250 Multi-Benefit Resources


California’s Water Futures Market: Explained 

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By Cora Kammeyer 

A recently launched water futures market in California drew global attention, from Wall Street to the United NationsWhile news of the market has brought both skepticism and speculation, much of the coverage has failed to address some fundamental questions: what actually is a water futures market? How does it work, and who are the playersAnd most importantly, what are the potential benefits and risks? 

In this short piece, we explain the California water futures market in simple termsWe will explore its potential implications in a second blog soon 

What Are Futures Markets?  

To understand a water futures market, a new and unique form of futures trading, we must first understand the basic tenets of futures markets. The essential premise of a futures market is that a seller agrees to sell a certain quantity of an asset at a certain price and a certain time in the future, and a buyer agrees to buy that quantity of asset at that price and at that time. Put simplya futures contract is a negotiated agreement now for a transaction in the future.  

Put simply, a futures contract is a negotiated agreement now for a transaction in the future.  

While a futures contract is originally created between one buyer and one seller, that contract can change hands over the course of the contract period. The two parties holding the contract at the end of the term are the ones who complete the transaction. Multiple futures contracts that change hands multiple times together create a futures market. There are futures markets for many different types of assetsfrom financial assets like stocks and bonds to physical assets like soybeans or oil 

There are two types of futures contracts: physical-settled and cash-settled. In physically settled contracts, the physical asset is delivered at the agreed-upon price at the end of the contract period. A futures contract for soybeans, for example, results in the delivery of real soybeans. In cash-settled contracts, the buyer receives (or pays) an amount of money equal to the difference between the contract-negotiated asset price and the present asset price. If the negotiated price is lower than the present price, the buyer receives that difference amount from the seller. If the negotiated price is higher than the present price, the buyer must pay that difference to the seller. In other words, the contract buyer is betting that the price will go up, and the seller is betting that it will go down. Assets that commonly have cash-settled futures include live cattle, dairy, and fertilizer.  

There are two types of participants in futures markets: hedgers and speculators. Hedgers are individuals or companies engaged in the physical market for the asset underlying the futures contract (soybeans, oil, cattle, etc.). They participate in the futures markets to increase certainty and hedge risk in selling assets they create or buying assets they need. Speculators are individuals or companies seeking to profit on the price changes of an asset through the futures market; they are willing to take on the risk that hedgers are seeking to reduce in pursuit of that profitThey have no interest in obtaining or selling the asset itself.  

What Is the California Water Futures Market? 

The California water futures market is a new financial tool designed to help water users in the state hedge the risks associated with California’s volatile hydrology and physical water market. It provides those seeking to buy water a way to reduce risks associated with scarcity, and those looking to sell water with a way to reduce risks associated with surplus. A key feature of this futures market is that it is cash-settled, which means there is no contracting or trading of physical water.  

The California water futures market is a new financial tool designed to help water users in the state hedge the risks associated with California’s volatile hydrology and physical water market.

The price of water on the futures market at any given time — like when contracts are negotiated and settled — is based on the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index (NQH2O)The NQH2O index is comprised of a weighted set of sale prices from California’s physical water markets, including surface water trading as well as trades in four groundwater markets. The index is “printed” or updated on a weekly basis by Nasdaq, under the ticker NQH2OBecause the index is a composite, there are always slight differences between the actual price paid for water in any given physical trade and the index price – this difference is called basis, and it has a nuanced but important influence on futures trading.   

Each contract in the water futures market is for 10 acre-feet of water, and the contract period can range in length up to a maximum of two years. The contract price can be any price agreed upon by the buyer and seller but is typically close to the index price. The contracts always settle on the third Wednesday of the month, and typically terms end on the quarterly months – March, June, September, and December. Regardless of the contract length, contract can be traded multiple times throughout its term. 

Like any futures market, the California water futures market has two types of participants: hedgers and speculators. Hedgers are California water users – this includes municipalities, water districts, and businesses like farmers or manufacturers. Farmers are the most likely group to participate as hedgers in the California water futures market because water is a critical input to their business. Farmers face water-related business risks in dry years and seek solutions to reduce that risk. Farmers are also the most active participants in California’s physical water markets. Speculators could be anyone – they are individuals or companies looking to make money on the market by betting on the future price of water. They are not interested in purchasing physical water and may be located anywhere in the world. Wealth management firms, hedge funds, or other financial companies may include California water futures as part of their asset portfolio, if they consider it a smart investment.  

Let’s walk through a hypothetical example. 

In February, a California almond farmer is looking at the water delivery forecast for the year and anticipating there may be shortages in the summerAlmond orchards need to be irrigated year-round, and a water deficit in the summer could lead to reduced yields, or worse, tree mortality. To hedge the risk of water shortage, the farmer buys five water futures contracts, for a total of 50 acre-feet of water, at a contract price of $600 per acre-footAs a reminder, while the contracts are measured in acre-feet of water, there is no physical water transacted. This contract settles on the third Wednesday of Junethough it can be traded any number of times before the settlement date.  

In the third week of Junethe price of an acre-foot of water according to the NQH2O index has risen to $800. This means that the almond farmer gets paid by the seller the difference between the contract price ($600) and the current price ($800) of water. That would be a difference of $200 per acre-foot, for 50 acre-feet, for a total of $10,000. The farmer could then use that money to purchase physical water through one of California’s water markets, or help cover losses from reduced almond yields that year, or pay for other expensesIn this scenario, the farmer has successfully reduced — or hedged — the water-related risk to his business through the California water futures market.  

If, however, the predictions of shortage had been wrong and NQH2O water price dropped below $600 per acre-foot in June, then the almond farmer would have to pay the seller the difference between the contract and the current price. If the price had dropped to $400, for example, then he would owe the contract seller $200 per acre-foot for the contracted 50 acre-feet of waterfor a total of $10,000. But because there is no water shortage, the farmer’s water risk is low, and despite the cost borne participating in the futures market he still benefitted from peace of mind and planning stability over the course of the contract term.   

What is the seller’s perspective in this hypothetical example?  

The seller, like the buyer, could be a hedger or a speculator. In this example, the seller, like the buyer, is also a hedger. She is also a farmer but grows tomatoes. The tomato crops are re-planted every year, and each year the farmer decides how many acres to plant. Seeing predictions of drought for the upcoming summer, she decides to leave 20 acres fallow (un-planted). If she has water left over from not irrigating those fields, she can sell it on a physical water market. But, if it turns out to be a wet year, then she will have fewer tomatoes to sell and no buyers for her water. To hedge the risk of a water surplus, the tomato farmer decides to sell those five water futures contracts, for a total of 50 acre-feet of water, at a price of $600 per acre-foot, to settle in June.  

In the third week of Junedrought conditions persist and the price of an acre-foot of water according to the NQH2O index has risen to $800. This means that the tomato farmer (the seller) must pay the almond farmer (the buyer) the difference between the contract price ($600) and the current price ($800) of water. That difference is $200 per acre-foot, for 50 acre-feet, for a total of $10,000. While this futures contract ended up being a cost to the tomato farmer, because it is a dry year she can likely find buyers for her unused water on the physical water market for a price close to $800 per acre-foot and recoup much of the money lost on the futures trade. 

If, however, it turned out to be a wet year and the NQH2O water price dropped below $600 per acre-foot in June, then the almond farmer would have to pay the tomato farmer the difference between the contract and the current price. If the price had dropped to $400, for example, then he would owe her $200 per acre-foot for the contracted 50 acre-feet of water, for a total of $10,000. In this instance, the tomato farmer would likely not be able to sell her physical water and would have reduced tomato yields from fallowing, but she would have that $10,000 to reduce her financial exposure.  

In each water futures trade, either the seller or the buyer benefits financially – not both. However, for most hedgers it is more about price stabilization and protection from market volatility; they are willing to pay a premium for greater certainty. Hedgers can use the market to reduce their financial risks such that they are much better off if they “win” and only a little worse off if they “lose.” Speculators in the market are purely gambling, rather than attempting to control water risk exposure.  

In each water futures trade, either the seller or the buyer benefits financially – not both. However, for most hedgers it is more about price stabilization and protection from market volatility; they are willing to pay a premium for greater certainty. 

Building on the groundwork laid by this explainer piece, we will explore the potential benefits and risks of the California water futures market in a second blog post coming soon. In the meantime, for more information about the California water futures market you can read the FAQ. 

 

 

What Role Should Onsite Water Reuse Play in Silicon Valley Water?

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By Cora Kammeyer 

 

Water systems in most large urban areas like California’s Silicon Valley are linear and highly centralized. Water is cleaned at a central treatment plant, distributed to homes and businesses through a vast and decades-old system of pipes, used once, and then returned through another set of pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, before being discharged into a nearby waterway like the San Francisco Bay. This 20th-century approach to the urban water system is no longer sufficient to address 21st-century water challenges like climate change, growing populations and economies, and aging infrastructure.

The 20th-century approach to the urban water system is no longer sufficient to address 21st-century water challenges like climate change, growing populations and economies, and aging infrastructure.

There is a growing opportunity to build urban water systems that are distributed and circular, adding flexibility and providing back-up when integrated with centralized systems. This means capturing and treating water closer to the point of use and reusing that water multiple times before sending it back down the drain. Distributed, circular approaches like onsite water reuse have the potential to provide many benefits. They can, for example, provide alternative water supplies in the face of growing scarcity, add operational flexibility in the face of disruptions, provide opportunities for more green space, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and more. But distributed water systems can also present challenges for water managers, and they require new strategies and new ways of thinking.

Distributed, circular approaches like onsite water reuse have the potential to provide many benefits.

The Pacific Institute report The Role of Onsite Water Systems in Advancing Water Resilience for Silicon Valley examines the opportunities and challenges of corporate investments in onsite non-potable water reuse in California’s Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, where commercial development is growing in the face of increasing water scarcity, sea level rise, and water quality challenges in the San Francisco Bay, a handful of leading companies are starting to invest in onsite water systems. Facebook installed California’s largest blackwater recycling system at its Menlo Park headquarters. Microsoft is capturing rainwater and treating wastewater onsite at its new Mountain View campus as part of the site’s Net Zero Water certification. Google has plans to implement onsite water reuse at its new Bay View campus at Moffett Field. These companies are making investments in onsite water systems to meet corporate sustainability goals, improve water security, and reduce their water impact on the surrounding region.

The Role of Onsite Water Systems in Advancing Water Resilience for Silicon Valley comprises three sections exploring the benefits and challenges of implementing onsite water systems in the region. First, the report provides a synthesis of the perspectives of Silicon Valley stakeholders — including water managers, regulators, technology companies, engineers, and academics — on onsite water systems. Second, it lays out a range of potential outcomes and impacts — both positive and negative — from onsite water systems. Third, a set of geospatial analyses in Silicon Valley assess the relative opportunities for onsite water systems to integrate with regional planning and contribute to regional water management strategies. These assessments incorporate key factors such as priority development areas, the reach of existing recycled water networks, expected sea level rise impacts, and more.

The report concludes that private sector investments in onsite water systems have the potential to provide numerous benefits to the region, but only if they are incorporated into the long-term regional water planning and decision-making. The report recommends:

  1. Convening regional stakeholders to facilitate a constructive dialogue about the role of onsite water systems in Silicon Valley;
  2. Conducting more detailed technical analyses to examine how best to integrate onsite water systems into existing centralized water and wastewater systems;
  3. Evaluating policies and practices for effectively integrating onsite water systems into existing water and wastewater systems; and
  4. Identifying opportunities to implement other distributed water strategies in concert with onsite water system implementation.

To read the full report, click here

The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Continued Toll on Drinking Water Systems and Their Customers

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Darcy Bostic, Morgan Shimabuku, Mike Cohen, Lillian Holmes, and Walker Grimshaw

Critical revenue losses by water utilities demand financial intervention

Water systems across the country are facing budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic and need assistance. For small water systems (systems serving 10,000 people or fewer) total budget shortfalls are estimated to be $4 to 6 billion, primarily caused by decreased demand, delayed payments, and additional costs for protective equipment and sick time.

At the end of 2020, an estimated 12 million workers still remained unemployed due to job loss or other impacts from the pandemic. These individuals, in addition to those already unemployed or struggling to make ends meet prior to the pandemic, are unlikely to be able to afford regular monthly bills, such as for water. This only adds to utility revenue challenges.

In this blog post, we explore the compounding crises of water system revenue loss and customer debt due to the pandemic. Then, we point to some immediate and longer-term solutions that could address these challenges.

Water systems, especially small systems, have been hard hit during the pandemic


The three main drivers of utility revenue shortfalls during the pandemic are: 

  1. Non-payment of water bills, especially as residential water use increases, but the economic recession continues;
  2. Reductions in water demand from commercial and industrial users; and
  3. Increased operating costs associated with protecting workers from COVID-19 and providing increased hazard and overtime pay.

Many utilities face budget shortfalls that predate the pandemic. These debts have only been exacerbated by the economic effects of COVID-19. 

Many utilities face budget shortfalls that predate the pandemic. These debts have only been exacerbated by the economic effects of COVID-19.

Water systems of all sizes are caught with fixed or increasing expenses but rapidly decreasing revenue. For example, the Village of Chama in New Mexico operates a water system that serves about 1,000 people. Chama’s main source of income is tourism, which declined steeply during the pandemic. In May and June 2020 the village had to solve breakdowns at their drinking water treatment plant. Repairing the water system cost the village about $500,000, 55 percent of its yearly budget, depleting Chama’s financial reserves.  

Another challenge for water systems has been maintaining sufficient supplies of PPE throughout the pandemic. Sultana Community Services District (SCSD) is a small water system in Tulare County, California that has seen a 30 percent reduction in revenue during the pandemic. SCSD Board President Michael Prado, Sr. noted that purchasing PPE supplies for utility staff has imposed a large and unanticipated financial burden, in addition to requiring considerable time to find and acquire. Some utilities have also faced staffing shortages when employees contracted COVID-19, forcing potentially exposed employees into quarantine. Imperial Irrigation District, a wholesale water provider and electric utility in southern California, noted that since March 2020 188 out of 658 employees have tested positive for coronavirus.

A national debt and affordability crisis is growing

The national water affordability crisis is not new. From 2010 to 2018, water and sewer rates rose 80 percent, hurting low-income families most acutely. In addition, Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by high water rates and penalties for non-payment. Low-income communities of color often pay more for their water and are more likely to face harsher penalties as a result of non-payment. For example, Black households make up 14 percent of American households receiving water service, but experience 29 percent of utility disconnections after a notice of non-payment.

Black households make up 14 percent of American households receiving water service, but experience 29 percent of utility disconnections after a notice of non-payment.

To prevent additional losses associated with non-payment, utilities commonly implement shut-offs. Service disconnections exacerbate our public health crisis, removing water and shelter amidst a pandemic and in communities that are experiencing the highest rates of COVID-19. Shut-off moratoriums have been imposed in only nine states, preventing utilities from removing service, but seven of those have set expiration dates ending as early as March 2021.

California case study: Support for low-income customers also benefits utilities 

California is one of the nine states imposing a water-shutoff moratorium. California is also the only state to statutorily recognize the Human Right to Water. In spite of this commitment, millions stand to lose their drinking water at the end of the moratorium. Recent results from surveys of water systems in California reveal nearly $1 billion in water-bill related customer debt that has accumulated since March 2020. Nearly 155,000 California households hold water-bill related debts of more than $1000, and approximately 12 percent of households in the state hold at least some amount of water-bill related debt. Lifting the moratorium would exacerbate the current public health emergency, especially in under-resourced and historically excluded communities. Without financial assistance, customers already facing record highs of unemployment will sink further into debt while utilities continue to lose revenue. 

Solutions are coming but more are needed to address both household water debt and utility-level lost revenue 

Lawmakers should prioritize water affordability legislation to protect public health and support the most vulnerable U.S. households. “Those water bills are going to come due,” said Jonathan Nelson, the policy director at the Community Water Center in an interview with Cap Radio. “Not only is there no plan for what to do about that crisis of water debt and potential mass water shutoffs next year, but we don’t even know the full scope of the problem.”

Fortunately, there is some action being taken to help those most vulnerable to losing water access due to inability to afford their bills. In California, two new bills have been introduced that could help fill the gap for customers struggling to pay their bills. The first, Senate Bill (SB) 222 establishes a water assistance fund for low-income rate payers experiencing economic hardship. The second, SB 223, expands protections for customers who are faced with having their water shut off because of inability to pay their bills.  

At the federal level, Congress included $638 million for low-income water assistance, the first federal funding of low-income assistance for water bills. The extra infusion will help, but still leaves states and water utilities with significant deficits. There is an estimated $4 billion in need for water bill assistance nationally. The federal government has a low-income rate assistance program for energy bills, the framework of which could be leveraged to deliver the separate funding for water bill assistance. Early drafts of the next stimulus bill by the Biden administration include assistance for low-income renters with water and energy bills and debt.

In the long term, states or the federal government could eliminate late and reconnection fees, especially for low-income customers who are more likely to be disconnected as a result of non-payment; such a program would benefit many customers of color. For example, California’s privately owned utilities, regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, may not charge more than $25 for reconnection during working hours and $40 during off-hours, whereas urban water systems, regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board, may charge up to $300 for customers that do not meet low-income criteria. Reconnection fees should be limited for all low-income customers in any water system.

Emergency grants and loans, PPE supplies, and funding for infrastructure improvements and maintenance deferred during the pandemic can help systems with revenue shortages stay afloat. Additionally, solutions that involve securitizing debt can protect utilities from insolvency, especially while interest rates for corporate borrowing remain low.

Understanding the scale of water system financials nationally is also unclear. Most states don’t require water systems to report the scale of customer debt or water shutoffs. States should prioritize data collection of household utility debt and number of water shutoffs in order to map the scale of the problem and track progress on solutions. 

Finally, immediate assistance for ratepayers late on their water bills is needed. As a supplement to federal programs, states should be implementing their own low-income assistance programs. “They need it now,” says Michael Prado, Sr., SCSD Board President. “If we don’t get relief soon, it’s going to be bad, they [SCSD customers] are going to get loans to pay [their] water bill.” If customers can pay their water bills, utilities are also able to stay in operation. Solutions for customers are solutions for utilities as well.

Q&A: Water Recommendations for the Next Administration 

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By Heather Cooley, Peter Gleick, and Jason Morrison

 

With so much going on in the world right now, why should water be a priority for the Biden administration?

The fact is that water challenges in the U.S. are severe and worsening. As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, poor water infrastructure and the failure to provide universal access to safe water and sanitation threaten public health. Water shortages, poor management, and antiquated water systems threaten the nation’s food supply, ecosystems, and economy. Conflicts over water around the globe threaten our national security. Worsening climate changes are increasing these risks, and the failure to act now will only make solving these issues harder.

