Beyond Water Resources Planning

Beyond Water Resources Planning

According to the U.S. EPA, there are nearly 69,000 drinking water and wastewater systems in the United States. According to, a non-profit organization that works to deliver innovative solutions for safe water and sanitation, the average American uses nearly 65,000 gallons of water in a year.

With the drought conditions of the western United States persistent in the national media throughout the year, the importance of ensuring sustainable water sources and efficient water systems for the future has attracted more public attention than it has in years.

While effective water resources planning is a must, water authorities are also learning that sustainability can be achieved by focusing on water use efficiency. In addition to planning, utilities are looking for ways they can reduce non-revenue water and implement strategies for making the most of current resources. Accomplishing these efforts is dependent on necessities like efficient transmission and distribution systems, properly functioning treatment facilities, sustainable source water and communication with the public to ensure the importance of conservation and use efficiency is properly conveyed.

Water Resources Planning

The notion of water resources planning essentially refers to everything from preparing for future water supply challenges, ensuring sustainable source water quality and implementing efficiency programs. Resources planning can also carry over to the wastewater side as well, ensuring the practice of efficient treatment of clean water.

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a national non-profit association dedicated to the efficient and sustainable use of water, water resources planning and management can be described as the parent of water conservation and efficiency in water organizations. One of the initiatives of the AWE is to get public utilities to adopt a mindset that weights the cost of planning against the cost of conserving.

According to the AWE, the organization recommends that water conservation planning be fully integrated into overall water resources supply planning so that the benefits and costs of conservation programs can be compared against the benefits and costs of water supply options on a level playing field.

The AWE works to provide technical assistance and research support on water efficiency as a sustainable planning choice. Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance, says water efficiency has historically been misunderstood and underappreciated.

“Water efficiency is a small field that generally isn’t well understood, well-respected or heavily utilized, despite the benefits that it provides,” she says. “If you look at energy, energy efficiency is well documented, well-respected, well-funded. Nobody thinks twice about whether energy efficiency makes sense, but everybody argues about whether water efficiency makes sense.”

But perhaps water resources planning is still in its infancy. Part of the challenge with planning today is that solutions to issues like maintaining adequate source water in drought regions are not as easily attainable as they have been in the past. Dickinson, who has a background in environmental planning, working for state regulatory agencies as well as retail and large wholesale water utilities, says the challenge of water resources planning today stems from the fact that there are new challenges in terms of water quantity, treatment capacity and the increasing costs in those areas.

“It used to be you would just build a reservoir or drill a well whenever you needed more supply,” she says. “Supply was never a big issue, and in the United States, we are blessed with water resources that are fairly abundant. So for years it was just a matter of going and getting it. In the past 30-40 years, we have run up against some serious water resource constraints in many parts of the country — not just in terms of how much quantity there is but how much capacity we have to treat it.”

Moving Beyond Path of Least Cost

Dickinson says resources planning in the past took on the approach of ‘path of least cost,’ and finding solutions to water supply and treatment — both on the drinking water and wastewater side — via the least amount of cost. Eventually, that concept morphed into integrated resources planning, where, in addition to cost, factors like the impact to the environment and watershed were considered.

“Your water resources plan now is a portfolio of options for how you meet your growing customer demand,” Dickinson says. “And it’s become much more sophisticated. Integrated resources planning is now the preferred method for all water utility planning.

“One of the options in the portfolio is water conservation and water efficiency. If you can reduce the amount of new water that you need by making your existing customers more efficient, thus allowing more room for new growth, you are saving all of those ratepayers money in the long run. That’s when water efficiency began to slowly emerge as a cost-effective option for utilities.”

But Dickinson says that while utilities are starting to plan better, achieving water efficiency in terms of reducing water loss is easier said than done. She says that while utilities have historically had a difficult time monitoring how much water loss they were truly experiencing and the reasons for that loss, new technology like smart metering and monitoring systems is helping to make that process more proficient.

A problem with the technology, unfortunately, is funding. Not all utilities can afford to implement new metering systems so that water loss can be more accurately measured. Not all utilities can afford to implement the technology to locate where water is lost or to measure the amount of water used in fire flows or water going into a flushing project. But Dickinson says that’s why making efficient use of current resources is perhaps more important than ever.

