with surface wells, using it in spreading basins to recharge groundwater. That particular utility, Irvine Ranch, anticipated in a pilot study, as did the San Diego Water Authority — in Irvine, they actually injected recycled water into groundwater wells over a number of years and participated in collecting data to prove to the state water resources control board and the California Department of Health that recharging groundwater supplies and aquifers with recycled water did not affect the health of the water supplies. Now, I will say there is one problem. Salt and nutrients come with recycled water. So we are challenged to ensure that by recharging injection wells with recycled water, that we maintain the water quality. But Irvine Ranch did a fabulous job of being a leader in the state, which then allowed the state water resources control board to put forward such a wide-scale approach.

Q: I have a number of questions about desalinization and I guess I just ask you to comment on its future in terms of working on the water problem.

A: Thank you. Desal is a reality. It’s highly energy intensive, so for those of us working in the water and energy integration efforts, it’s not our favorite source of water. But in San Diego, the very end of that massive water system in California, which in the areas that are fed both by Colorado River water and state water project water — desal is for them, most likely, their long-term marginal water supply. The most important thing we can do is to bring the best innovation possible to reduce the energy intensity of desal water, so that we’re not making water at the expense of our energy supplies. Secondly, desal produces, as many of you know, brine salts. We are looking for uses of those brine salts that can be used by industries rather than creating more hazards for our oceans and certainly for the rest of the state. Trying to find a way to accomplish some desal where necessary. Desal is our least favorite source of new water. I think I can say it that way. It is a reality.

Q: Question from Twitter: In the face of the extreme drought, why has there been such a weak response statewide to require usage restrictions?

A: It’s a wonderful question, because in fact, you’ve probably seen, I think it’s even been in the New York Times — we have had increase of water use in certain parts of our state, with every media blast, from every frontier about our drought. I guess my answer truly is the one area where we simply have to remedy water use is an average of about 50 percent of our water in California is used for outdoor water use. In areas where we have desert, Riverside County, among others — the outdoor water use, and this is potable water, this is drinking water, not reused water, is 80 percent. We have to think about the cost of growing roses in the desert. I used to live in Las Vegas, I had a beautiful native plant landscape 12 months a year. We have some places in California where you can’t have roses because we have fog. We have other places where that is not the appropriate plant for the ecosystem. We have got to accomplish significant reductions in outdoor water. We’re going to have to do that with incentives. But also, the state water resources control board just approved fines for the very first time to residential, commercial and governmental users that overspray, that overuse water in a variety of different ways. That’s a symbolic gesture. I mean, $500 and imagine, frankly, a water utility trying to have a police force — it’s not realistic that somebody’s going to walk around with a ticket book in their back pocket. But what it does is hopefully create consciousness about how bad things are. And that’s my only answer.

Q: What percentage of water use in California is for agriculture? Can water be saved by implementing drip watering for agriculture?

A: That is the most important question of the day, perhaps. Because 80 percent of our water in California is used in agriculture. Now, I’m here to tell you that some of agriculture is very water-use efficient, and there are drip systems. But the bigger questions are things like: it takes 1 gallon of water to produce one almond. One gallon of water. Now, I love almonds, and I’m not going to stop eating almonds. I’m not suggesting that we bring the approach that we did to grapes and labor to water and almonds. But we have to look very seriously at the pricing of water. Because water is highly subsidized for agriculture for a very good reason. There is a food-water-energy nexus, and food security, I think a part of why water and agriculture was for so long subsidized was to ensure food security. But we are in a new world. And I’m not sure we can say almonds are necessarily linked with food security. Some of us might think that they’re great, but I’m not sure that we’d go that far. So we’ve got to realign our water prices in California with their uses. And agriculture — I will say the Water Conservation Act of 2009, for the very first time, obliged agricultural water users to submit agricultural water use plans. I know that seems — it’s unbelievable that it took that long in a state with as much agriculture as California to have ag water use plans. But we’re there: 2009. So, we’re just beginning to more adequately manage our agricultural water supplies. But I want to tell you, including almond growers, they are stepping up to the plate. They are doing their part. We need a realignment of water pricing to really affect the largest change in agriculture.

Q: Now that we’ve done almonds, let’s try marijuana. The questioner says, I’ve read that marijuana cultivation is disastrous in terms of water energy use, and that this new and growing industry is contributing to the energy water crisis in California. Would you comment?

A: I cannot deny that that is, in fact, true. But part of the problem is, again, we’re dealing with an agrarian industry, growing marijuana, cannabis, that is just now being regulated. I know a lot of people who own cabins throughout the Sierras and other parts of northern California who have had their water rights — they’ve had their water supply completely cut off because of illegal marijuana growing essentially just sucking off their water supply. So now that we have some legalized cultivation, we must begin to rectify the link between water rights and marijuana, just like any other agricultural product. I don’t think the answer is, from the water and energy side of the house, to say, “You can’t grow this.” Because we’d have to treat all agriculture evenly and say, “What about the almonds?” Might be hard to say that almonds are more water and energy intensive than marijuana. I’m not sure. Someone’s undoubtedly doing a Ph.D. dissertation today and asking that question. But what is true is that we’ve got to match water rights and water supply with their use, be it marijuana, almonds, or whatever.