With this urgency in mind, we released a set of water recommendations for the next U.S. presidential administration, Water Recommendations to the Next President. These recommendation, which were shared with both presidential campaigns, outlined the nation’s water challenges and called for swift and meaningful action to carry the U.S. into a more equitable and climate-resilient water future.

In November, we hosted a webinar on our recommendations, taking audience questions on topics ranging from the nation’s outdated infrastructure to the threat to national security from rising international conflict over water. Read on for our answers to some of these questions:

1. What strategies do you recommend to help small and disadvantaged communities improve their capacity to provide safe drinking water, water sanitation services, and adequate water supplies?

There are several things the Biden Administration can and should do. These include:

  • expanding the State Revolving Loan program at the Environmental Protection Agency with a priority focus on providing support for disadvantaged communities;
  • providing financial support for regionalization and consolidation of small, failing systems;
  • providing emergency funding to support communities that have shut-off moratoriums and a permanent program to address affordability, like the federal energy programs that are available;
  • providing workforce development and training programs for women and people of color for water-related green jobs; and
  • expanding data collection, looking specifically at issues around water affordability.
 
2. Do human rights have a place in your recommendations?

The simple answer is yes. Access to water and sanitation is a human right. However, until more states adopt a formal human right to water with legal teeth, it is more of a moral/ethical tool than a legal one. In the meantime, there are many things the Biden Administration can do to provide universal access to water and sanitation.

3. The era of big vision water ideas in California took place decades ago: State Water Project, LA Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct. Population growth and climate change have overtaken the ability of these big idea resources to meet the need to be resilient going forward. Will efficiency and conservation be sufficient to meet the needs? Or do we need to inaugurate a new era of big ideas – wastewater recycling and desalination?

No single strategy will address all our water supply needs. Our previous work (such as the “Untapped Potential” analysis) shows that a mix of improvements in water-use efficiency, wastewater reuse, and stormwater capture can address expected water needs in California for years to come. Desalination is another option, although these other options provide greater benefits with fewer social, economic, and environmental impacts.

4. How do we effectively create a national strategy given the “blue” and “red” divisions we’ve seen with the response to the coronavirus (e.g., mask mandates)? Can we overcome the partisanship we’re experiencing at the more local state levels?

Water polls among the most important environmental issue, and unlike issues like climate change, there is a much narrower partisan divide around water, especially water quality. Many of our water challenges – whether it be pollution, inadequate infrastructure, or affordability – are most severe in rural communities. So, water could be an easier issue to tackle than some other areas and, importantly, an opportunity to bring people together.

5. In the context of a potential “National Plan” for water, what are your views on trying to implement watershed/river basin-oriented water quality and quantity management (instead of the highly fragmented management of water issues that is also divorced from a watershed reality)?

Water management is highly fragmented, and basin-level commissions can help to address this issue. However, the National Water Plan should focus on what the federal government can/should do. It should address the entire range of national water challenges, be nonpartisan, and consist of scientists, legal and policy experts, and non-governmental and community representatives who can speak to the on-the-ground realities facing American communities.

6. Mark Arax has pointed out (The Dreamt Land, I believe) that drip irrigation has allowed some Central Valley growers to grow crops on even more marginal lands. Any comments?

Smart and effective drip irrigation must be combined with land and water use policies that permit “saved” water to be reallocated and used for purposes other than just applying it to more marginal lands. If farmers just reuse saved water, total water productivity goes up, but opportunities may be lost for restoring natural ecosystems or providing water to other users.

7. What are your perspectives on investing in climate-resilient water infrastructure, including broader uses of recycled water or desalination?

The impacts of climate change on water systems are intensifying, and immediate effort is needed to enhance the resilience of these systems. This will involve new investments in infrastructure, as well as changes in the operation and management of water systems.

Greater uptake of recycled water – along with water-use efficiency improvements – can help to enhance water resilience. These strategies can, for example, reduce supply-demand imbalances, providing additional capacity within the system to allow for more variable and uncertain water supplies. They can also reduce pressure on traditional water sources and diversify the water supply portfolio, thereby providing flexibility when these sources of water are constrained due to drought, ongoing water scarcity, or other water supply disruption.

Desalination – especially seawater desalination – can also play a role. However, due to its high cost, energy intensity, and impacts on the marine environment, it should be a last resort option and carefully compared with alternatives.

8. Should we rethink our water infrastructure financing strategies that increasingly rely on loans needing repayment, and local fees/taxes that are challenging for low-income communities to support? Should we move more toward a system of grant financing from the federal level for both centralized and decentralized infrastructure?

Large federal investments in water, as have occurred in the past, have reduced the cost of providing water and sanitation service. While this has helped make water more affordable (at least in the near-term), it has also promoted waste and inefficiency. A better strategy would be to continue to rely largely on local fees and loan financing for most systems and to prioritize grant funding to disadvantaged communities that couldn’t afford to make the investment needed to ensure safe, reliable water and sanitation.

9. What about the U.S. role in addressing water challenges in other nations (e.g., through foreign aid)?

The administration should prioritize international aid on water for the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 goals, including a focus on health (including COVID-19). USAID and the U.S. State Department have long had programs, supported by Congress, that encourage aid for water-related development investments, but these programs are underfunded and the beneficiaries are often not those communities most in need. A refocusing of these efforts would be important.

10. What do you see as the role of the private sector in pursuing your recommendations – e.g., to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 and the human right to water, expand access to water services, enhance water efficiency, etc.? And would having the private sector involved be an angle for achieving bipartisan support, or an obstacle?

The private sector can play an important role in helping to address water challenges, such as improving human access to water and sanitation, reducing water pollution and use, and restoring ecosystems. Leading business are making investments to improve water security and watershed health in ways that go well beyond minimum legal requirements. We have been working with the private sector to this end for more than a decade in our role as the Co-Secretariat of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate. Private sector action can take many forms – including improvements in operational efficiencies and reuse at their facilities and across their value chain and investments to upper watersheds – and could also include supporting policies that advance water resilience and sustainability. For most, if not all, of the companies with leading water sustainability practices, water is not a partisan or ideological issue; there’s a clear business case for action.

Read Water Recommendations to the Next President here. View the webinar “Water Recommendations for the Next Administration” here.

 

Building Resilience and Addressing Inequities in Small, Underperforming Drinking Water Systems

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By Katie Porter at Brown & Caldwell, Darcy Bostic and Morgan Shimabuku at Pacific Institute, and Laura Feinstein at SPUR

This blog post was originally published on Meeting of the Minds

Approximately 25 million people in the United States are served by water systems that regularly fail to meet federal safe drinking water standards. In addition, systems with poor water quality are more likely to serve low‐income and semi‐rural communities, as well as people of color. Internationally, other developed nations like Canada and Australia also struggle with delivering safe drinking water universally, particularly to rural, indigenous communities.

As technology for detecting contaminants and our understanding of the health impacts of contaminants improve, water quality standards become more stringent. More rigorous standards combined with increasing water quality challenges will make it even more difficult for systems with limited capacity to meet drinking water requirements. In particular, small community water systems (those serving <10,000 people) comprise the vast majority of systems with a history of long‐term health‐based violations.

The economic challenge of operating and maintaining a small water system is a large contributor to water quality violations. Assuming that there are certain fixed costs that remain approximately the same across systems regardless of size, it costs more per customer to operate and maintain a small system than a larger one. Best practices such as experienced managers and regular maintenance can be burdensome for small systems. Additionally, spreading operations and maintenance costs among fewer customers can make it challenging for water bills to remain affordable for all. As COVID-19 and the associated recession continue, customers are increasingly unable to pay their water bills, resulting in decreased revenue to water suppliers. This decrease in revenue exacerbates financial stressors on small systems.

Large water systems are also challenged by many of these factors, however data show that nationally, less than one percent of very large systems experience serious, ongoing issues with meeting drinking water quality standards. This suggests that solutions are urgently needed to help struggling small water systems remain solvent and ensure their ability to deliver safe, affordable water to their communities.

California Urban Water Agencies (CUWA) and Pacific Institute are co-principal investigators for a Water Research Foundation (WRF) project, Solutions for Underperforming Drinking Water Systems in California. The findings from this work may also be applicable to other states wrestling with similar challenges. This article builds upon the discussion in the January 2020 article on this site, Equipping All Communities with Safe, Reliable Drinking Water, and provides several additional key findings of this work pertaining to:

  • The challenges to California’s small drinking water systems, with a focus on those that are out of compliance with federal and state drinking water standards
  • Solutions to address these challenges in California and beyond

 

Understanding California’s Drinking Water Violations

California has many small systems compared to other states. However, California has about the same percentage of underperforming small systems with problems delivering safe water as most other states (Figure 1). Thus, the lessons learned from characterizing and solving the problems in California may be transferable to other regions, nationally and internationally.

Figure 1. Serious violators by system size in California and US. “Serious Violator” status is assigned by the EPA based on a history of long‐term health‐based federal Safe Drinking Water Act violations. Error bars indicate standard deviation for all 50 states plus District of Columbia. Data is from US EPA.

California’s underperforming water systems are primarily located in small, semi-rural, low-income, communities of color (Figure 2). The systems serving communities of color are four times as likely as white communities to have persistent water quality violations.

Figure 2. Water system performance as a function of (a) population size, (b) percent of state median household income, (c) percent urban, (d) and percent white, non-latino in the service area. Data is for 2016 through 2019, from US EPA, US Census Bureau, and CA Department of Water Resources.

Many small water systems experiencing water quality challenges were found to be in violation due to three main contaminants: arsenic, uranium, and/or total trihalomethanes (TTHM). Arsenic and uranium are naturally occurring in groundwater, and systems in violation of these contaminants were mostly located in the San Joaquin Valley, where water supplies are typically from groundwater. The other common violation, TTHM, is a known byproduct from water treatment processes. Some contaminants that did not cause many violations during the study period (2016-2019) are likely to become larger problems in the near future as new regulations come into effect. Two examples are 1-2-3 Trichloropropane and Chromium VI, which are entirely or mostly caused by human pollution.

Solutions for California’s Underperforming Small Systems

Policymakers can advance their efforts to provide safe drinking water to all Californians in two ways. First, they need to continue efforts to “stop the bleeding” by preventing new unsustainable water systems from forming. Second, we need more comprehensive efforts to implement long term solutions for systems that are failing.

Broadly, we recommend the following high-level solution categories (See previous article for additional discussion):

  • Operational solutions, including remote and contract operations
  • Treatment solutions, such as facilities optimization, and point of use or point of entry treatment
  • Source water solutions, including new internal and external water supplies
  • Partnership solutions, such as physical or managerial consolidation and mutual assistance

Of the solutions presented, partnership zones offer a high-impact opportunity for progress. Partnership zones refer to any form of cooperation across multiple water systems to improve services and efficiencies of one or more of the systems. Examples can include joint powers agencies, mutual aid/assistance, managerial consolidation, physical consolidation, or even informal cooperation. Two or more systems within 30 miles or less tend to be better candidates for managerial consolidation, such as allowing for shared staff and equipment, while two or more systems within three miles or less tend to be the best candidates for physical consolidation because of the sheer cost of building connecting pipelines.

In California, approximately 200,000 people are served by 253 small, underperforming drinking water systems. The vast majority of these small systems are within 30 miles of a large, high performing system. This suggests that regional partnership solutions can reach 95% of underserved Californians. Partnership zones developed around 25 of the state’s highest performing large systems could reach 80% of underserved Californians.

Figure 3. Regional partnership solutions have the potential to reach up to 95% of those in California currently served by small, underperforming drinking water systems.

While partnership zones offer a set of innovative and practical solutions to many small water systems struggling to meet drinking water standards, financial incentives and support are needed to overcome the many barriers to forming a successful water partnership. Particularly challenging are cost and benefit inequities between the partner communities. Short‐term rate shock and long‐term rate increases, which often accompany a consolidation of two or more systems, are hard to sell to customers. Local communities are sometimes reluctant to give up authority over their water utility.

The process of learning what is sufficient to incentivize large high‐performing water systems to support nearby underperforming water systems is a major challenge, and some immediate strategies to facilitate water partnerships have emerged. For example, state or federal regulatory agencies could offer funding to supplement travel, incidentals, and labor required to evaluate partnership potential and implement consolidation. Another approach, which is currently in place in California, is to encourage water systems to pursue consolidation or regionalization through offering low- or no-interest loans for their infrastructure projects that provide additional drinking water supplies. In addition to financial support, legal remedies will also be needed to resolve responsibilities related to past violations and other obligations of the underperforming system.

In California, the policy groundwork, going beyond incentives, has been laid to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not left without water. In 2012 the state committed to ensure that every person has access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. And, in alignment with this goal, two state-wide policies have been enacted; one that requires management of groundwater (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), and a second that created a program to identify and fund solutions for water systems and domestic well users currently without and at-risk of losing access to safe water (Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience, SAFER). The funds associated with these solutions are the state’s first-ever source for operations and maintenance for small water systems. Particularly, the severely impacted populations served by water systems with persistent water quality violations will benefit from state financial assistance to support them in developing internal capacity and provide a path to long-term financial sustainability.

Applications Beyond California

This body of work, published in September 2020 by the Water Research Foundation, provides information on the scope of the problem as well as practical solutions for California. Our hope is that these offer a blueprint for communities ready and able to take action through local and regional solutions. But more will be needed to address the full set of drinking water challenges existing in the state and beyond. Small drinking water systems in California are fortunate to have the new SAFER program crafting a set of tools, funding sources, and regulatory authorities to solve the complex problems facing small systems.

Unsafe drinking water is an urgent problem that disproportionately affects low‐income communities of color in California and across the U.S. In California, we’ve learned that the right environment and policies inspire stakeholders to come to agreement on prioritizing solutions that provide the best results based on each system’s unique problems. Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, political willingness, and mutual agreement are all critical elements that, when combined with the right technical solutions, allow systems to thrive. In parallel with ensuring the right institutional and funding support systems are in place, we also need to choose and implement the most viable technical solutions for each system (which may in turn inform the support systems). Every system is unique, and some systems may require an immediate solution, while others may require a series of solutions implemented over time.

Key Take-Aways from the Webinar on Setting Site Water Targets to Drive Action in India and South Africa

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by Tien Shiao, Hannah Baleta, and Sonali Abraham

 

The CEO Water Mandate and the Pacific Institute held a webinar on August 18, 2020, titled “Lessons from India and South Africa: Setting Site Water Targets to Drive Action.” Over 100 participants from around the world attended. Webinar panelists engaged in an interactive session with high-caliber questions from the moderator and a responsive audience. The questions centered primarily around how to 1) start target setting, with a focus on stakeholder engagement 2) create a target and 3) drive action once a target has been identified.

To facilitate knowledge-sharing among stakeholders interested in this subject, and for those who might have missed the webinar, the project team has created a brand-new FAQ page in which we summarize key audience questions and takeaways. Going forward, this FAQ page will include insights from the various contextual target-setting projects around the world and will be regularly updated to reflect new findings and project learnings.  

Highlighted questions answered on the FAQ page include:

  • How did you select stakeholders to validate findings?
  • How did you ensure participation of the most relevant stakeholders?
  • How do you create shared ownership of achieving targets with stakeholders?
  • With water challenges being interconnected and with a strong desire for collective work among the private sector, what is the role of government in this work—regulatory, fiscal, other?
  • What are examples of collective action and targets? What has worked and what has not? What makes a target realistic?
  • How do you convert targets into an actionable plan for the company?

Click on the FAQ page to explore the answers to these questions provided by the project team.

Thank you to all the participants and the panelists who attended and participated in the webinar. We hope that this FAQ page will facilitate collaboration and spur engagement with a wide audience. We look forward to regularly updating this page as these projects grow.

For information on the overall guidance and case studies from Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin, India, Upper Vaal River Basin and Berg and Breede River Basins, South Africa, and Santa Ana Watershed in California, please refer to Setting Site Water Targets. Please contact ceowatermandate@unglobalcompact.org if you are interested in setting contextual water targets or for further information.

Tien, Hannah, and Sonali are researchers at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. The CEO Water Mandate mobilizes business leaders to advance water stewardship, sanitation, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

 

From Source to Tap: Assessing Water Quality in California  

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By Walker Grimshaw  

Stressors to sustainable water management in California 

Water providers in California face myriad challenges in sustainably providing high quality drinking water to their customers while protecting the natural environment.  

While agencies may have little direct impact on these external stressors, they have choices in how to respond and adapt to such stress to successfully supply high quality and affordable water to communities. 

In this blog postI explore the stress that surface water and groundwater quality challenges pose for California’s retail water agencies. 

Groundwater quality stresses small water systems 

More than 80% of Californians rely on groundwater for at least part of their drinking water. Groundwater aquifers also serve as a natural storage and treatment system for water and are vital to providing clean water throughout the arid American West.  

“More than 80% of Californians rely on groundwater for at least part of their drinking water.” 

However, when contaminated, water managers must treat groundwater; mix it with other, higher-quality water sources; or drill new wells to access new sources entirelyEach of these approaches increases the complexity of the water system, and the extra costs can increase the price of water for customersComplex water systems and increased costs are especially large challenges for small water systems with limited technical capacity and a smaller customer base. For these small water systems, the cost of infrastructure and training for operations and maintenance staff is spread among fewer customers. 

Both large and small water systems must test the quality of their raw water throughout the year. Municipal groundwater data from 2019 show that across California, large water systems are more likely to pump contaminated groundwater than small water systems. However, despite the increased likelihood of pumping contaminated groundwater, these large systems are not more likely nationally to violate drinking water standards. The reason? Large systems have a greater capacity to treat the contaminated groundwater to meet EPA and state drinking water standards.  

Assessing and Addressing Contaminated Groundwater  

The quality of raw groundwater is measured relative to comparison concentrations, above which there are increased negative impacts to human health or environmental health. 

Comparison concentrations include Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), health-based action levels, and notification levels, among others, and each type of comparison concentration has different regulatory consequences and implications for human health. For example, drinking water contaminant concentrations cannot legally exceed federal MCLs under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Water systems with MCL violations must find ways to improve their water quality through new water sources or more treatment. 

On the other handcontaminants exceeding notification levels, as their name implies, only require notification of customers and local government. They do not require treatment or removal from the water. 

PFAS are unregulated and occur in groundwater across California 

While many contaminants are regulated through the Safe Drinking Water Act, additional chemicals are increasingly being monitored and regulated as they are discovered in the environment. One category of these chemicals, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are man-made chemicals used to produce heat and water-resistant materials, often referred to as “forever chemicals. They have recently gained public attention for their negative health effects, presence in water resources, and persistence in the environment.  PFAS are currently monitored, but they are not regulated at the state or federal level. Instead, they only have notification levelsrequiring notification of local governing bodies (i.e. city or county) when their presence exceeds their respective notification level. 