“In the long run, the cheapest water you will ever have is the water you already have,” she says. “So making an investment to actually find that water and stop those losses is a very good investment.”

Efficiency & Conservation Programs

Although we’ve heard the stories about water utilities creating conservation and efficiency promotion programs in an effort to encourage the public to save water, how do we know what’s truly working? How do we really know if a utility’s conservation achievements can be attributed to public engagement? Does a utility that tells people to turn off the water when they brush their teeth really help in achieve anything of real merit?

Dickinson says a problem with utilities implementing effective conservation initiatives is that many times, utilities are afraid that if those conservation initiatives do succeed, a significant decrease in customer water use will result in a reduction in revenue for the utility. So on one hand, there are utilities that really do not want a significant reduction in water use, while at the same time, consumers want water rates to be as low as possible.

“The irony is you’ve got customers who will pay almost $10 a gallon for bottled water but they’ll yell about paying a couple of pennies for that same gallon in their water rate,” Dickinson says. “So this is a big issue, and until utilities are actually up against the wall and realize they’ve got to use water efficiency programs in order to make their supply go farther, they may not voluntarily choose to do it because of the revenue issue.”

Public Engagement

In terms of effective public awareness campaigns that successfully result in an overall reduction in water use across a utility, the work being done by the City of Santa Cruz, Calif., is one interesting example. The city is currently in the middle of developing a future water supply investigation, and within that, is doing a water conservation master planning study that examines plans for the next decade. From that plan, the city has implemented a couple conservation initiatives that have allowed its water utility to thrive whereas many of other California cities in the region are struggling.

“We had developed a comprehensive water shortage contingency plan well in advance [of the drought],” says Toby Goddard, administrative services manager for the Santa Cruz Water Department.

“In California, there’s a requirement that all suppliers have to do an urban water management plan every five years. As part of that, there’s a section that requires all suppliers to develop a water shortage contingency plan including shortages of up to 50 percent. Our community has experienced droughts in the past, but more importantly, when we were doing an update of our plan we realized we hadn’t really thought of drought contingency in a long time, so that triggered us to do an update. So when it came time to implement it [recently], we were pretty well prepared.”

For the second year now, the Santa Cruz Water Department is managing its system in response to the drought by rationing water, the process by which customers have a monthly allotment of water use, which if they violate, they’ll be subject to steep penalty. “There are not many communities that are actually successfully rationing, and we seem to be somehow doing that,” says Goddard.

Goddard says a water rationing program requires new ways of doing things like using an alternative billing system and doing it in a way that doesn’t cause the public to revolt. He says the goal is to achieve water savings while also communicating the fact that water is scarce.

The one thing that has generated positive interest in the media is Santa Cruz’s Water School — a two hour class that is offered to customers who are penalized for excessive water use as a one-time ‘get out of jail free’ option. Rather than paying the penalty fee, the customer attends the class which is meant to educate people about efficient water use, facilitate discussion on drought conditions statewide and locally, and utility basics like billing and meter reading.

“It puts them in our shoes a little bit,” says Goddard. “We also talk about rules and conservation strategies. So, they come out of it pleased that their penalty is rescinded but they come out of it having learned something. It’s a pretty positive experience.”

Goddard says approximately 700 people went through the program in its first year in 2014, with another several hundred having participated so far this year. For more on the Water School and Santa Cruz’s conservation initiatives, visit

Planning Helps, Efficiency Saves

Dickinson says that there are numerous examples nationwide of utilities implementing conservation and efficiency practices that save the extra expense of adding new supplies that may be unnecessary. The real challenge is funding those projects.

“It’s going to be different in every utility’s case and the way to get around it is to do better planning,” she says. “And that better planning is a free exercise. There’s no reason why utilities shouldn’t do it. Now they may decide water efficiency makes sense, but where they are going to get the money could be a problem, and that’s a different issue.

“A big issue [AWE is focused on now] is the issue of revenue loss for water utilities. If we can convince them that water conservation is a better deal and show them how they can adjust their rate structure so that their customers don’t kill them, then we will have achieved something.”

Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

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