Q: Again, from Twitter. Is there a risk that water, a shared public resource, could be turned into a private asset to be traded on the open market?

A: That is always a challenging question, but part of the answer is that it’s already that way. Now, not because water trading is on the private market in California, but there has certainly been an increase in water transfers. And by the way, this doesn’t mean that real water moves anywhere. But there is a chess board of water rights and water supply by which actual water transfers are made from folks who are not using the water to which they possess rights, and they actually sell them through a transfer mediated by the state. They transfer these rights to save farmers who may need the water. We already have a water market. It’s not a free market. And it probably will increase the cost of water to some users, but certainly not as much as if it were private. There is always a debate, that all of you I think know, which is that many of us will say that water is a foundational right of some sort. Because you can turn off lights, you can live without electricity, you can use generators if you have to. There is no replacement for water. On the other hand, we have a limited amount of the resource, we can’t make more of it. And part of our responsibility as astute policy people, is to create policies that fairly and adequately ensure the supply of water to everyone. So it makes it very difficult. In California, 20 percent of the water is purveyed — for purposes of regulation, still considered public utilities. But they are private companies. I, having worked in the California Public Utilities Commission, actually worked closely with those private water companies. And they are required to follow all of the rules of the public water utilities in the state of California. So, I would say, first of all when looking at California — and I would limit it to that — I’m not so afraid of the entry of private water companies. I even know of a couple private water companies that have been purchased by hedge funds. And it raised some hackles of what will this mean for these companies? And actually, it was not a disastrous outcome. I’ve also worked in Latin America, where I can give you very different examples of the success of privatization of water and its consequences to residents. So I don’t think there’s a simple answer. It’s not going away. And here’s the challenge: we want to change the price structure of water so it’s reflecting what it really does cost. And yet, we’re concerned about private markets and water. So those two are questions that we need to look at together.

Q: Why do you think California has been able to recognize climate change and start to do something about it, when in so many other places, this hasn’t happened?

A: I don’t have an easy answer, though I think the most obvious one is that there was political will. Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to get a climate change bill passed because he was able to get Democrats and Republicans together in California in the early 2000s. It probably would still be possible to do that in California today. It’s virtually impossible in a national framework and in many states, where consensus is just — somebody in the consensus-building business would say this — in order to find solutions, the general notion is that we move folks from their positions and their needs. And there’s a difference between their positions — maybe an ideological position, political positions — to their needs. Like, what’s my bottom line in any argument, in any tension, in any arena where we have to come to agreement on anything? We are in a place where we are so stuck on our positions that we can’t even get to our needs. And I know that the only answer to having more climate change — a federal climate change bill, maybe someday in our lifetime — will be when we move from our positions to really look at needs. And I wish I were more optimistic about that, but I am a long-term observer of social change as a sociologist, and I know the time will come.

Q: A couple of questions on regional cooperation. First, cooperation with Mexico on the water of the Colorado River, and secondly, more generally, cooperation among other western states. Are they looking at California, following its lead, working with California? Comment on both of those.

A: Certainly. Over the last decade, decade and a half — I probably shouldn’t be the person answering this question with former secretary of the interior Babbitt with us, you can ask him these questions on Friday too. But we have had cooperation across the western states to balance our use of the Colorado River over the long haul through the use of something called the Quantification Settlement Agreements. California — and this was sort of an informal deal that all the states that draw from the Colorado River on the lower basin agreed to. California always drew about 400,000 acre-feet of water over its established rights from the 1929 accords. And over the last decade, California, working along with all the other western states drawing from the lower Colorado, agreed to give up those 400,000 acre-feet that it was overusing to allow for a healthier management of the Colorado River with some water storage for Nevada and Arizona, and certainly, a healthier — and this was before this last, huge drought — management of the Colorado River. So yes, there is cooperation.

Mexico — interestingly enough, I did some work with the southern Nevada water authority to look at water rights on the Mexican border, with the goal of bringing water all the way in to the Colorado River delta in Mexico, because years ago water stopped flowing down the Colorado. I see nodding heads, you know what I’m talking about. Just this past year, even this year, water is flowing to the Colorado Delta in Mexico. Yes, that’s wonderful. Now, there’s a utilitarian reason for this. The U.S. Migratory Bird Act makes us responsible for the critters that winter there. And so there was a lot of reasonable political and policy justification for investing and making sure that those are healthy waters. But it also reflected collaboration across the border, but also across the environmental, political and economic arenas in the lower Colorado basin. I think that’s such a healthy sign. I mean, it’s odd — the time that we are so strapped for water in California — that we begin to find solutions to these long-term problems. I guess I would say that I don’t wish the economic consequences and the social consequences of drought on California or any other western state. But in the absence of it, I don’t know how we’re going to continue to have progress, and I really care about the progress. So if we don’t get a lot of water next year, I guess I won’t be really sad. I hate to say that. But people have a very short memory. We change our behaviors instantly with a day of rain in California.