Two chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOS and PFOA, are monitored widely across California, and in 2019, nearly one third of all PFOS/PFOA observations in raw groundwater were above notification level. Measurements exceeding the notification level occur throughout the state and are not limited to any one geographic area. 

“Two chemicals in the PFAS family, PFOS and PFOA, are monitored widely across the state, and in 2019, nearly one third of all PFOS/PFOA observations in raw groundwater were above a notification level.”

 

As research on the human impacts of PFAS continue, the EPA or CalEPA could introduce an MCL to supplement the existing notification level. If so, many water systems would need to install treatment to specifically remove these forever chemicals, representing a large potential stressor for retail water systems. The Orange County Water District has already begun the nation’s largest PFAS Pilot Program to identify the best treatment methods for their water. 

Surface Water Quality 

Surface water supplies typically require more treatment than groundwater to achieve high quality drinking water, and small changes in surface water quality can have large impacts on entire ecosystems. As with groundwater, surface water quality directly impacts the price of safe, treated water for consumers or the need to explore other, higher quality sources of water. 

Impaired Surface Waters and TMDLs 

The EPA tracks surface water quality nationally in a compiled list of impaired waters, called the 303(d) listings. Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act charges states and tribes to assess the quality of the surface water bodies within their boundaries 

Every two years, each state must assess their water bodies using all available water quality-related data. Each assessed water body is designated as impaired, threatened, or good based on the ability of the water to meet water quality standards for its intended beneficial uses. Beneficial uses may include drinking water supply, recreation, aquatic life support, and fish consumption, among others, and they determine the acceptable water quality of water bodies. 

For waters designated as impaired, the state must then develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the pollutants in that water body. The goal is to determine the maximum amount of pollution that can enter the water body and still meet water quality standards. The TMDL then serves as the basis for regulating sources of pollution to that body of water. 

Pesticides and Nutrients 

The most common pollutants in California’s surface waters are pesticides, nutrients, metals, and fecal indicator bacteria. However, unlike the ubiquity of PFAS in groundwater across the statepesticides appear mostly in the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Imperial Valley while nutrient contamination is worse in the Klamath River basin, the Pajaro, and the Aliso-San Onofre. 

The maps below show the distribution of pesticide and nutrientcontaminated waters in the watersheds of California. As not all watersheds have the same number of streams and not all streams are assessed for impairment, the number of impairments for pesticides and nutrients are divided by the total number of assessed streams in each watershed.   

Much of the groundwater and surface water in California is contaminated, some naturally occurring and some because of human action. Contaminants harm environmental systems and pose a threat to human health. Monitoring is key to understanding the location and severity of contamination and allows regulators and the public to prioritize efforts at water quality improvement.  

How to learn more about your drinking water quality 

Despite widespread water pollution, drinking water across California is largely safe, as contaminated source water does not necessarily lead to contaminated drinking water. Instead, it provides a greater challenge to providing safe drinking water, and treatment can increase the cost of the water. If you are interested in learning about the quality of your tap water, you can look up your water provider through Drinking Water Watch. 

 

 

Ending Conflicts Over Water

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By Peter H. Gleick

Growing Tensions Over Freshwater

In recent years, a wide range of water-related factors have contributed to political instability, human dislocation and migration, agricultural and food insecurity, and in more and more cases, actual conflict and violence. Demand for water has grown as populations and economies expand, while the availability and quality of the planet’s freshwater resources are increasingly influenced by industrial and human water pollutants, and increasingly by human-caused climate change. Water problems do not necessarily lead to conflict — in fact, violence associated with water systems and problems is the exception, not the rule. However, data collected by the Pacific Institute in the Water Conflict Chronology show that water-related violence is increasing (Figure 1).

Strategies for Reducing Water-Related Conflicts

Although water risks are worsening worldwide, there are many strategies to reduce water conflicts and improve water security. A comprehensive new assessment of these strategies was released in September 2020 by the Pacific Institute, the World Resources Institute, and the Water, Peace, and Security Partnership. Solutions to water and security challenges can be described and categorized in many ways. The report offers four broad categories:  

  1. Natural resources, science, and engineering approaches;  
  2. Political and legal tools;  
  3. Economic and financial tools; and  
  4. Policy and governance strategies. 

“Although water risks are worsening worldwide, there are many strategies to reduce water conflicts and improve water security.”

From Strategy to Action: Reducing Water-Related Conflict Around the Globe 

The report focuses on identifying and understanding these strategies, where they might be most effectively applied, and how to overcome barriers to implementing them. It also provides six detailed regional or country case studies on how different combinations of these solutions — if successfully implemented — could help to mitigate the risk of water-related instability. The cases studies include Iraq, Iran, India, The African Sahel, the Central American Dry Corridor, and Yemen. 

The cases were chosen where severe water and security challenges are already evident and illustrative of a broad spectrum of problems. Each of the case studies begins with a description of the factors that are driving these water-related challenges and a summary of the conflict or crisis itself. Each case study then describes possible solutions to address the specific drivers of the water-related challenges. Importantly, this discussion of solutions includes examples of the solutions being put into practice.  

In Iraq, for example, exceedingly poor water quality in southern Iraq triggered violent demonstrations against the government. At the same time, reductions in flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to upstream interference from Turkey and Syria and accelerating climate change are contributing to tensions over both water quantity and quality. 

In Iran, overuse of water relative to available supply has led to internal tensions and violent confrontations over access to water. Iran also has ongoing disputes with neighboring countries over use of water in its shared river basins. 

In the African Sahelian region, increasing scarcity of water and land resources has led to a major increase in violence between local farmers and pastoralists, and contributed to worsening religious tensions among different groups. Expansion of settled communities has contributed o appropriation of watering holes and closure of lands formerly open to nomadic groups. 

Existing Challenges and Recommendations

The report concludes with seven major conclusions and recommendations:

  1. More and more countries are confronting water insecurity as water demands increase and water supplies decrease, become contaminated, or are affected by extreme events.
  2. While solutions exist on paper, they are often difficult to apply politically. As challenges to social stability grow, all parties need to mobilize the political will and economic and technical capacity to effectively address them.
  3. Among the first things needed to confront these challenges are data and information systems that can help monitor conditions and provide early warning of potential problems.
  4. Once high-risk areas are identified, the international community should have rapid response teams that can assist at-risk countries
  5. Most solutions require significant funding. The rapid response teams should therefore have the backing of development banks, bilateral aid agencies, the private sector, and other funders that can furnish needed grants or loans. Funds should be set aside by these organizations specifically to address emerging water and security crises.
  6. The challenge of collective action is significant, but it can be overcome if and when societies recognize the benefits of needed changes and the perils of continuing with “business as usual.”
  7. Understanding pathways, timelines, and the complex interaction of multiple factors at work in a crisis is vital to help policymakers design effective policy responses. 

Further Resources on Water-Related Conflict

Report: Ending Conflicts Over Water: Solutions to Water and Security Challenges  Video: Ending Conflicts Over Water  Tool: Water Conflict Chronology  Tool: WPS Global Early Warning Tool

How Distributed Water Infrastructure Can Boost Resilience in the Face of COVID-19 and Other Shocks  

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By Cora Kammeyer, Pacific Institute; Heather Cooley, Pacific Institute; and Cynthia Koehler, WaterNow Alliance 

 

COVID-19 — and the ensuing economic crisis — is affecting all sectors of society, including water. Across the country, water utilities are facing lower revenues, more unpaid and late water bills, and higher costs to protect essential staff from COVID-19. These financial challenges are affecting much-needed investments in water infrastructure, both now and in the future. Here, we summarize the financial impacts of COVID-19 on water utilities, examine how this may reduce or delay water infrastructure investments, and explore how investments in innovative distributed water infrastructure can address some of these issues while also fostering economic recovery, system flexibility, and long-term resilience.    

Water Utility Revenue Struggles 

Water utilities face severe challenges due to the effect of COVID-19 on their bottom lines. A survey of drinking water utilities conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) in June 2020 shows that many utilities are facing financial impacts from COVD-19 and are cutting spending in response. Three-quarters of respondents are either already facing financial impacts due to COVID-19 (45 percent) or expect to see impacts soon (31 percent). Seventy percent have either already adjusted their spending or are considering it. Perhaps most critically, 24 percent of respondents, predominantly small utilities, say these financial impacts are likely to affect their ability to maintain current levels of water service. 

 

A survey of drinking water utilities conducted by the American Water Works Association in June 2020 show that many utilities are facing financial impacts from COVD-19 and are cutting spending in response. 

 

There are three primary drivers of revenue shortfalls:

  1. non-payment of water bills, as people face unemployment and struggle to make ends meet; 
  2. Reductions in water demand, especially reduced water sales to businesses that are shut down or operating in a limited capacity; and 
  3. Increased operating costs associated with protecting workers from COVID-19 and providing increased hazard and overtime pay. 

A study from AWWA and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies puts the combined current and future financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis on drinking water and wastewater utilities at around $27 billion, or nearly 17 percent of total budgets. Another estimate predicts a 20 percent water utility revenue loss due to COVID-19. While much of the research focus has been on drinking water and wastewater utilities, stormwater utilities face similar financial struggles.

Federal or state aid would help alleviate this pain but has yet to materialize. To date, local water utilities have largely been omitted from federal COVID-19 relief, and proposals for federal support, like the Moving Forward Act, may not move forward until after the November election. State budgets have taken their own COVID-19 hits. The California State budget, for example, is facing a $54 billion deficit and State water programs have been slashed to the tune of $50 to $70 million.

Capital Investments and Infrastructure Expenditures

It is well established that there is desperate need for capital investments in local water infrastructure to modernize operations, address deferred maintenance, and build climate resilience. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a “D” grade to the nation’s water infrastructure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $743 billion of investment  in water and wastewater infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years just to meet existing environmental and health standards.

 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $743 billion of investment in water and wastewater infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years just to meet existing environmental and health standards.

 

The revenue shortfalls from COVID-19 are exacerbating this situation, forcing water utilities to delay or reduce those investments. According to the recent AWWA survey:

  • Seven percent of respondents have suspended capital construction already in progress, and eight percent are considering it;
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents are delaying anticipated capital construction, with another 19 percent considering it; and 
  • Thirty-six percent are reducing or considering reducing maintenance and repair schedules, which will create even more of a backlog. 

These delays could affect the reliability of water infrastructure already long overdue for capital improvements. 

An added dimension to the water infrastructure financing challenge in the face of COVID-19 is the municipal bond market. Because of current financial instability, which is expected to continue, utility and municipal bond ratings may go down—and consequently interest rates up—making it more expensive to finance capital investments in water infrastructure. 

Opportunities for Distributed Water Infrastructure 

At a time when utilities are pausing investments in conventional water infrastructure, localized, distributed water infrastructure presents a unique opportunity. These infrastructure solutions, located at or near the point of use and implemented widely across communities, encompass a broad range of water supply, treatment, and stormwater strategies, such as efficient fixtures, rain gardens, lead line replacements, onsite or district scale water reuse, and more. Distributed water systems serve the same functions as conventional systems, but more affordably and equitably, while building greater climate resilience for the community.

 

Distributed water systems serve the same functions as conventional systems — but more affordably and equitably, while building greater climate resilience for the community.

 

Moreover, while conventional centralized water infrastructure is typically engineered and optimized to do just one thing very well (e.g., a treatment plant to provide clean water, or a dam to store water), distributed systems can provide multiple benefits. These include:

  • Creating alternative water supplies;
  • Improving environmental water quality;
  • Reducing energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Generating jobs and local economic development; 
  • Providing greener public spaces; and
  • Cooling urban environments. 

There is growing interest in the role that distributed systems can play in advancing water resilience. They tend to be less expensive than large, centralized systems and can provide greater financial and operational flexibility. Water infrastructure networks that are flexible, have distributed capacity, and contain multiple systems that can provide back-up are more resilient to disruption than systems without these features. For example, in 2012 Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed many water and wastewater treatment facilities. Centralized water systems spilled over 11 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into streets and waterways, but over 80 distributed water systems remained operational. 

 

Water infrastructure networks that are flexible, have distributed capacity, and contain multiple systems that can provide back-up are more resilient to disruption than systems without these features.

 

Distributed infrastructure also presents opportunities to leverage private investment. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are seeing growing corporate interest and investment in distributed water systems. Technology companies like Salesforce, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have invested in distributed strategies like onsite water reuse, water efficiency, and water treatment wetlands at their own facilities. Private interest and investment in these systems has the potential to spare water utilities some costs, add capacity, and provide redundancy in case of damage or failure to the centralized system. 

Distributed energy resources offer an important model for how a smart, integrated system of centralized and distributed infrastructure can work. These distributed energy resources act as nodes in the broader system, allowing for flexible operations, providing resilience to disruption, and offering new utility revenue models. 

Some water utilities, like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, have seen the potential of distributed water infrastructure investments and have enacted policies to incentivize or require them. Others are establishing innovative programs to advance distributed water strategies. 

A More Variable and Uncertain Future

Distributed water infrastructure has been a promising solution since long before the pandemic hit. Now, given the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is even more so. Shocks — from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to severe floods and droughts from a changing climate — are becoming more frequent and severe. These will continue to strain water utilities’ continuity of operations. In the face of increasing disruptions, we need to shift toward water resilience. 

The transition to water resilience includes acknowledging, valuing, and investing in distributed infrastructure alongside existing centralized systems. This will require planning, budgeting, and financing those systems on par with conventional water infrastructure, which may necessitate changes in water utility budgeting and financing. While the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for water utilities, it also provides an opportunity to modernize existing models for financing and building water infrastructure to meet 21st century needs. 


The Pacific Institute creates and advances solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges. Our vision is to create a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.

WaterNow Alliance identifies and overcomes barriers and provides tools and resources for their members to build local support for policies and programs that advance sustainable water management. WaterNow Alliance provides a forum for collaborative action and a network for local leaders to learn from each other, helping communities make tangible progress on the ground to bring sustainable water management approaches to scale.

Simple Steps for Businesses to Transform Their Landscapes

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By Cora Kammeyer and Sonali Abraham

The Pacific Institute has developed an interactive guide, Sustainable Landscapes in California: A Guidebook for Commercial and Industrial Site Managers, which provides step-by-step help for businesses interested in sustainable landscapes.   

Through Sustainable Landscapes, We Can Improve the Resilience of Our Cities  

Extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, manifests through water – storms, floods, and droughts. Adapting to these new extremes will require rethinking water management, including the way we design urban areas to interact with water.  

Currently, most of California’s cities are marked by vast expanses of turf and pavement, which are the opposite of drought and flood resilient. Half of all water used in California’s urban areas—more than four million acre-feet annually—is used outdoors, largely to irrigate turf grass. Vast paved areas like parking lots, walkways, and streets contribute to local flooding and water pollution because there is nowhere for stormwater to go. Sustainable landscapes provide an excellent alternative; replacing lawns with climate-appropriate landscapes that are irrigated efficiently can save water and reduce vulnerability to drought, and creating rain gardens with healthy soils can help stormwater soak into the ground and reduce flooding. 

Businesses Will Play an Instrumental Role in Transitioning to Sustainable Landscapes 

The scope and scale of our sustainability challenges warrants action by all Californians, including the business community. Commercial and industrial properties are disproportionately landscaped with turf grass and have large paved areas. Yet, most sustainable landscape programs have focused on residential properties. 

December 7, 2017 Palo Alto / CA / USA – Walking through the open air Stanford shopping center, San Francisco bay area

Businesses can support their communities and improve management of local resources, including water, through investments in sustainable landscaping at their sites. Increasingly, businesses are adopting water stewardship programs that reduce their costs while providing benefits to communities and supporting public water policy goals where their facilities are located. Sustainable landscapes can be an important aspect of a business’s water stewardship commitment. 

New Guidebook Provides Practical, Step-by-Step Guidance on Landscape Transformation for Businesses 

There has been a lack of resources for businesses on sustainable landscapes, in comparison to resources for residential yard transformation. While the basic tenets of sustainable landscapes are the same across all property types, the decision-making process, financing options, installation, and maintenance of sustainable landscapes are different for businesses than for homeowners. 

To help fill this information gap, the Pacific Institute recently released a guidebook, Sustainable Landscapes in California: A Guidebook for Commercial and Industrial Site Managers. The guidebook is aimed at site managers of commercial and industrial properties who are interested in adopting sustainable landscape practices. The guidebook provides simple steps for considering, selecting, and installing sustainable landscape practices, along with interactive worksheets and pop-out boxes. It tackles project decision-making, information required, and questions to ask landscape professionals, and it points users to helpful resources where needed.  

The guidebook provides simple steps for considering, selecting, and installing sustainable landscape practices.

Sustainable Landscapes Provide Many Benefits to People and the Environment 

The multiple benefits provided by sustainable landscapes can improve cost-effectiveness and provide businesses with an opportunity to publicly demonstrate their commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.  

Replacing lawns with climate-appropriate plants that are irrigated efficiently can save water and reduce vulnerability to drought. When integrated with bioswales, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure, these projects can boost local water supplies, reduce flooding, and improve water quality. These practices can also save energy, provide habitat, sequester carbon, improve air quality, and increase resilience to climate change. They can make workplaces more enjoyable for employees, and neighborhoods more livable for communities.  

Sustainable landscapes also provide direct benefits to a business. Those benefits can include: 

Cost savings: Sustainable landscape practices can help save businesses money. This could include lower water bills, lower landscape maintenance costs, and even lower energy bills. 

Meeting sustainability goals: A growing number of businesses have adopted sustainability goals such as reducing water use, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in sustainable landscapes can help companies achieve these goals. 

Advancing green reputation: Converting to a sustainable landscape is a highly visible way for businesses to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. Unlike investments in water and energy efficiency inside a building, sustainable landscapes are something that people can see and interact with. 

Practicing social responsibility: Businesses are increasingly recognizing the water-related risks facing their business operations and their communities. Investing in a sustainable landscape is a way for businesses to make positive contributions by addressing water risks and improving community livability. 

 

Explore the guidebook here.  

Read more about the Pacific Institute’s work on sustainable landscapes here.  

Learn more about the Pacific Institute’s work with businesses here.  

Why Should Your Business Be Interested in Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds?

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By Carla Műller-Zantop (Danone S.A.), Michael Matosich (The Nature Conservancy), Kari Vigerstol (The Nature Conservancy), Naabia Ofosu-Amaah (The Nature Conservancy), and Gregg Brill (Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate)

The Problem

Physical, Reputational, and Regulatory
Source: ceowatermandate.org

As large users of natural resources, including water, the private sector has disproportionate impacts and dependencies on natural capital1. These impacts and dependencies play out across physical, reputational and regulatory factors, and across the interface between company risks and risks due to a particular watershed. All of these issues affect private sector bottom lines and long-term well-being.

The private sector has a critical role to play in addressing many environmental, social, and economic challenges faced today. To this end, a multi-organizational project (including the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Danone, and LimnoTech) is looking to understand the opportunities for businesses to invest in nature-based solutions (NBS) to address societal challenges. The project team have recently published a Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds Landscape Assessment to better this understanding. This assessment:  

  • Explores the concept, definitions, and classifications of NBS;  
  • Identifies the barriers to scaling NBS;  
  • Reviews available frameworks or methods for evaluating, measuring, and demonstrating the value of NBS benefits; and  
  • Examines opportunities to scale NBS. 

 

Using Nature to Solve Societal Challenges 

Historically, the private sector has addressed water security through developing engineered solutions to store, treat, distribute, and dispose of water. Although many of these solutions have proven successful at meeting their primary objectives, they come at considerable costs to business and the environment. For example, a reservoir or dam may be built to store water. This water needs to be pumped to treatment works and then on to the end user. All of this infrastructure comes at considerable capital and maintenance costs. The environmental costs are significant too2, and include loss of habitat, changing local hydrology, and disposal of wastewater to the environment. It is seldom the case that the full suite of costs (economic, social, and ecological) are factored into decision making when investing in engineered solutions. 

But the reliance on solely engineered solutions to solve critical water challenges is changing.  The private sector is increasingly realizing that it has, at its fingertips, various approaches that rely on nature – not just engineered solutions – to build water security in line with their existing business models. 

These approaches are known as “nature-based solutions.” 

The private sector is increasingly realizing it has, at its fingertips, various approaches that rely on nature – not just engineered solutions – to build water security in line with their existing business models. These approaches are known as “nature-based solutions.”

Nature-based solutions (NBS) are actions to restore, manage, and protect natural ecosystems in order to secure ecosystem goods and services that nature provides and performs. Working with nature offers significant opportunities to businesses to meet broader environmental, social, and economic objectives. Instead of relying solely on traditional “gray infrastructure”, companies can combine these efforts with natural solutions or “green infrastructure” (e.g. using wetlands to filter and store water, rather than industrial filtration systems and storage tanks). This allows natural systems to provide vital provisioning and regulatory functions, such as filtration functions of soils and natural vegetation to: 

  • Improve water quality;
  • Reduce erosion and sediment loading;  
  • Lower pollution into waterways and groundwater; and 
  • Regulate seasonal water flows.  

Investments in NBS can offer solutions that are both cost-effective and flexible, and are therefore of increasing interest to the private sector and other stakeholders. NBS allow ecosystems to provide water quality and quantity benefits, as well as multiple other co benefits including carbon sequestration; increased biodiversity; and social, cultural, health, and economic benefits3, 4. In addition, carefully planned natural climate solutions using NBS have the global potential to deliver 37% of carbon mitigation5 needed within the next decade to stabilize global warming temperatures to below the 2° C target.

Unique Opportunities for the Private Sector 

As the private sector prioritizes building resilience, more and more companies are turning to NBS to support their long-term goals and business continuity objectives. According to GreenBiz6, over 350 companies have made commitments to help reverse biodiversity loss and restore natural systems on which economic activity depends. In 2019, Amazon7 pledged USD $100 million to support natural climate solutions, while Unilever8 pledged €1 billion towards its climate and nature fund in 2020.  

As the private sector prioritizes building resilience, more and more companies are turning to nature-based solutions to support their long-term goals and business continuity objectives.

To improve the sustainability of business operations as well as the environment, it is critical that more companies invest in the enhancement of natural capital and the use of NBS to create more resource-efficient societies. 

So what is holding the private sector back?  

Barriers to Private Sector Implementation of Nature-Based Solutions 

While NBS can substantially improve ecosystem functioning and quality, they currently remain underutilized, partly because of:

  • A lack of understanding of the full range of potential benefits of NBS, from both an ecosystem perspective and a business perspective;  
  • A lack of common metrics for measuring or quantifying the multiple benefits derived from NBS; 
  • A lack of public and private sector policy and governance frameworks and tools for identifying or monetizing the full scope of benefits and co-benefits provided by NBS; and
  • Limited financing for NBS projects or a lack of incentives for investing in NBS.

For a more in-depth look at the challenges and barriers companies are facing, please refer to the Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds Landscape Assessment

The Way Forward 

It is clear that in order to sustainably meet the needs of the private sector, society, and nature, and to ensure that companies build long-term economic resilience, we will collectively need to improve ecosystem functioning and quality. Action needs to be taken now, to not only improve ecosystems at broad scales, but also embrace nature in solving many of the challenges we face today. 

Action needs to be taken now, to not only improve ecosystems at broad scales, but also embrace nature in solving many of the challenges we face today. 

To achieve these goals, the public sector could:  

  • Create appropriate regulations, policies, and legislations that promote the use of NBS; 
  • Provide development incentives, payment for ecosystem services schemes, stormwater fee discounts, green bonds, and tax increment financing;
  • Adjust building codes and project development protocols to encourage the use of NBS; 
  • Enable credit enhancement and provide grants, rebates, and favorable financing terms; and
  • Create collaborative governance and management mechanisms to promote partnership development around NBS investments9. 

Businesses can advocate for these NBS-friendly policies and raise awareness of this opportunity through:

  • Investing in NBS projects at scale with innovative sustainable financing; 
  • Supporting public-private partnerships and collaborative governance structures; and
  • Providing sector leadership by encouraging other companies in their economic sectors or within their supply chains to support NBS opportunities10.

NBS have the potential to drive transformation in the private sector to meet long-term resilience goals. Companies can use these solutions to reshape their economic models to include added value from natural and social benefits while simultaneously achieving economic growth. To do this, they should look beyond the boundaries of their factory fences and broaden positive influence at the watershed level using nature as inspiration. No single business or government agency can tackle the multitude of societal and environmental challenges alone. In this context, NBS can support collaborative governance objectives, at a time where joint action is needed more than ever. 

[Pull quote: Companies can use nature-based solutions to reshape their economic models to include added value from natural and social benefits while simultaneously achieving economic growth. To do this, they should look beyond the boundaries of their factory fences and broaden positive influence at the watershed level using nature as inspiration.] 

For more information on the Benefit Accounting of Nature Based Solutions for Watersheds project, please visit the Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds project page.  

Final California Water Resilience Portfolio Released: What’s There, What’s Missing

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By Cora Kammeyer

In January 2020, California state agencies released a draft document meant to signify a new chapter in California water. Now, six months later and after extensive public consultation, the final draft of the Water Resilience Portfolio has arrived.

The Portfolio was developed in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order (N-10-19), which calls for a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system in California for the 21st century. This strategy includes several ambitious actions, such as ensuring all communities have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water and utilizing natural infrastructure and approaches that provide multiple benefits. The Portfolio was a collaborative effort, compiled through an interagency working group with input from communities and leaders across the state.

What’s in the Portfolio?

Below is a short summary of the 32 recommendations put forth in the final Water Resilience Portfolio. The full document can be found at waterresilience.ca.gov.

The Portfolio is divided into four broad approaches: maintain and diversify water supplies; protect and enhance natural systems; build connections; and be prepared. Under each approach, recommendations and actions for achieving those recommendations are provided. A final section outlines a plan for executing the Portfolio.

Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies

  1. Help local water agencies achieve reliable access to safe and affordable water.
  2. Drive greater efficiency of water use in all sectors.
  3. Help regions secure groundwater supplies by supporting the transition to sustainable use.
  4. Support local and regional agencies to recycle or reuse at least 2.5 million acre-feet a year in the next decade.
  5. Support cities and counties to make stormwater capture a growing share of their supply.
  6. Consider use of desalination technology where it is cost effective and environmentally appropriate.
  7. Expand smart surface water storage where it can benefit water supply and the environment.

Protect and Enhance Natural Systems

  1. Protect and restore water quality by driving pollution reduction from a range of sources.
  2. Help regions better protect fish and wildlife by quantifying the timing, quality, and volume of flows they need.
  3. Reconnect aquatic habitat to help fish and wildlife endure drought and adapt to climate change.
  4. Support the expansion of wetlands, including mountain meadows, to create habitat, filter runoff, buffer floods, and recharge groundwater.
  5. Curb invasive species altering California waterways.
  6. Align and improve permitting to help launch and incentivize more restoration, multi-benefit, and multi-partner projects.
  7. Upgrade and maintain state wildlife refuges, hatcheries, and restoration
  8. Encourage investment in upper watersheds to protect water quality and supply.
  9. Improve soil health and conservation practices on California farms and ranches.
  10. Minimize air pollution and restore habitat at the Salton Sea.
  11. Help protect the economic and ecological vitality of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Build Connections

  1. Modernize inter-regional conveyance to help regions capture, store, and move water.
  2. Support groups and leaders in each of the state’s regions to develop and execute integrated resilience strategies.
  3. Ease movement of water across the state by simplifying water transfers.
  4. Modernize water data systems to inform real-time water management decisions and long-term planning.
  5. Coordinate science crucial to water management.
  6. Foster innovation and technology adoption across all water sectors.

Be Prepared

  1. Help regions prepare for new flood patterns.
  2. Help regions prepare for inevitable drought.
  3. Improve the ability of regions to anticipate weather and climate changes.

Executing This Portfolio

  1. Institutionalize better coordination across state agencies.
  2. Partner with key non-state partners to improve coordination and alignment.
  3. Unify to pursue federal funding and cooperation.
  4. Actively integrate water resilience portfolio actions in other Administration efforts to build climate resilience.
  5. Track and report publicly on progress toward implementing the water resilience portfolio.

What’s Missing?

The Pacific Institute has long analyzed and communicated the links between water, energy, and climate and strongly supports the state’s efforts to advance water resilience in the face of climate change. This Portfolio is a step in the right direction, but there are still gaps that must be addressed. Below, we highlight five critical actions for advancing water resilience in California:

  1. Develop a standardized system for water projects to evaluate and report multiple benefits and use that information to prioritize state grants and loans. The need to do many things to advance water resilience does not mean that we must or can afford to do everything all at once. Resources are limited, and we must prioritize our efforts. While Portfolio recommendation #13 addresses the importance of projects with multiple benefits, it does not address prioritization nor does it recommend a standardized approach to evaluating multiple benefits.
  2. Engage proactively in Colorado River negotiations. The Colorado River is not mentioned in the Portfolio recommendations. To date, the State of California has deferred decisions about river management to Colorado River contractors. A resilient water portfolio for California must include the Colorado River, and the state should engage proactively in current and upcoming negotiations over its future.
  3. Advance water efficiency for commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) users. While Portfolio recommendation #2 calls for greater efficiency of water use in “all sectors,” CII users are omitted from the recommended actions. The business community in California is showing a real interest in improving water use efficiency, and more effort is needed to build on this momentum.
  4. Improve actions on the Salton Sea. Achieving the Portfolio’s recommendation #17 on the Salton Sea, to minimize air pollution and restore habitat at the Sea, will require accountability to the governor’s office itself, direct and continuing attention to planning and construction efforts, much greater coordination within and between state agencies and with stakeholders, greater transparency, and a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of state efforts beyond simply meeting existing acreage milestones.
  5. Expand recommendations around local stormwater capture. Portfolio recommendation #5 addresses the need to increase stormwater capture but does not address health and safety or long-term funding. To advance local stormwater capture projects across California, statewide health and safety guidelines for stormwater reuse are needed to empower communities to pursue stormwater capture. Additionally, policies that increase long-term funding and cover operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses are needed.

For further reading, see the Pacific Institute’s public comment letter responding to the draft Water Resilience Portfolio, submitted to Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Resilience Program, in February 2020. We are committed to continued research and collaboration towards increasing California’s water resilience.

What Can We Learn from Setting Site Water Targets in South Africa and India?

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By Sonali Abraham 
 

Setting site water targets is a business imperative to reduce water risk and improve water security. Every water catchment has a unique set of water challenges. To effectively address water-related risks at the site level, companies need to take into consideration the local context.  

The CEO Water Mandate, together with several partners, published a guide in August 2019 to help companies set effective site water targets that are informed by local context. The guide includes a framework that lays out three key elements for setting effective site water targets: 

In parallel to creating this guidance, we piloted a series of case studies testing this framework across the globe with CEO Water Mandate Action Platform members. The pilots were held in the Santa Ana Watershed (USA), the Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin (India), and the Berg, Breede, and Vaal (South Africa) Catchments.  

We recently released case studies of India and South Africa. Comparing and contrasting these two case studies elucidates the successes and challenges of implementing this guidance and can provide useful insights for companies interested in setting site water targets informed by catchment context.  

Setting the Context 

In both India and South Africa, the pilot studies were conducted in regions with significant water stress due to both water scarcity and poor water quality, partly driven by industrial dependence on water resources. In South Africa, the pilot study was carried out in two catchments: the Upper Vaal Catchment, which is critical for supplying water to South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng city-region; and the Berg and Breede Catchments, which supply the City of Cape Town with water. In Gauteng, Sasol Limited and Unilever PLC were the participating companies, while in Cape Town, Woolworths Holdings Limited and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. were the companies involved. 

In India, the pilot was focused on the Noyyal and the Bhavani sub-basins of the Cauvery, a region well-known as a global textile export hub that is responsible for 90 percent of knitwear exports from India. This clustered pilot was carried out in coordination with the apparel companies Levi Strauss & Co, Gap Inc., and PVH Corp., which have facilities and operations in the watershed. 

Lessons Learned from India and South Africa 

Lesson #1: Understand your region thoroughly 

Every region is unique, not only in its water-related challenges but also its political structures, cultural customs, and historical context. If you are not based in the region, local partners can provide on-the-ground perspective and guidance. Understanding the region’s local policies and talking to people in the region will make the process more effective. 

Lesson #2: Data is king  

Good quality local data is essential to assess a catchment and create actionable targets. The lack of good data need not deter action, but instead can incentivize future data collection as a possible target. Alternatively, the lack of good data can mean that an alternative process, like robust stakeholder engagement, may be required to augment your understanding. Understanding these limitations will help you prepare better for the process ahead. 

Lesson #3: Most water challenges are interconnected 

Water challenges are often connected. For example, supply issues can manifest in the form of polluted bodies of water, which can lead to ecosystem and habitat concerns. It is important to recognize and understand these linkages in order to develop a thorough understanding of the water challenge. Distinguishing the root cause of water challenges will help identify targets that mitigate the source and not the symptom.  

Distinguishing the root cause of water challenges will help identify targets that mitigate the source and not the symptom. 

 

Lesson #4: Climate change and governance are common threads 

Climate change and governance structures are overarching issues that touch every water challenge. The lack of a cohesive water governance system affects both the extent of all water challenges and the ability to analyze them. Similarly, climate change in the form of rising temperatures and changes in precipitation can affect water availability, water demand, and infrastructure.  Therefore, while these two issues may not be captured in priority challenges, it is important to recognize that they will impact all challenges.  

Lesson #5: Targets come in many shapes and forms  

Site targets can be specific or process-related, quantitative or qualitative. While quantitative, measurable targets are the ideal, other kinds of targets can still yield meaningful action.  Where there is a lack of quantitative guidance on the desired conditions of the catchment, it is better for a company to set qualitative targets than no targets at all. Additionally, companies have different administrative structures and strategies, and priorities may vary across different levels of the company. Targets that mitigate shared water risks for stakeholders across the catchment and take company strategies into account are likely to be more far-reaching and effective.

While quantitative, measurable targets are the ideal, other kinds of targets can still yield meaningful action.

 

Lesson #6: Collective action saves resources and creates scaled impact 

Setting site water targets is resource-intensive. Working with other sites to collect data on local water challenges and opportunities will reduce the resource burden on each company. Further, implementing the targets collectively creates scaled impact, since multiple users will have a greater overall water footprint within the catchment.  

 

Interested in learning more?

For more information on these case studies and the overall guidance, please refer to Setting Site Water Targets.  

To dive deeper into these case studies and ask any and all questions, attend our webinar on August 18, 2020! Register  or click here for more information.

 

Sonali Abraham is a Research Associate at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. The CEO Water Mandate mobilizes business leaders to advance water stewardship, sanitation, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Affecting Water Demand

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By Heather Cooley

Changes in Water Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed massive health and economic burdens on communities around the world, and no sector of society is going untouched, including the vitally important water sector. The full extent of impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the water sector are still emerging, but one area that has come to the fore is the effect on municipal water demand. Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased. In Portsmouth, England, for example, residential demand increased by 15 percent during the lockdown, while non-residential demand declined by 17 percent. Likewise, in San Francisco, California, residential demand increased by 10 percent, while non-residential demand declined by 32 percent. 

 

“Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased.”

 

These changes are, in part, due to the simple fact that people are doing more at home during the coronavirus pandemic – like cooking, washing dishes, flushing toilets, and showering – and less in the office, at restaurants, and at the gym. Moreover, while business is up for a handful of sectors – like hospitals and some food production – other important water-using sectors of the economy have slowed or shut down entirely.  

The net effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on total water demand varies from community to community, depending on the relative proportion of residential and non-residential water uses and the makeup of the non-residential sectors. Most communities – including larger metropolitan systems in Boston (Massachusetts) and Austin (Texas) – have experienced a reduction in total water demand. More residential communities have experienced either modest increases or the smallest decreases.  

A Ripple of Effects 

Sudden changes in the levels and patterns of water demand from stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns can have knock-on effects, affecting building water quality, customer water bills, utility revenue, and water and wastewater operational conditions:  

Building Water Quality: Under normal conditions, the regular flow of disinfected tap water keeps water and plumbing free of corrosion, leached minerals, and bacteria. But when water systems are shut down or inactive for weeks or months, residual disinfectants in water, such as chlorine, can dissipate. Several potential hazards must be considered before reopening buildings or water systems, including the risk of mold, Legionella (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease), leaching of lead and other metals, and the presence of disinfection by-products. Many building owners are unaware of the risks and the actions they should take, and there are no official national or industry regulations for safely reopening buildings after extended shutdowns. 

Customer Water Bills: Changes in water use will lead to changes in customer bills. Because water bills typically include a fixed fee that would remain unchanged, the change in the bill is typically considerably less than the change in water usage, i.e., the additional cost of a 10 percent increase in water usage would be much less than 10 percent. But for those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic. Businesses are likely to see costs go down temporarily, but these savings are moderated by fixed fees and could still be problematic for those that are shutdown.  

 

 “For those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic.”