Q: Well, let’s comment on the lack of water meters, the problems of golf courses, and grass lawns.

A: I couldn’t have set myself up for better questions. Thank you, universe. Water meters. Well here’s an interesting detail. So by 2015, I believe it is, all water in California, all urban water, must be metered. Can anybody tell me right now what city in California has the least water metering and still charges a flat rate — you use how much you want for water? Somebody said Sacramento. Bingo, you’re right. The state capital of California has, in terms of cities, the least percentage of water meters. But they’re rapidly changing this. And by 2015, we’ll be fully metered. But again, this is California, home of the Silicon Valley. In our state capital, there are people who pay a flat rate for water. It’s crazy.

Golf courses. Yes, golf courses. Moving from Las Vegas, where, you know, you read a lot in newspapers about fountains and golf courses and so on — that’s all reuse water. Always has been. All the new hotels, fancy fountains — recycled water. I’m not saying that recycled water might have a higher use, but golf courses, in Nevada for example, all recycled water. Let’s move to San Francisco. My spouse plays golf, is an engineer. Came home after the first round of golf and says, “Can you believe they use potable water to water the grass at the golf courses in San Francisco?” We couldn’t believe it. Part of the reason is when you have an older city, it’s really hard to get the necessary infrastructure to a golf course across town. And they have brought recycled water to the Harding Golf Course in San Francisco, but there still a lot of golf courses not using recycled water in northern California. The story is a different one where possible in southern California, recycled, reused water is being used on golf courses.

Q: This may take you beyond your area of expertise — I don’t know — but I have a number of questions about the Great Lakes and the management of the Great Lakes water supply. Could it be used to help California? What should we be doing about managing the Great Lakes?

A: Well, here’s what I’ll tell you. I know just enough to maybe be dangerous. Which is to say, I don’t know anything about the Great Lakes water supply. I used to live in Wisconsin, and I really thought the Great Lakes were beautiful. Yes, thank you, Wisconsin. I will tell you that when I lived in Wisconsin — I’ve lived in a lot of places — when I lived in Nevada, that was a very real question, on the part of some forward-thinking people in the southern Nevada water authority, about the prospects of actually moving water from the Great Lakes to the American west. Now, we laughed about that, went, “Yeah, really?” The energy intensity of moving that amount of water — hello, the people in the Great Lakes are not shipping water out to the West. They have their own uses for that water. But it does raise another question. Two things are going on. We, in California, already created a great straw from north to south, so we have a lot of judgments about other people who want to do the same thing. That’s usually a human problem. Nevada, Las Vegas, as you know is lately in a desperate, desperate situation. We over-allocated the Colorado River, the delta water in California — we lived a sort of short-term denial that I talked about earlier. So now we have over-allocated water supplies. What do we do? In Las Vegas, which I love, whose water is supplied by the southern Nevada water authority — which in my opinion, is an amazing water agency authority utility — with the leadership of someone who just retired, quite infamous, Pat Mulroy, who is a woman of vision. Let me just tell this fast story, because I think it’s important. I have heard from my water conservation colleagues in Nevada, that when they started working with the southern Nevada water authority in the 1990s, that Pat Mulroy was not a proponent of water conservation. I think she’d say that about herself. But, very smart woman that she is, she became the nation’s leader in water conservation programs. And southern Nevada water authority’s conservation program is now copied by water agencies throughout the west. Nevertheless, Nevada, and particularly Las Vegas, faces a challenge of having enough water and have been working to move water from northern Nevada to southern Nevada. With huge protests, with huge outrage. I don’t know if it’s the right or wrong thing to do. I recently read an editorial from the Center of Biological Diversity, which is often on the far left side. It’s not that I don’t always support some of their ideas, but sometimes, we on the left — and I’ll call myself that — we lose our own credibility because we propose theological and human terms. And something theological is to suggest that people should be removed from Las Vegas. And how are you gonna do that? You could raise taxes, do a lot to chase them out, but you can’t force them to move. So southern Nevada has a very real water problem, and we in California can point to southern Nevada and say, “Creating a north-to-south water system is horrible. Who would do that? Oh! We did.” So I don’t have an answer, but I guess I do have an answer. We across the west have to use less water. And, minimally, potable water on lawns, 10 years from now, is gonna be an anomaly. I predict it.

Q: Given that answer, do you see a national water plan foreseeable or desirable?

A: Water is very local. Water resources are very shed-specific in their use, their management. The massive water systems that we created with the Colorado, with the Rio Grande, with others — that day is gone. And certainly the San Joaquin delta. So, certainly, a national water financing something is needed. Certainly, taking national leadership to look at what we can do to promote the conscious use of water and energy together, as my whole talk has been about today, is fundamental. But I don’t think that there’s a sort of federal energy resource regulatory commission parallel that we can come up with water that will work very effectively. I do believe that we can use our existing regulatory means and certainly our legislative means to improve our water use, water quality and certainly the water energy integration in the country.

—Transcribed by Ryan Pait