 

Utility Revenue: Utilities where total water use has declined during the coronavirus pandemic will see a drop in revenue. Revenue losses are compounded by higher costs and likely increases in non-payment, putting further pressures on water utilities. For example, a survey of U.S. water utilities during the pandemic indicated that some are offering hazard pay and overtime to essential workers, expanding training, and spending more on certain supplies. Moreover, many states have placed a temporary moratorium on customer disconnections, further affecting revenue. Impacts are likely to be more severe for small utilities, as they have a smaller customer base to absorb revenue losses.  

Water and Wastewater System Operations: Even with a small change in total water demand, changes within a water system may be more dramatic. For North Carolina’s Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, water demand across its service area was down only three percent, but demand in two subsystems serving largely residential areas increased by 25 percent and 36 percent. Moreover, as businesses reopen and implement hygiene and disinfection practices and as temperatures rise, water use may rise dramatically. Such rapid and dramatic changes in water use can exacerbate existing — and reveal new — system weaknesses. Managing these weaknesses may be more difficult as operators adjust to reduced staffing, working remotely, and other changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, too, small water systems are more vulnerable because they have fewer operators.  

Some of these impacts will be short-lived, generally limited to the period when stay-at-home orders are in place and businesses closed. However, there could be longer-term impacts if, for example, the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.  

 

“There could be longer-term impacts if the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.”

 

There is still much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know the extent or duration of the pandemic, or the range of impacts on different water systems, or the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate these impacts. But we do know that we are facing a more variable and uncertain future – from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to more extreme droughts and floods due to climate change. Immediate action is needed to ensure the safety of water during building reopening, and sustained effort is needed improve the financial and operational resilience of water utilities to ensure that they can continue to provide critical water and wastewater services. 

Ensuring Water Safety During Building Reopening 

  • Building operators and managers should take immediate proactive steps to protect public health by addressing building water quality prior to reopening, and actions taken should be shared with building occupants. 
  • Water utilities should proactively reach out to commercial and industrial customers with information about safe reopening procedures. In North America, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, CDC, U.S. EPA, and other groups offer recommendations for both specific actions and community outreach. 
  • Facilities with their own water systems must consider protective actions. Groups that maintain their own water supply, including some schools, restaurants, churches, and recreational facilities, should contact their primacy agencies with specific questions.
  • Local, state, and federal agencies should make special efforts to reach out to groups with limited access to technical expertise and financial resources. This includes small rural water systems, disadvantaged communities, Native American communities, and other groups with special water supply and quality challenges. 

Enhancing Water Utility Resilience 

  • Water utilities should expand their efforts to develop more robust and sophisticated “resilience” plans. Such plans can help water utilities prepare for and mitigate a wider range of risks than traditional planning approaches have addressed, including extreme climatic conditions, health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failure of key infrastructure. 
  • Water utilities and municipalities should accelerate the pace and scale of digital monitoring and operational technologies. Such technologies can provide advance notice of developing problem and allow the continued safe operation of critical systems even with reduced staffing and shelter-in-place orders. 
  • Water utilities should proactively update their pricing and financial policiesWhile it may not be feasible to change pricing policies in response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, changes may be needed to address the longer-term economic impacts and build resilience to future crises. Some strategies that should be evaluated include budget-based or inclining block rates, drought surcharges, and cash reserves. 
  • Water utilities should consider purchasing commercial insurance products that provide coverage for business interruptions. While commercial products may not specifically address all the challenges posed by the pandemic, more general policy terms can be negotiated in case of future disruptions.
  • National governments and international aid agencies should increase financial assistance and accelerate the disbursement of this assistance. Financial assistance can help ensure much-needed utility infrastructure investments are maintained and stimulate economic recovery. Such funding should be prioritized for small systems and for projects that (1) enhance sustainability and resilience outcomes and (2) serve disadvantaged communities that lack comprehensive access to safe water and sanitation.

Learn more in the Pacific Institute Issue Brief Water and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Municipal Water Demand

The COVID Crisis is Slashing California’s State Budget. What Does it Mean for Water Management?

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By Cora Kammeyer

 

It goes without saying that California today, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, looks very different from the California of January 2020. Governor Gavin Newsom’s May Revisions to the 2020-2021 state budget reflect this drastic change in circumstance, announcing a $54.3 billion budget deficit and proposing $18 billion in cuts to State funds expenditures. The dramatic slide from a $6 billion surplus to a $54.3 billion deficit is due to COVID-19, both the State’s mobilization to address the crisis and the economic downturn the pandemic has caused.

Several of these cuts will directly affect the availability of funding to manage California’s water resources, from safe drinking water, to groundwater sustainability, to stream restoration, and more.

While the real impacts of these budget cuts on water programs remain to be seen, the risk of a simultaneous water crisis and pandemic needs to be taken seriously. We are seeing what failure to invest in water systems during the time of a pandemic looks like around the world. From flooding and failing dams in Michigan and Virginia to lack of access to running water in Native American reservations across the US, as well as water crises in countries like India and Brazil, the compounding effects of COVID-19 and water-related emergencies are catastrophic. We do not want to see that combination play out in California.

This blog post provides a short summary of the proposed budget changes and their impacts on California water management. While the full details of what programs are being cut, and by how much, are not yet available, key pieces of information were pulled from the California Senate and Assembly budget revision summaries. Information on the total proposed State budget cuts for each California State agency and department can be found on the Governor’s May Revision Budget Details website.

Department of Water Resources

Total proposed State budget cut: -$51,267,000 (-5.4%)

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) protects, conserves, develops, and manages the state’s water. DWR evaluates existing water resources, forecasts future water needs, manages the State Water Project’s reservoirs and water delivery systems, and explores solutions to meet those needs. It also works to prevent and minimize flood damage, oversee dam safety, and educate the public about the importance of water and its efficient use.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations to DWR proposed in January, including:

State Water Resources Control Board

Total proposed State budget cut: -$5,833,000 (-0.7%)

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), along with the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards, promotes and enforces proper allocation, permitting, and use of California’s water resources, and preserves, enhances, and restores the quality of the state’s water resources. These objectives are achieved through the Water Quality, Water Rights, and Drinking Water programs.

The May Revision shifts $24 million of the SWRCB budget (beyond the $5.8 million cut) to come from Air Pollution Control Fund penalty revenues instead of the General Fund, on a one-time basis.

Department of Fish and Wildlife

Total proposed State budget cut: -$55,875,000 (-11.5%)

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) manages California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological value and for their use and enjoyment by the public. This includes habitat protection and maintenance in a sufficient amount and quality to protect the survival of all species and natural communities.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations proposed to DFW in January, including:

  • $33.7 million General Fund ongoing from DFW’s state operations base budget. This reduction will be partially offset by an $18.9 million shift from the Habitat Conservation Fund to the new Biodiversity Protection Fund to support DFW’s core biodiversity conservation and enforcement programs. This reduction may be covered by federal funding.
  • $13.8 million General Fund for the Advancing Biodiversity Protection proposal.
  • $80 million General Fund for Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Technology.

Department of Food and Agriculture

Total proposed State budget cut: -$23,323,000 (-4.9%)

The May Revision withdraws the proposed $20 million General Fund for State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program Grants.

Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is financed by revenues from California’s Cap-and-Trade program. The May Revision maintains the Governor’s January Budget proposal of a $965 million Cap-and-Trade discretionary spending plan, though the funds for this are likely to shrink because of decreased economic activity. The Revision establishes a “pay-as-you-go” budget mechanism to authorize expenditures based on proceeds received at each quarterly auction. This mechanism will prioritize the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, along with air quality, forest health, and fire prevention programs.

Climate Resilience Bond

The Climate Resilience Bond was a proposal to create a $4.75 billion bond for the November 2020 ballot to support investments to reduce climate risks in natural and built infrastructure. The Bond emphasized water, and was intended to allocate as much as 60 percent of the bond funding to water projects. The May Revision withdraws this proposal.

 

Water in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (“HEROES ACT”): May 2020

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By Peter Gleick

Emergency supplemental appropriations for FY 2020 proposed by the US House of Representatives

 

Credit: Michelle Gigante, U.S. Air Force

The newly proposed House of Representatives’ emergency supplemental appropriations bill was just released. Among the $3 trillion dollars it allocates are several provisions related to water and wastewater agencies, residential water use, and agriculture. The final bill will certainly be different, after the Senate and lobbyists get through with it, but as of now, here are some of the major water-related provisions in the bill.

Broadly speaking, the bill provides specific tranches of money for key vulnerable groups: Native American tribes, essential workers and families, homeowners, and low-income households. These are all groups that have experienced especially difficult impacts from both the coronavirus itself and the economic impacts of the response.

Missing from the proposed supplemental appropriations is help for water agencies that are experiencing unanticipated consequences, including lost revenue from changes in urban water demands and a moratorium on disconnections and shut-offs, or problems with financing for new capital investments for water and wastewater systems.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink, redesign, and reinvest in the nation’s water infrastructure, but there is as yet no sign that our legislators will act on this opportunity.

Below are the key water-related provisions in the House bill:

 

Division A-Coronavirus Recovery Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020

The Bureau of Indian Affairs would receive $20,000,000 to provide and deliver potable water. Indian Health Services would receive “Not less than $10,000,000” for the same purpose.

 

Division F-Assistance to Agricultural Producers and Other Matters Related to Agriculture

A new provision sets up the “Emergency Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program” – a voluntary emergency soil health and income protection pilot program under which eligible agricultural land is enrolled to assist owners and operators of eligible land to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources.

 

Division J-Support for Essential Workers, At-Risk Individuals, Families, and Communities

Section 100203 provides funding for “Emergency Assistance to Families Through Home Visiting Programs,” to be used “to provide emergency supplies (such as diapers, formula, non-perishable food, water, hand soap and hand sanitizer) to families served.”

 

Division K-COVID-19 Hero Act (Housing, Economic Relief, and Oversight Act)

Section 110202 establishes a Homeowner Assistance Fund with $75 billion, some of which can be used by the Department of the Treasury for homeowners to prevent mortgage defaults, foreclosures, and displacement of individuals and families facing financial hardship. Specifically, funds may be used for mortgage assistance, assistance with payment of taxes, hazard insurance, homeowners fees, and utility payment including electric, gas, water, and internet service.

 

Division M-Consumer Protection and Telecommunications Provisions establishes a Price Gouging Protection program that applies to critical goods and services, including food and water.

 

Division S-Other Matters

A key section is Sec. 190701 (Home Energy and Water Service Continuity). This section requires that “any entity receiving financial assistance pursuant to any division of this Act shall, to the maximum extent practicable, establish or maintain in effect policies to ensure that no home energy service or public water system service to a residential customer, which is provided or regulated by such entity, is or remains disconnected or interrupted during the emergency period described in section 1135(g)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act because of nonpayment, and all reconnections of such public water system service are conducted in a manner that minimizes risk to the health of individuals receiving such service.”

This section does not, however, require forgiveness of any debt incurred during the pandemic, or absolve an individual of any obligation to an entity for service, nor preempt any State or local law or regulation governing entities that provide such services to residential customers.

Another two major sections (Sec. 190703 “Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Assistance” and Sec. 190704) provides $1.5 billion for grants to States and Indian Tribes, and to residential water users to assist low income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes, that pay a high proportion of household income  for drinking water and wastewater services, by providing funds to owners or operators of public water systems or treatment works to reduce rates charged to such households for such services. It also (in Section 190704) includes the protections for households from disconnections or service shutoffs during the pandemic due to nonpayment.

 

Division T-Additional Other Matters

Sec. 2000007. Safety Upgrades in GSA Facilities

A final provision requires the Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) to take such actions as are necessary “to prevent airborne transmission of COVID–19 through air conditioning, heating, ventilating, and water systems in facilities owned or leased by the General Services Administration to ensure safe and healthy indoor environments for Federal employees… Any projects carried out by the Administrator to carry out this section shall prioritize indoor air and water environmental quality in facilities and energy-saving building technologies and products.”

 

Want to Help Fight COVID-19? List Your Organization’s Work on the Water Action Hub

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By Lillian Holmes


People around the world are told to wash their hands to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19, but what if you don’t have a sink or tap in your home?

Add Your Project to the Water Action Hub Coronavirus/COVID-19 Portal

Access to handwashing facilities is just one of many connections between COVID-19 and water. Businesses, NGOS, municipalities, and community members can explore these connections and opportunities for action through the Water Action Hub’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal. The portal allows users to share knowledge and best practices and find partners for action. 

Organizations and others that have undertaken new water-related measures around COVID-19, perhaps by stepping in to provide drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services to communities or expanding WASH access at the workplace, are invited to get in touch with the Water Action Hub team to receive help listing this work on the .

By collaborating and sharing knowledge, we can strengthen our ability to effectively address the pandemic.

Helping Businesses and Communities Take Action on COVID-19

Around the world, businesses are acting to address COVID-19 and protect against future public health crises, as Pacific Institute researcher Giuliana Chavez Morales describes in her blog post “How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?” These responses have been a valuable addition to the Water Action Hub’s COVID-19 portal.

Meanwhile, many public health organizations are releasing research and guidance for businesses, utilities, and communities seeking to respond to the pandemic. The COVID-19 portal lists a collection of these resources here.

About the Water Action Hub

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal is one of several topic platforms on the Water Action Hub, a project of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, for which the Pacific Institute serves as Co-Secretariat.

The Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) portal offers resources relevant to COVID response, as well as a list of organizations seeking to address WASH issues.

The Hub welcomes organizations from universities to charities to businesses to list their water projects and insights and connect with potential future partners. Learn more.

How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?

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By Giuliana Chaves Moreira  

 

The answer to this question is not simple, but there are recommendations that all countries around the world can take into consideration 

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up problems and challenges related to basic sanitation, as this is not only a global health crisis, but also a social crisis that affects the lives of millions of people living in vulnerable situations.

COVID-19 and the Global Setback on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Hand washing is key to fight COVID-19, according to WHO recommendations. Unfortunately, this essential and fundamental measure to prevent the spread of the disease is still inaccessible for the 780 million people around the world who lack access to an improved water source and the 2.5 billion who lack access to proper sanitation. In fact, 844 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1. And 2.3 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1.

 

     Credit: UNICEF 43450 Lister 

 

A recent United Nations report provides an analysis of the implications of the pandemic for the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. According to this report, a prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  These adverse impacts will be felt around the world, but especially by people living in vulnerability. SDG 11 calls for making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But as the following figure highlights, populations living in slums face higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to high population density and poor sanitation conditions.

 

Credit: Undesa, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 

An Opportunity to Build More Sustainable and Equitable Societies: Focus on Brazil

The UN report provides several recommendations and insights on how nations can deal with the crisis, leveraging this opportunity to build sustainable societies. Special attention is given to the most vulnerable people living in developing countries, as the poorest and more vulnerable people are at a disadvantage and will be the hardest hit. On average, developing countries spend only about two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health, compared to the global average of 4.7 percent, contributing to poorer health outcomes.

As an example,  despite being ranked ninth out of the Top 20 Economies in the World based in its GDP, in Brazil roughly half of the population – 100 million people – live without adequate sanitation or any kind of wastewater treatment, while 35 million Brazilians do not have access to safe drinking waterWater and sanitation are basic human rights that should be guaranteed to all citizens, yet they are neglected for half the population in Brazil, and have been for years. According to the study Panorama of the private sector’s participation in sanitation, published in 2019, the need for greater investment in sanitation in Brazil is an urgent priority.

While investments have failed to meet the country’s needs for health, social welfare, and environmental stewardship, it can be done. To change this scenario, it would be necessary to invest R$20 billion per year in sanitation (around $3.6 billion USD). This level has never been reached. In 2016, for example, R$11.33 billion (around $2 billion USD) was invested in sanitation (0.18 percent of the national GDP). In 2017, investment fell to R$10.05 billion (around $1.8 billion USD). (The Brazilian National Sanitation Plan investment target for the sanitation sector is 0.33 percent of GDP).

The study Comparações Internacionais: Uma Agenda de Soluções para os Desafios do Saneamento Brasileiro (International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation), conducted by the National Confederation of Industry, discusses the main challenges of the sector, characterizing sanitation as one of the most backward segments of Brazilian infrastructure with a reasonable investment deficit, in relation to other countries with per capita GDP comparable to that of Brazil.

The tragic situation of Brazilian sanitation is reflected in the country’s precarious sanitation indicators, a consequence of insufficient investments in the sector. The comparison of Brazil with a sample of other countries and other infrastructure sectors in Brazil suggests an anomaly in the Brazilian case; given Brazil’s level of GDP per capita, the country should have greater sanitation coverage. The following figure shows this fact through a simple trend line per capita containing the positive association between per capita GDP and sewage treatment. It would be expected that, for the level of per capita GDP in Brazil, the coverage of sewage treatment would be higher.

 

Source: Adapted from International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation

Brazil versus California: The Golden State Shows Water Expenditures Pay Off California

California presents a really expressive result for the culture of rational use of water and water recycling. Analyzing the evolution of the population and water demand in Los Angeles in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010 (see figure below), the culture of rational use of water is evident. Despite the increase in the number of inhabitants, there was a decrease in water use per capita and in total demand.

 

One of the best measures of Mono Lake’s protection is the flat trend of Los Angeles’s water supply since 1970, thanks to the extraordinary and still-needed water conservation efforts of the city’s population, which have reduced per capita water use to under 150 gallons per day.  Source: DWP 

 

In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in the past decades water demand has risen along with the population. São Paulo alone is home to around 22 million people, and the population has risen by 20 percent over the past 20 years, along with daily water use, which is currently at 180 litres per person 

According to the National Sanitation Information System (SNIS) the average water consumption per capita in Brazil in 2018 was 154.9 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 40.98 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). The average for the State of São Paulo for the year 2018 was 169.3 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 44.79 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). 

According to the most recent dataset available in the portal of the California State Water Resources Control Board, the average residential gallons per capita daily use (R-GPCD) in the area served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was 60 gallons (in February 2020). There was a small reduction in water consumption between February 2018 and February 2020. During this period, consumption decreased from 69 to 60, corresponding to 13 percent.

 

Average daily residential use – Los Angeles Department od Water and Power from February 2018-2020. Source: Portal of the California Water Resources Control Board

 

According to the “Our County Water Briefing” developed by UCLA, LARC, Liberty Hill, and BuroHappold and published in June 2018, total water demand decreased by over 25 percent in 16 years, dropping from 200 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) in 2000 to approximately 146 GPCD in 2016 (with potable consumptive demand down to 110 GPCD). In response to the record drought, total annual water use decreased by 16 percent in 2015 compared to 2013, and another one percent in 2016.

Brazil, on the other hand, has experienced an increase in water demand. The chart below from the study published as part of a report from the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society on extreme weather events across the world in 2014 shows how population and water demand have increased in São Paulo in recent decades.

An increase in water demand without corresponding supply can have serious consequences. The researchers of this study found that climate change was not a major influence on the major drought in southeastern Brazil in from 2014 to 2015. While the lack of rain was unusual, it was not unprecedented, with similar conditions seen during previous major droughts. The main reason for the water shortage experienced during this drought was the increased population and demand for water, according to the study.

 

Population of São Paulo metropolitan region (red line) over the period 1960–2012 and estimated (1960–2010, blue) and actual (1999–2013, aqua) water use in Greater São Paulo over the period 1960–2010. Source: Otto et al. (2015). Source: https://www.carbonbrief.org/climate-change-not-a-major-influence-on-brazil-drought-study-says 

 

Unlike Brazil, Los Angeles invests heavily in water supply. The total capital water investments by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed for the fiscal years 2018-2019 was $891 million USD. (In the fiscal years 2017-18 the approved total capital investment in water was $861 and the estimated was $768.) In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in 2018 an investment of R$4.2 billion (approximately $816 million USD) was carried out by Sabesp, a leader among the companies that invest the most in basic sanitation in Brazil. Of this total investment, R$2.3 billion (around $407 million USD) was allocated to expand water supply infrastructure, in addition to the structural strengthening following the most severe water crisis in SPMR in the 2014-2015 biennium. 199 thousand new water connections were installed, surpassing the target set by 18.5 percent. R$1.9 billion (around $336 million USD) was allocated to expand the structure of sewage collection and treatment in the operating area. As a result, 215,000 new sewage connections were installed throughout the State of São Paulo, surpassing the target for the period by 7.6 percent.  These numbers show that investments in water supply were similar to Los Angeles, but the investments in sanitation were low, representing only R$1.9 billion (approximately $336 million USD).

WHO points out that for every dollar invested in water and sanitation, $4.30 USD is saved in health care costs. A recent report by Lixil, WaterAid, and Oxford ranked Brazil third out of the top 10 global ranking countries for economic loss due to poor sanitation. Meanwhile, private organizations linked to sanitation recently showed that ensuring universal access to sanitation in Brazil would allow  $314.4 million to be spared in health care every yearPoor sanitation has proven expensive in Brazil, causing a loss of nearly $25 million USD in 2017 due to hospital admissions stemming from diseases related to poor sanitation and limited access to quality water. For that year, health authorities reported 263,400 admissions. The number is high, despite the decrease from the previous year’s 350,900 admissions, and costs that year adding up to $31.47 million USD. This scenario reflected the investments in sanitation made in this period; in 2016, when the country applied more investments in sanitation (around $2 billion USD), health benefits of sanitation for the population were noted, with less hospitalizations in 2017 compared to the previous year when those investments were made.

Businesses Taking Action to Mitigate the Impacts of COVID-19 in Brazil

Brazil’s total number of confirmed deaths has now overtaken WHO’s figure for China, with 71,886 confirmed cases as of April 29th. Like other countries, Brazil was not prepared to face this unpredictable pandemic. However, the country’s existing water and sanitation access challenge, which was already huge, was aggravated by the pandemic. The investments made in water and sanitation, which were already insufficient, will now have to be used to adopt emergency measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, we have seen a number of new business efforts and initiatives being intensified and/or created in the country in response to the pandemic. One example is the action carried out by the Basic Sanitation Company of the State of Sao Paulo (Sabesp) that  expanded the distribution of water storage tanks to more neighborhoods in Sao Paulo. These donations are intended to prevent people from running out of water when emergency repairs or preventive maintenance in the networks supplying their water are needed.

This effort should help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the routine lives of citizens.  The effort was started in the second largest slum in São Paulo, Paraisópolis, which has more than 100,000 residents. Sabesp announced that it will distribute 1,200 water storage tanks to residents of Paraisópolis, south of São Paulo, who do not yet have a tank at home. It is also important to note that many residents are without water not because of the lack water storage tanks, but because of the continuous interruptions in supply. This fact became even more relevant with the increase in cases of COVID-19, as the main recommendations include frequent hand washing and house cleaning. In an attempt to prevent water shortages at this crucial moment, the Public Ministry of the State of Sao Paulo initiated a public civil action. The action asks that Sabesp and the state government present a timetable to guarantee the daily supply of drinking water in all the Sao Paulo slums.

 

Credit: Sabesp/Facebook/Reprodução 

 

In this moment when extra care is needed to preserve life, and empathy and acting with responsibility have been fundamental, cooperative action between brands is more important than ever, because it allows companies to expand reach and act more quickly in areas of low income and high vulnerability. 

For this purpose, in an unprecedented partnership, Fiat, NIVEA, Sabesp, Deep, Instituto Olga Kos, and the advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made have joined forces on the “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative, a co-branding action aimed at facilitating access to essential hygiene items in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The action aims to deliver a total of 230,000 personal hygiene products to 53 institutions, benefiting  around 60,000 people. Donations began in April and will be made until the end of May, with deliveries made in cycles every 15 days, to supply the largest possible number of beneficiaries during the period in which health authorities consider the most critical in terms of contamination by COVID- 19. Products made available by NIVEA will be taken in Fiat cars to the five main metropolitan areas of São Paulo with a higher concentration of people living on the streets or in areas of high social and environmental vulnerability. Meanwhile, NIVEA is producing and distributing sanitation items in areas of high social vulnerability, while Sabesp will expand sewage collection and treatment infrastructure through works that are already underway within the “Novo Rio Pinheiros” program, which aims to clean up the tributary streams of the Pinheiros River. The Olga Kos Institute, an NGO that has been operating since 2007 in Sao Paulo, will help to mediate in low income and high vulnerability regions. Leo Burnett is coordinating the partnership.

The “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative is a great example of the power of collective action. Another great example in Brazil is the measures that Aegea Saneamento (Aegea) is undertaking to cope with the impacts of COVID-19. Created in 2010, today Aegea is the largest private sector sanitation company in the country. It serves more than 8.9 million people in 57 cities throughout Brazil. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has adopted a series of health and safety recommendations for employees engaged in essential service maintenance. Additionally, Aegea has taken measures to provide extra support to its customers, through a call center, digital channels, and door-to-door service. Additionally, the company reinforced its commitment to the public in municipalities in which it operates, through actions such as the disinfection of commonly used areas and donations of food and hygiene products for vulnerable populations.

Another initiative spurring business action on COVID-19 is WASH4Work, which mobilizes businesses to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in the workplace, in the communities where workers live, and across supply chains. We have seen partners of the WASH4Work initiative respond to the pandemic by launching a number of new initiatives and projects. For example, Unilever is contributing to global and national efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through product donations, partnerships, and handwashing education programs. Unilever is also partnering with the UK government to fund a global program to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Through this program, the partners will contribute funding of up to £50 million each to raise awareness and change behavior, to ensure people are washing their hands with soap. The program plans to reach up to a billion people worldwide.

These examples show how business action on COVID-19 can make a crucial difference, especially for businesses directly involved in the provision of essential services like water. More widely, the business sector can play an essential role in combating the pandemic by contributing to the immediate and short-term pandemic response, since it is a great holder of economic power, a propeller of innovations and technologies, and a strong influencer of diverse stakeholders – governments, suppliers, employees, and consumers. Additionally, the private sector creates nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries. As such, businesses are in a unique position to impact billions of people every day, including those who work in their factories, farms, stores and offices, who supply and distribute their goods, and who buy and consume their products and services.

Moving Forward Together 

One of the main conclusions of the UN report mentioned above is that a joint effort among countries worldwide is needed; no country will be able to deal with this crisis alone. The report emphasizes that all countries have a responsibility to build effective solutions, which will require creativity and great magnitude in order to tackle the many social and economic dimensions of the crisis.

The main messages from the UN report Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 can help countries around the world mitigate the effects of COVID-19 while preparing for future pandemics:

  • Focus on people: Focus on women, youth, low-wage workers, small- and medium-sized enterprises, the informal sector, and vulnerable groups who are already at risk.
  • Collaboration among Nations: Whole societies must come together. Every country must step up with public, private, and civic sectors collaborating from the outset.
  • World-leading economies should be protagonists in the global response to COVID-19: This moment demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies, and maximum financial and technical support for the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries, who will be the hardest hit.
  • Learning from this crisis and building back better: We must seize the opportunity of this crisis to strengthen our commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By making progress on our global roadmap for a more inclusive and sustainable future, we can better respond to future crises.

If the global community had been further along in its progress to meet the SDGs when the pandemic broke, we would be better equipped to face the challenge. Unfortunately, we were not prepared, and the pandemic is moving back decades of progress towards a more sustainable future. On the positive side, the pandemic presents a huge opportunity to revisit strategies implemented to date, and to prepare for a more sustainable future by building stronger health systems while better meeting basic needs and ensuring that fewer people live in extreme poverty. 

As the Brazil example illustrates, corporate action in response to COVID-19 shows the business sector can leverage its agility and partnerships to bring different sectors together quickly and effectively to scale action, an important lesson as factors like climate change and population growth reshape our world. In this new world, we will need “all hands on board” to ensure equity and the sustainable use of resources. It is vital that the global community not quickly forget this crisis, but draw lessons from it to rebuild more equitable and sustainable societies. This must include countries working together to ensure sustainable access to water and sanitation for the 40 percent of the world’s population who still lack access.

The Environment, Climate, and a Global Pandemic

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By Peter Gleick

 

The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic is having the unexpected and unintended effect of teaching us lessons about both the vulnerability and the resilience of our natural ecosystems and environment. As of this writing in late April, we are still in the middle of it, with no obvious end in sight, as the virus continues to spread around the world. Some of the regions where it first struck are trying to emerge from the crisis after imposing strict and widespread testing and quarantines. Other regions that failed to react quickly or effectively are still, or will soon, be suffering even worse consequences.

Without an actual vaccine, and with limited and overwhelmed medical facilities and supplies, the most important tool to combat the spread is isolation, quarantine, and a shutdown of non-essential economic activities. This is taking a costly toll on jobs, income, economies and markets, and financial institutions.

It is also having a range of environmental consequences, both good and bad. Some of these will be short-term and temporary. Depending on how individuals and governments respond, some may be longer-term and permanent. The ultimate impacts will depend on the lessons we learn and the actions we take.

In the short-term, there have been some important, positive consequences for air quality as reductions in industrial activity, reduced air travel, and a drop in gas and diesel-powered transportation have led to drops in the emissions of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. This effect was first noticed in China and Italy, when quarantines were put in place, and has been observed by satellites, ground-based measurements, and people just looking up. Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows decreases in nitrogen oxide levels in northern Italy and China as measured by NASA and European Space Agency satellites. An analysis published by Carbon Brief estimated that greenhouse gas emissions in China declined by 25% in mid-February from typical levels – a huge drop.

 

Figure 1: Nitrogen dioxide over northern Italy, March 2019 (left) versus March 2020 (right). (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

 

Figure 2: Nitrogen oxides over China, Early January 2020 (top) versus early February (bottom) 2020 (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

 

India imposed a 21-day lockdown in late March and early April and improvements in air quality were immediately noticed. Data from India’s Environment Ministry Central Pollution Control Board showed a 71 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels in New Dehli, and Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore also recorded large decreases. Overall, 85 Indian cities noted an improvement in air quality during the first week of the lockdown and in Jalandhar, Punjab, residents reported seeing snow-capped Himalayan mountains more than 100 miles away for the first time in memory. These improvements in air quality will also be accompanied by some real, albeit short-term improvements in health.

Overall, some estimates are that greenhouse gas emissions my drop by around five percent this year, for the first time since the industrial revolution, though the final change in emissions will depend entirely on what happens to economies over the rest of 2020. And for context, in order to reach even the minimal climate targets set by the Paris Agreement, which are understood to be simply a first step in efforts to tackle climate change, the world would have to achieve a 7-10 percent drop in emissions every year until mid-century.

Other short-term improvements have been reported, including modest drops in urban water use in California as industry and commercial business close (slightly offset by small increases in residential water use as people stay home), and a wide range of reports of modest improvements in some ecological indicators and the behavior of animals (improved conditions for sea turtle nestingfunny stories about goats taking over a town in Wales, and reports of kangaroos on the streets in Australia and javelinas in Arizona).

Most importantly, however, without fundamental long-term changes in our economic activities and energy systems, such short-term improvements are almost certainly going to be temporary. By the end of March, as the coronavirus crisis was brought under control by China, coal combustion had increased again, and air quality was again declining. Nitrogen dioxide pollution levels, measured both from NASA satellites and Chinese government stations, have also already returned to normal.

But there is bad news as well, especially in the area of politics: the coronavirus has served as an excuse and an opportunity for conservative efforts to repeal, suspend, and ignore environmental laws and regulations. The Trump administration, in particular, while downplaying the pandemic, has also used it as an excuse to waive environmental rules and enforcement:

 

“In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause,” the US EPA announced.

 

The Trump administration is also moving ahead with its broad anti-environmental rollback and weakening of legal protections, including auto fuel-economy standards, air-quality standards, and mercury and toxic metal rules from coal and oil power plants. In mid-April, the Trump administration announced it would not tighten a critical air-quality standard around damaging particulate pollution despite scientific warnings that current rules are too weak and lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths. Substantial amounts of US federal bailout money are going to polluting industries rather than clean ones – leading to an enormous missed opportunity to accelerate the transition from a polluting economy to a more sustainable one.

The longer-term environmental impacts of the pandemic are harder to see because they depend on actions still to be taken. We do not know how long the shutdowns will last, how effective the pandemic responses will be, and what societies and governments will do to invest in alternatives and solutions. We do not know how much pressure the public will put on policy makers in calling for fundamental changes in the ways we do business, produce energy, and organize society, as opposed to simply going back to business as usual.

We have an opportunity to invest in clean air and water strategies and technologies; build clean energy systems to eliminate fossil fuels; expand electric vehicle programs and phase out polluting transportation; open our cities to pedestrians and bicycles; and protect natural ecosystems in new ways that enhance rather than destroy chances for wildlife. But grabbing that opportunity is going to require public awareness and pressure to make permanent some of the improvements we now can only glimpse because of this crisis.

Ultimately, we must not fix the environment by destroying the economy, we must fix the environment by fixing the economy.

 

Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

On Earth Day, Envisioning Our Shared Future

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By Cora Kammeyer

We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.

This saying, commonly attributed to American poet Wendell Berry, reminds us that we are stewards of the earth. How do we reconcile this with the stark reality that our planet’s critical ecosystems – our rivers and wetlands, our oceans and beaches, our forests and prairies, and the diversity of life within them – are in steep decline?




There has been news about how the earth seems to be thriving as economic activity and human mobility has suddenly and drastically decreased in response to COVID-19. Waterways are clearer, air quality is better, parks are re-wilding. From this perspective, we might see the vitality of Earth and the vitality of human societies and economies as at odds with one another. But that perspective is not just pessimistic, it’s also wrong. To use another Wendell Berry quote, “the earth is what we all have in common.” And here I understand “we” broadly, the “we” of living things inhabiting Planet Earth.

On this Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the world’s largest environmental movement and in the midst of a global crisis, I invite us all to think of earth as one big system in which the vitality of all life is interconnected. Each species, each community is distinct and unique, but also inherently linked and interdependent. Together, we all create something beyond any of us as individuals. And this system works a lot better when we manage it for the well-being of the whole, rather than the parts.

At the Pacific Institute, we envision a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future. Securing that future we envision will require transformational, system-level change. In other words, managing for the well-being of the whole. This means rethinking the way our societies are structured, the way our economies operate, and the relationship between humans and the environment.

Credit: F. Cary Snyder

This systemic shift is especially critical in the face of the climate change, which worsens and complicates existing problems and introduces greater uncertainty about the viability of solutions. We cannot assume the tools and approaches we have been using to manage earth’s resources in the past will work in the future. The Pacific Institute recently set a new 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change. Solutions that restore, protect, leverage, and mimic nature and earth’s natural systems will be key to this transformation.

To bring our vision of a vibrant, healthy, resilient planet with abundant, clean water for humans and ecosystems to reality, we must keep reminding ourselves that we share this earth. Collaborative solutions that increase the resilience of our entire earth system – rather than just some of the pieces – are the best path forward.

 

When Utilities Shut Off Water for the Poor, We Are All at Risk

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By Laura Feinstein and Morgan Shimabuku of the Pacific Institute, and Greg Pierce of Luskin Center for Innovation at University of California, Los Angeles

 

When a household fails to pay its water bill in full for more than a given period of time – typically one or two months – its water service may be shut off by the water utility serving the household. Until recently, there was little information on shutoffs in the United States, including for California. In 2018, the Pacific Institute was only able to find information from 15 drinking water utilities, and the data quality was poor. This left the state flying blind on one of the most important equity questions in California water – how many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill?

 

How many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill? This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease.

 

This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease. To effectively flatten the curve, it’s not enough to wash your own hands. We need everyone in the community to do the same.

Recently, we have gained better insight into the scale and severity of the water shutoff problem in California, although questions remain. The State Water Board’s annual statewide survey of water utilities, the electronic Annual Report or eAR, now includes information on shutoffs from all utilities with more than 200 connections, partly to inform affordability policy and satisfy the legislated Human Right to Water

Data on Water Shutoffs is Imperfect

While the eAR dataset is the most comprehensive source of information on drinking water utilities in the state, it remains plagued with quality problems. The utilities self-report the data, and since many have not disclosed shutoff data before, some respond with incomplete or inconsistent information. Anybody looking to gain accurate insight into California water thus needs to apply quality control procedures to the data. 

For this blog post, we did some very basic quality controls, such as eliminating cases when sub-categories of shutoffs did not correctly sum to the reported total. We plan to do more to improve the dataset for future analyses. First steps would be to contact the State Water Board and water utilities to resolve obvious problems, as well as to contact the thousands of utilities who failed to properly report their shutoff data. 

We Know Enough to Say Shutoffs Occur Far Too Often

Of the state’s approximately 2,900 drinking water systems, about one thousand reported shutoff data that seemed credible. Larger utilities tend to report water shutoffs more often than smaller systems, so the data covers about 79% of the population of California. 

While the precise numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, we know enough to say that shutoffs are a widespread problem in many communities. Table 1 provides a summary of the number of single- and multi-family residences that lost water service at least once during the 2018 calendar year. 

 

Table 1. Summary of disconnections of occupied Single-Family Residential (SFR) and Multi-Family Residential (MFR) households.

    SFR Disconnections (At Least Once) MFR Disconnections (At Least Once)
Rate of Shutoffs Max 100% 100%
Min 0% 0%
Mean 3.1% 1.2%
Median 0% 0%
Totals Number of Shut-Offs (Households) 196,800 6,700
Number of Shut-Offs (Population) 582,600 39,800
Number of Connections 6,715,400 563,300

Source: State Water Board 2018 Electronic Annual Report. Results calculated from 1,112 Community Water Systems reports meeting quality control requirements. Population inferred for SFR by multiplying connections by 2.96 (mean household size in California). Population inferred for MFR by multiplying MFR by two units per building times 2.96.

Findings on Shut-Offs

196,800 single-family households lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. Assuming that these households have the average number of residents, this means nearly 583,000 Californians lose access to drinking water for a period of time each year. The true number may be larger because of underreporting, discussed below. While the people impacted are less than 2% of the population, for the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.

 

For the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.

 

6,700 multifamily buildings lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. If we use an extremely conservative estimate that multifamily buildings house two units with 2.96 people each, this is an additional 39,800 Californians impacted by shutoffs. Multi-family connections serve two or more units in a building, and the accounts are usually paid by a building manager or landlord. When multi-family buildings are disconnected, it is typically because the landlord didn’t pay the bill. California enacted a law to prevent this problem a decade ago (SB 1035, statutes of 2010) by allowing municipal utility districts to recoup debt from landlords through property liens. East Bay Municipal Utility District, for example, has used this authority to implement a no-shutoff policy for multifamily buildings since 2011. But the data indicate that some utilities still resort to the counterproductive measure of disconnecting tenants rather than recovering unpaid bills from the landlord.

More than half of utilities didn’t collect or report shut-off information. Of the 2,564 Community Water Systems (CWS) in the dataset, 1,474 (57.5%) did not collect information on disconnections or failed to report the information. This indicates that the number of people affected by disconnections are greater than estimated here.

Shutoffs are Only One Reason Americans Lack Running Water

While we’re talking about access to running water, we need to remember that hundreds of thousands of Americans in California and across the U.S. live without safe access to running water for reasons other than shutoffs. In 2015, there were 211,000 Californians without hot and cold running water. Many are experiencing homelessness. Others live in substandard housing conditions, such as a shack, converted garage, or group housing with dirty shared bathrooms. Tribal communities continue to struggle with some of the lowest rates of indoor plumbing. And some Californians live in areas where drinking water wells have run dry

Moving Forward with Water Affordability and Shutoff Prevention

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans realized that struggling households needed affordability programs so they could keep the heat on. Since then, the federal government has run the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and states, including California, run a host of complementary energy affordability programs. In the water sector, the largest (Class A) California investor-owned water utilities are required by the California Public Utilities Commission to provide low-income rates assistance. These examples show that utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families. 

 

Utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families.

 

Some water utilities run their own affordability programs, but most haven’t been well executed. About a quarter of California’s public water utilities have affordability programs, but they provide meager discounts and typically reach only a few of their low-income customers. This is part of the reason why, in early 2020 even before the coronavirus outbreak, the State Water Board recommended a state-wide water affordability program to the state legislature.

Any well-developed program to address water affordability and prevent shutoffs should consider the following:

Balance shutoff prevention with financial sustainability for utilities.

Water utilities provide a public service, and primarily rely on revenue from their customers to deliver safe drinking water. They need tools to ensure that their customers pay their bills. On the other hand, discontinuing water service to a family that is struggling financially – or a blameless tenant with a deadbeat landlord – drives up the rates of infectious disease for everyone in the community. We need a sustainable funding source to prevent shutoffs for those in need while preserving the financial health of the water utilities.

 

The funding source needs to be large and sustainable. The State Water Board’s recent proposal for a statewide affordability program came with a $600 million annual budget and identified several potential sources of funding, including a millionaire’s tax, a business tax, a bottled water tax, a soda tax, and a water user surcharge. All of these are viable options with various pros and cons. In these precarious economic times, we should focus on taxing high income earners and discretionary expenditures (such as high water use). 

One option for funding drinking water needs is to add a statewide water user surcharge. A proposal for a statewide user fee to fund safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities was vigorously debated and lost in the California legislature in 2018. 

Affordability and shutoff prevention may have a stronger path to funding through water user surcharges. In California and elsewhere, water prices have traditionally followed the “user pays” principle. Each customer is responsible for paying for the service they receive. In the era of coronavirus (not to mention Hepatitis A and other infectious diseases), our educated guess is that a water affordability surcharge to prevent disconnections in the community would be one of the best investments a household can make to protect its own health. The indirect benefit of funding this public service is the same logic water utilities use to justify public fire protection surcharges.

A key metric of success for an affordability program is reducing shutoffs. Affordability programs for energy and water utility customers have been highly effective at preventing shutoffs, while actually improving the financial sustainability of the utilities. Why? Because low-income households will pay a smaller bill in full, while they will ignore a bill that’s too big – since a partial payment means they’ll get their service shut off anyway. A well-designed program will aim to reduce bills to a level that households can pay each month, track the number of shutoffs for program participants, and adjust the program to reduce shutoffs to a minimum.

Consider the impact of wastewater and other charges added to drinking water bills. More than half (54%) of the drinking water utilities in California add other charges to their drinking water bills, such as sewer, stormwater, garbage collection, taxes, and fees. Based on State Water Board survey data of wastewater utilities, the average sewer bill is about two-thirds as large as the average drinking water bill. In some cases, the additional charges are greater than the cost of drinking water. Customers lose drinking water service if they cannot pay these so-called combined bills in full. Our initial work suggests that customers of municipal utilities with combined bills are much more likely to experience shutoffs than those with separate bills. 

Thinking Long-Term on Affordability and Shutoffs

Several states, including California, have issued temporary moratoria on shutoffs during the coronavirus outbreak. That’s a good first step, but more is needed. Maintaining clean running water in every home is the single most effective tool for preventing infectious disease. States and the federal government need to design financially sustainable water affordability and shutoff prevention programs that cover everyone in perpetuity, and we need to begin now.

 

Stormwater Capture is Undervalued in California

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By Sarah Diringer

The rain barrels at my house are full – 110 gallons of rain stored to water the garden when we enter the dry season. And, this is only a small fraction of the stormwater being stored throughout California and the western U.S. Across the region, communities, water agencies, and others are catching millions of gallons of  stormwater to store for the drier months.

Stormwater management in Austin, Texas, incorporating both grey and green infrastructure – concrete and nature.

Stormwater is the rain and other water that runs off of streets and sidewalks into nearby gutters or waterways. Communities throughout the western U.S. are expanding efforts to collect this valuable water resource. These projects range from capturing water from a single rooftop or driveway to developing large infiltration basins that recharge billions of gallons of water each year in groundwater basins.

In addition to providing additional water supply, many stormwater capture projects provide “multiple benefits,” such as managing floods or restoring ecosystems. When these co-benefits are considered, then stormwater capture looks even more valuable.

The Pacific Institute recently published two open-access articles that examine stormwater capture projects in California to better understand how much these projects cost, as well as what kinds of benefits they provide: “Economic evaluation of stormwater capture and its multiple benefits in California” and “The cost of alternative urban water supply and efficiency options in California.” These articles focus on data from California, but the learnings are applicable far beyond the state.

Stormwater Capture is Economically Feasible
Stormwater capture is a cost-effective option for supplying water to communities, especially when compared to other traditional water supplies. Based on our research, stormwater capture has a median cost between $0.48 and $1.23 per m3 of water, compared to wastewater reuse, which has a median cost of $1.25 per m3 of water, or seawater desalination, which has a median cost between $1.72 and $2.29 per m3 of water.

In addition to efficiency measures, stormwater capture presents a low cost option for new water supplies. From Cooley et al. 2019.

Economic Analyses Can Incorporate More Benefits
Stormwater capture can provide communities with additional benefits that aren’t commonly considered in economic analyses. These include flood control, restored habitat, energy savings, and recreational opportunities. But these additional benefits are not always included in economic analyses, and this means stormwater capture is an underappreciated option for water supply.

In a study of 26 urban stormwater capture projects in California, the median cost-benefit of projects decreased by more than 85% when incorporating at least one additional benefit, reducing the median costs from $0.84 per m3 to $0.12 m3 of water. For some projects, the additional benefits far outweighed the cost of the project.

Reported benefits of stormwater capture projects in California. These benefits can help build partnerships among agencies that are interested in achieving these outcomes.

Incorporating Multiple Benefits Can Help Develop Partnerships and New Funding
Including co-benefits of projects can help with more than just improving the economic outlook. Multiple benefits can help water managers develop partnerships among agencies and encourage additional funding. For example, our research found that of stormwater projects we examined, one in three provided more benefit to a secondary goal than the primary reason for building the project. While stormwater is notoriously underfunded, we can help increase public and private investments by building partnerships and capitalizing on the multiple benefits.

What You Can Do
While these reports focused on stormwater capture in California, this resource can serve as an important alternative supply throughout the world.

Learn About It: If you’re interested in learning more about stormwater capture and seeing these projects in your own community, reach out to your local water or flood control agency to learn more about efforts to sustainably manage stormwater in your own community.

Install It: If you’re interested in installing green infrastructure in your own yard, find out if an agency in your region will provide a rebate for converting your landscape or installing green infrastructure. These might be provided by your water agency, municipality, or other regional entity.

Incorporate It: If you’re a water manager interested in incorporating multiple benefits into water management decisions, explore the Pacific Institute’s multi-benefit approach to water management and consider how to understanding the full costs and benefits can help with your decision making.

Scale It: And finally, if you want to see sustainable stormwater capture expand in cities throughout the world, encourage your local agencies to consider innovative, stormwater management projects that can provide multiple benefits, including improving water quality, increasing urban green space, and recharging groundwater basins.

Corporate Water Stewardship in the Colorado River Basin

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By Cora Kammeyer

The Colorado River Basin is the lifeblood of the West, providing water to more than 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico. Irrigation using Colorado River water generates an estimated $8 billion annually in agricultural products like winter vegetables, cotton, and cattle and dairy. In addition, recreation along the river and its tributary streams (boating, swimming, hiking, camping, etc.) contributes $17 billion per year to local economies. All in all, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S., according to a recent study done by The Nature Conservancy.

 

The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S.

 

Yet, the Colorado River Basin faces many water challenges that threaten its economic—and social and ecological—vitality. The river used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now—overallocated and fully depleted—the river disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean. The Colorado River Basin has been in a severe extended drought for 20 years. Climate change is increasing evaporation rates and water demand, diminishing snowpack, and is projected to reduce river flows by twenty percent by mid-century, worsening pressures on the already-water-stressed river basin.

 

 

The Colorado River used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now it disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean.

 

Despite extended drought and shrinking water supplies, Colorado River Lower Basin states and Mexico (Arizona, Baja California, California, Nevada, and Sonora) had been able to avoid water shortages by depleting reservoir storage – until this year, when reductions kicked in for all but California. And while renegotiation of the Colorado River interim guidelines will begin this year, the reliability of Colorado River water supplies remains highly uncertain.

In the face of these challenges, in March 2020 Pacific Institute researchers wrote a report that explores the role of the private sector in advancing water security in the Colorado River Basin. This report, “Scaling Corporate Water Stewardship to Address Water Challenges in the Colorado River Basin,” examines a set of key corporate water stewardship actions and activities, with associated drivers and barriers, to identify how the private sector could help tackle Colorado River water challenges.

 

 

Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more. These corporations have both a business incentive and stewardship responsibility to contribute to water solutions for the region.

 

Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more.

 

Our report found that corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is still relatively nascent, with much room for growth. Two key strategies for advancing the maturity and reach of corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin are to:

  • Expand water stewardship education, decision-making data, and starter tools about the value of water stewardship; and
  • Facilitate local collaboration on water stewardship.

By educating companies on how water stewardship can play a role in both achieving their own corporate goals and contributing to solving shared water challenges, we can increase the number of companies that embrace corporate water stewardship and encourage them to make positive contributions towards sustainable water management for the Basin. This means investments in the tools and resource necessary to support informed and robust decision-making on water. We also know that the success of water stewardship activities, especially when looking beyond a company’s direct operations, depends on partnerships and collaboration. Scaling water stewardship practices at the local level will often require the help of third parties to facilitate relationship-building between companies and other stakeholders, who may not typically work together on shared water challenges.

Currently, the existing pool of companies practicing robust water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is small, and the scale of their collective activities is nowhere near commensurate to the magnitude of water challenges they face. But their activities, if scaled, have great potential for positive impact, particularly with increased investments in water stewardship education, improved decision-making data, relevant tools, and facilitated local collaboration.

Read the report here.

Learn more about the Pacific Institute’s work on the Colorado River here.  

Pacific Institute Provides Comments on California Water Resilience Portfolio

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By Sonali Abraham

In January 2020, California state agencies released a draft document meant to signify a new chapter in California water: the Water Resilience Portfolio. The Portfolio was developed in response to Governor Newsom’s Executive Order (N-10-19), which called for a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system for the 21st century. This strategy included several ambitious actions including assessing existing water demand and supply; ensuring all communities have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water; and utilizing natural infrastructure and multi-benefit approaches. The draft Portfolio was a collaborative effort, compiled through an interagency working group with input from communities and leaders across the state.

The Pacific Institute has long contributed to California water policy and planning, as well as analyzing and communicating the links between water, energy, and climate. We found this draft of the Water Resilience Portfolio to be a good start and identified several areas that could be strengthened. Below is the comment letter we submitted to Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Resilience Program.

Dear Ms. Vogel,

California is at a water crossroads, with a rapidly increasing population, changing climate, and booming economy. The Pacific Institute is a strong supporter of the need to advance water resilience in California, and we appreciate the effort by Governor Newsom’s Administration to start moving the state toward resilience and preparedness. The draft includes many important and worthwhile actions, particularly the emphasis on water efficiency and clear actionable language on implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act.

We appreciate the work of state staff in developing the draft Water Resilience Portfolio and the opportunity to provide comments. Below, we offer specific recommendations to improve the portfolio.

Prioritize resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria

No single solution exists for California water challenges, and the resilience portfolio identifies a number of strategies to address these challenges. But the need to do many things, does not mean that we must or can afford to do everything all at once. Resources are limited, and we must prioritize our efforts. The portfolio would benefit from creating a clear way to prioritize among the strategies provided.

Economic feasibility is commonly used to evaluate projects, but traditional analyses typically fail to recognize the many co-benefits of water investments; as a result, those investments that provide multiple benefits are undervalued. In a recent analysis of state grant investments in stormwater capture projects, we found that incorporating co-benefits into the economic analysis effectively reduced the average cost of stormwater capture from $1,030 per AF to $150 per AF. Incorporating co-benefits into economic analyses allows for a fairer comparison among projects and helps to maximize the value of our investments.

We recommend that the state prioritize investments based on costs and benefits, using an integrated and comprehensive framework that includes quantitative and qualitative co-benefits. The Pacific Institute recently developed such a framework for assessing co-benefits, which can serve as a guide for the state. As part of this effort, we conducted a literature review and stakeholder interviews and grouped benefits into five themes: water, energy, risk and resilience, land and environment, people and communities. We recommend that the draft Water Resilience Portfolio:

  • Direct the interagency team identified in Action 28.3 to define the “multiple benefits”of water investments to include a broad and consistent list of benefits;
  • Direct the interagency team to develop a consistent list to prioritize project funding and maximize the benefits of our investments in water;
  • Develop methods for prioritizing projects using this information. This information can also feed into efforts to simplify permitting, thereby helping to launch more multi-benefit projects and partnerships.

Ensure consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency

Re: Executive Summary and Goal 1 of the portfolio

Water efficiency is key to improving water resilience, and we are pleased to see explicit mention of it in the draft report. However, while the body of the report highlights the importance of efficiency, the Executive Summary fails to mention it. Likewise, as written, Goal 1 (“Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies”) places too much emphasis on water supplies and ignores the immense water conservation and efficiency opportunities that remain in California. We recommend the following:

  • Change the title of Goal 1 from “Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies” to “Improve Efficiency and Diversify Water Supplies;”
  • Change the first sentence in Goal 1 in the Executive Summary from “State government will continue to help regions reduce reliance on any one water source and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change” to “State government will continue to help regions improve efficiency and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change;”
  • Expand action 2.1 on page 18 to include non-residential users. The business community in California is showing a real interest in improving water use efficiency. Yet, action 2.1, which refers to implementing SB 606/AB 1668, narrowly focuses on the residential sector. We recommend expanding action 2.1 to include developing best practices for CII users, as required by the legislation;
  • Add language to action 2.2 about enforcing the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO). MWELO is a vital tool for reducing outdoor water use but enforcement has been poor. In a recent assessment, NRDC found that only 30% of cities and counties filed the required MWELO reports, as of December 2019. In addition to simplifying the ordinance, we recommend that the state continuously monitor and report on compliance.

Improve actions around the Salton Sea

Re: Action 17 of the portfolio

We commend the inclusion of the Salton Sea within the suite of water portfolio actions and remain optimistic that the Administration’s prioritization of Salton Sea action will soon translate into actual habitat and dust control projects at the Salton Sea. Such actions, of course, fit squarely within any multi-benefit framework.

The state’s contractual and statutory obligations to protect the Salton Sea enabled the execution of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, greatly enhancing water supply reliability for the state as a whole and for the entire Colorado River basin. However, after more than 16 years of California’s failure to build a single acre of habitat or projects, the QSA water transfers have degraded the Salton Sea ecosystem and have impaired air quality and human health in the region.

Existing and new funding sources are necessary but not sufficient to meet the state’s Salton Sea obligations. Achieving the water portfolio’s Salton Sea actions requires accountability to the governor’s office itself, direct and continuing attention to planning and construction efforts, much greater coordination within and between state agencies and with stakeholders, greater transparency, and a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of state efforts beyond simply meeting existing acreage milestones. We recommend including a fourth action (17.4) that addresses this need.

Expand recommendations around local stormwater projects

Re: Action 5 of the portfolio

We are pleased to see stormwater capture for water supply included in the list of how state agencies can support supply diversification. The three stormwater capture solutions provided (actions 5.1-5.3) address some important challenges faced by local communities that seek to access stormwater for water supply. In particular, actions 5.2 and 5.3 help to address the funding challenge and the need for more guidance on best management practices, respectively. To advance local stormwater capture projects across California, we recommend the following:

  • Develop statewide health and safety guidelines for stormwater reuse to empower communities to pursue stormwater capture;
  • Consider ways in which state and/or regional coordination could help facilitate public-private stormwater projects, such as through alternative compliance options;
  • Reduce the onerous voter-approval requirements for stormwater services. While SB 231 could help local agencies develop dedicated funding sources, it is not a silver bullet and additional policies that increase long-term funding and cover operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses are needed.

Improve overall clarity and make the portfolio more actionable

1. Define resilience

The portfolio centers around the concept of resilience. This term however is not defined. A recent article suggested that those who use the term must grapple with questions around which system is to become resilient, for what purpose, and for whose benefit. We recommend that the state consider these questions deeply when reviewing and executing this portfolio.

2. Create a timeline and metrics for measurement.

Re: Action 32 of the portfolio

We recommend including an action (32.3) that directs relevant agencies to create metrics, goals, and a timeline for measurement and tracking of progress. This will create a more effective, accountable, and adaptable portfolio.

3. Distinguish between tasks already underway versus tasks that need new leadership or legislation.

We recommend drawing a distinction between these two types of actions in an appendix list or through a type of signaling, for example, an icon next to the action number.

4. Build connections across stakeholders

Re: Actions 19-24 of the portfolio

The tasks around ‘building connections’ are narrowly focused around infrastructure.

We recommend expanding the section around building connections (page 22) through alignment of datasets, engagement with CII users, encouraging top-down and bottom-up engagement throughout all state actions.

 

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments and look forward to working with the state to advance water sustainability and resilience in California.

Best Regards,

Heather Cooley, Director of Research, Pacific Institute
Sonali Abraham, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Michael Cohen, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute
Morgan Shimabuku, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Sarah Diringer, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute

California faces increased pressure on its water resources due to a changing climate, population growth, and aging infrastructure. Managing the state’s water resources will require comprehensive and collaborative planning, and a robust Water Resilience Portfolio will be instrumental. To summarize the letter above, we believe the state’s Water Resilience Portfolio would be strengthened by prioritizing resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria; ensuring consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency; improving actions around the Salton Sea; expanding recommendations around local stormwater projects; and improving overall clarity to make the portfolio more actionable.

Learn more about our California water policy work here. Read our water policy comment letters here.

 

Taps, Toilets, and Good Hygiene: Critical Ingredients for Resilient Agriculture

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By Mai-Lan Ha

 

2019 was a critical year for climate and water. Major events – from hurricanes to droughts and brushfires – highlight that climate’s impacts are being felt now and that the world needs to take action to build resilience while also accelerating action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the UN Climate Action Summit and at COP 25, Secretary General António Guterres announced that, “ We must put adaptation and resilience at the centre of decision-making.”

The UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved if adaptation and resilience are not integrated into planning processes. This is the imperative of our lifetime and impacts all sectors, particularly affecting the poor and most vulnerable. One of the sectors that will see the most significant impact will be agriculture. Changing climate patterns that affect water availability and quality will be one of many issues that farmers will need to contend with. Though the water and climate communities are looking at how to increase farmers’ long-term resilience, much more can be done, particularly at the intersection of health, well-being, and environmental policies.

While some companies are beginning to recognize this and are integrating water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs into their long-term water stewardship and management practices, much more can be done.  One of the biggest challenges for many companies is how to tackle WASH deep in their supply chains, reaching down to the farm level where action can perhaps have the greatest impact on workers’ health and well-being, thereby improving and ensuring resilient supply chains for companies. This is an area that has been generally unexplored and where few companies have taken action in an integrated manner. Last year, the Pacific Institute, in its capacity as co-Secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate, worked with the WaterAid, WASH4Work, Diageo, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship to publish the booklet Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains.  

Why Should Companies Invest in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene at the Agricultural Level?

Similar to the risks that companies face from poor water management, there are also physical, financial, reputational, and regulatory issues related to investments in WASH. From helping to ensure good quality water (through improved sanitation) to ensuring long term worker health and well-being that leads to financial gains, and building long term community relations, investments in WASH in agricultural supply chains leads to more resilient supply chains. 

·       Physical risks: We know that increasing water stress will impact communities’ ability to access safe water. What has been less documented is the potential impact that poor sanitation can have on local water quality. These conditions can negatively impact workers’ health and well-being, and thisis further exacerbated by warming climates and the potential for more heat stress to lead to losses in productivity.

·       Financial: The macro-economic case for investments in WASH has been well-established with studies showing that for every $1 invested in WASH, $4.30 is generated through increased productivity. There is also some evidence demonstrated by companies that this has also translated to the factory or farm level, though more work is needed to document these outcomes further.

·       Reputation: Providing good WASH access can improve a company’s relationship with its workers and stakeholders and improve its social license to operate by showing commitment to communities’ well-being and improve long-term supply chain resilience.

·       Regulation and compliance:  Providing WASH services to employees is often part of general regulatory compliance and expectations by governments and authorities by companies related to labor rights. 

 

Where to Start?

Many companies have recognized the water risks their companies face and have adopted stewardship practices. One way for companies to begin to take action is to look particularly at the WASH components of their stewardship practices. In Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains, we’ve utilized some of the steps from the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s standard to demonstrate a way to start on this work. These general steps include:

1)     Understand the local WASH context;

2)     Develop a WASH stewardship plan for the local context;

3)     Integrate WASH into companies’ existing stewardship plans;

4)     Where relevant work with third-party standards with an agricultural focus to embed good WASH practice;

5)     Engage with international agribusiness groups on WASH;

These are just beginning building blocks; much more needs to be done to explore the climate connections related to WASH and its impacts on agribusiness and workers. The potential cross-cutting impacts on the health and livelihoods of those who are potentially most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts will require innovative solutions, towards building resilience for all.

 

Insights from COP25: The (Interconnected) Pillars of Water System Transformation

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By Jason Morrison

At both major international climate events this year – COP25 in Madrid this month and the Climate Action Summit in New York City in September – there was a clear, resounding message from the environmental community: “We are exactly on track to where we don’t want to go, and change is needed now.” This message, while not new, was spoken this year with unprecedented urgency (thanks in large part to the voices of Greta Thunberg and others in the youth climate movement).

Transforming water systems to be climate resilient is a critical component of the needed change. This means urgent action to plan for and adapt to climate impacts on water systems; it also means urgent action to minimize the contribution of water systems to the climate crisis.

Drawing on the insights, inspiration, and strong sense of imminence from this year’s climate events, here is a list of key pillars of the transformation to a climate resilient future:

Act now.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time, and we stand at a critical juncture between transformation to a climate resilient future, and the business-as-usual path towards the breakdown of current systems. Progress to date is inadequate. Countries and companies who adapt now will thrive; those who do not will fail. We must all act now.

Put climate resilience first.

Climate resilience must be the primary frame for all that we do. We must mainstream innovative and diverse mitigation and adaptation measures. Future decision-making must systemically recognize the value of water, within the context of unpredictable weather patterns. It must also balance the trade-offs and returns to society, the environment, and the economy. We must develop the flexibility to manage uncertainty and operate under climatic extremes.

Take a system view.

Climate resilience is a system-level concept which integrates and optimizes the contribution of all key components, with water being one of the most critical variables. A public policy revolution is required to harmonize the needs and contributions of society (to sustain livelihoods and meet water-energy-food demands) with those of the natural environment.

Embed nature.

Nature is our strongest ally in building resilience, but stands at a critical juncture between conservation and uncontrollable decline. Urgent action is required to restore and protect natural systems. We must understand, value, and enhance the critical functions and services delivered by nature – especially in managing water qualities and flows. This will include embedding nature-based solutions in landscape planning through integration of green-grey infrastructure solutions.

Promote circular management.

Climate resilient water systems are circular, and maximize the value of all qualities and flows within the cycle. We must optimize system efficiencies by incentivizing reuse and eliminating loss and misuse.  Establishing wastewater as an asset class is fundamental.

Collaborate.

Building resilience will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between all sectors and actors, and at all scales. The age of silos – in and between countries, governments, and organizations – is over.  Innovative multi-stakeholder platforms to accelerate and scale collective action and policy reform are critical.

Tell stories.

Collaboration and system change will be achieved through communication and awareness. We must engage everyone in this dialogue to ensure that all voices are heard, and all people are empowered.  Technical speak about risk and resilience alone does not engage, inspire, or transform. We must engage through listening and telling stories, supported by evidence and science.

 

The Pacific Institute has just set a new 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change, and we stand ready to collaborate with any and all organizations that share an interest in advancing these pillars!

Managing Urban Flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area: From a Concrete Bowl to a Green Sponge

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By Cora Kammeyer

The first fall storm is rolling through the San Francisco Bay Area this week, marking the beginning of the rainy season. While this may mean a reprieve from this season’s wildfires, it also means there’s a new risk: floods. In this post, I dig into the issue of urban flooding – what are the causes, what are the dangers and impacts, and how can we better manage it?

What Causes Urban Flooding in the Bay Area?

Urban flooding is increasing in the Bay Area for four main reasons: California’s naturally variable precipitation patterns, climate change increasing precipitation extremes, population growth, and aging and insufficient infrastructure.

 

Natural Climate Variability of California

California is one of the most hydrologically variable places in the world, with long dry periods followed by a deluge of rainfall. Droughts and floods have influenced the history and development of California over the past several centuries, and paleoclimate evidence (like tree rings) shows that the region has experienced these dramatic swings from wet to dry for thousands of years. The map below provides a sense of that variability over the past 60 years; the dark green, blue, and back dots indicate that California has the biggest year-to-year rainfall fluctuations in the nation.

 

Coefficient of variation for annual precipitation at weather stations for 1951-2008.  Larger values have greater year-to-year variability. Original source: M. Dettinger, et al. 2011. “Atmospheric Rivers, Floods and the Water Resources of California.” Water 3(2), 445-478. Image from the California Water Blog.

 

Climate Change Increasing Extremes

While dramatic wet-dry swings are not uncommon for California, climate change is turning up the dial on this variability, leading to what scientists are calling precipitation whiplash. While the amount of average rain may only shift slightly, we’re facing a big increase in precipitation extremes. One study predicts that by the end of this century, an extreme storm event that would typically only occur once every 200 years could begin happening every 40-50 years. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimates that a storm of that magnitude could cost $10 billion in economic damages.

 

“While the amount of average rain may only shift slightly, we’re facing a big increase in precipitation extremes.”

 

On top of flood events, because the Bay Area is largely made up of coastal communities, sea level rise means storm surges on top of higher ocean and bay levels will reach further inland. The State of California has instructed coastal communities to plan for a sea level rise of 55 inches by the end of this century. With 55 inches of flooding, much of West Oakland and Alameda Island will be underwater, and during storm surges and king tides, the waters will reach even further.

 

Population Growth

The rapid rate of population growth in the Bay Area will put more people at risk of urban flooding and sea level rise. By 2040, it’s expected that there will be two million more people in the Bay Area. Much of this growth will happen in counties with large shoreline and low-elevation areas like Alameda County and Santa Clara County.

 

Population of the nine Bay Area counties, actual in 2010 and projected for 2040. Data source: Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission. 2017. “Projections 2040: Forecasts for Population, Household and Employment for the Nine County San Francisco Bay Area Region.

 

The Poor State of Stormwater Infrastructure

The infrastructure underlying cities in the Bay Area (and throughout the United States) is often designed to get rid of stormwater as efficiently and quickly as possible: pavement and sewers direct water into storm drains and send it out to the bay or ocean. This was originally done with the best of intentions – to prevent flooding and polluted water in our streets, and to keep our cities safe and clean. But these systems were built to a finite capacity; they can only handle so big a storm. And climate change is redefining the magnitude of our storms. Additionally, much of the infrastructure in place to manage big storms is at or past its functional lifetime and is deteriorating, adding to the lack of capacity to handle flooding events.

What are the Impacts of Urban Flooding in the Bay Area?

Two years ago, the Bay Area was inundated with severe rainstorms on the heels of a five-year drought. The 2017 storms were a prime example of the negative impacts of urban flooding: these storms submerged roads, shut down freeways, and delayed hundreds of flights out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Thousands of people in the North Coast and in San Jose had to evacuate due to flooding, and two people lost their lives.

In addition to putting property and human lives at risk, urban flooding impacts the ability of critical infrastructure to function as intended. Much of the Bay Area’s transportation system — airports, roads, highways, and railways — is concentrated along the Bay, making it more vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and storm surges. Across the nine Bay Area counties there are over 500 miles of roads at risk of flooding in a 100-year storm event – and this is without factoring in sea level rise. Accounting for the sea level rise anticipated by the end of this century, we could see up to 1,500 miles of roads flooded.

 

Flooding on the Embarcadero in San Francisco in 2017. Credit: @burritojustice on Twitter.

 

Wastewater treatment plants are also at risk during big storms due to their shoreline locations – 83 percent of plants in the Bay Area are directly adjacent to the Bay. Compromised wastewater treatment infrastructure could lead to water pollution that threatens human and ecosystem health. Similarly, excessive stormwater runoff can overflow sewers and cause water pollution in the bay and ocean.

 

“Much of the Bay Area’s transportation system — airports, roads, highways, and railways — is concentrated along the Bay, making it more vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and storm surges.”

 

When considering the impacts of urban flooding, it’s important to remember that those impacts are not distributed equally across Bay Area residents. Socially and economically vulnerable communities are often also most vulnerable to environmental risks, and have the fewest resources available to prepare for, react to, and recover from them. For example, West Oakland faces some of the greatest threats related to flooding. It is a low-elevation neighborhood with many disconnected low-lying areas, and has significant populations of low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness.

What Can We Do to Reduce Urban Flood Risk in the Bay Area?

Whether it’s this year, or another rainy season in the future, we know the Bay Area will face flood risks again. There are many ways to help Bay Area communities prepare for, adapt to, and recover from flooding. For example, improved weather forecasting can provide advanced warning of storm events, giving people more time to prepare. In addition, updating and improving existing stormwater sewer systems can help prevent overflows of polluted water onto the streets and into the Bay. Or, installing new protective infrastructure (like the levee in Santa Clara County, or the sea wall around SFO) can help defend communities from the most extreme storm events.

But one of the most exciting solutions is leveraging the powers of green space and nature to provide urban flood protection. This approach, often called green infrastructure, nature-based solutions, or low-impact development, can help to slow, spread, and sink water into the ground, rather than overwhelming stormwater infrastructure and polluting local waterways.

 

“California’s coastal cities have been described as ‘giant concrete bowls tilted toward the sea,’ and what happens when you pour water into a bowl? It fills, and eventually spills. We need to start thinking of and designing our cities more like giant sponges.”

 

California’s coastal cities have been described as “giant concrete bowls tilted toward the sea,” and what happens when you pour water into a bowl? It fills, and eventually spills. We need to start thinking of and designing our cities more like giant sponges: reducing the amount of pavement in flood-prone areas and replacing it with green space where water can soak into soils. This can happen at the scale of a single home – like having a rain garden in your front yard. It can happen at the scale of neighborhoods – planting more trees, restoring creeks and wetlands, and designing streets medians to collect rain. It can also happen at the regional scale, with larger-scale green infrastructure investments like engineering stormwater retention basins, constructed wetlands, and tidal marsh restoration. These kinds of strategies will increase the capacity of Bay Area communities to withstand heavy rain without severe damage.

 

Left photo source: EPA. Right photo source: Kandyce Perry.

 

Unlike traditional solutions like storm drains, sewers, and levees, solutions that incorporate nature can provide many benefits beyond just flood control. One important benefit is that green infrastructure can help us withstand California’s dramatic wet-dry swings by locally capturing water during the rainy season that can be used when the weather dries up. Research done by the Pacific Institute and NRDC showed that stormwater capture across the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions could provide up to 195 billion gallons (600,000 acre feet) of water per year, which is about the annual water use of the entire city of Los Angeles. Additionally, urban green space provides habitat to help animals survive city life, and can make people happier too.

 

“Unlike traditional solutions like storm drains, sewers, and levees, solutions that incorporate nature can provide many benefits beyond just flood control.”

 

While green infrastructure holds much potential for addressing urban flood risk, we know it is not the sole solution. The Bay Area needs a strategic mix of green and gray infrastructure – rain gardens and wetlands and pipes and levees – to be resilient to the increasing severity of storms.

Lastly, low-income and minority neighborhoods are likely to continue to be most impacted by urban flooding. But they can be part of the solution as well. It is critical that Bay Area leaders include vulnerable communities in their decision-making. This means focused outreach to communicate risks and response strategies to communities who speak languages other than English, or who may not have the time or means to attend informational meetings in person. It also means considering the unintended impacts to vulnerable communities of flood management solutions before implementing those solutions. Those who are already facing social and economic challenges are more likely to experience magnified adverse impacts from environmental risks like increased flooding, and may need extra outreach and resources to ensure resilience.

Take-Home Message

Urban flooding is worsening in the Bay Area for four main reasons: California’s naturally variable rainfall patterns, climate change increasing weather extremes, population growth, and aging and insufficient infrastructure. To address this problem, we need to redesign our cities to be more like sponges, capturing and soaking in or holding flood waters. This means improving and update our “gray” infrastructure (sewers and pipes) and investing in “green” infrastructure, like rain gardens, constructed wetlands, stormwater retention basins, and tidal marsh restoration. When making these decisions and investments, it is important to meaningfully involve vulnerable communities to ensure the solutions meet their needs and improve their resilience too.

Putting the Water Action Hub into Action in the Apparel Sector

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By Sonali Abraham

How often do you think about where that new jacket you just bought was made? Or how much water was used to make it? As consumers in this rapidly expanding and globalized world, it is easy to forget the resources that go into making something that we buy with a click in the comfort of our homes.

credit: Portland General Electric

Water is and has always been an intrinsic part of the textile manufacturing process. As a result, the industry both contributes to and is affected by basin water sustainability issues. It typically takes 2700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt (WWF, 2013). Globally, textile mills account for one-fifth of the world’s industrial pollution (NRDC).

The Water Action Hub’s Apparel Portal

However, the future is not as bleak as those numbers may suggest. As climate patterns become more variable and water stress becomes an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world, the apparel sector has emerged as a leader in the water stewardship community. Several leading apparel brands and CEO Water Mandate endorsing companies have been actively seeking to better understand water-related risk in locations in which they and their supplier operate, and further, to implement projects that address these risks. The CEO Water Mandate aims to mobilize businesses to take action to address global water challenges. It is a UN Global Compact initiative, and Pacific Institute functions as secretariat. A core water stewardship resource provided through the Pacific Institute and the CEO Water Mandate is the Water Action Hub. The Hub is a global online collaboration and knowledge-sharing tool that aims to connect organizations and individuals with water-related projects and resources around the world, based on specific interests. The Hub is 100% free and available to anyone with an interest in water stewardship. For the apparel sector, the Hub’s apparel portal provides a list of key projects and organizations involved in sustainability in the apparel industry, and gives members the opportunity to both learn more and engage with the sector’s water stewardship activities.

There are a multitude of other tools and resources available both for the apparel industry and interested stakeholders. These can help you calculate the water consumption across your supply chain; assess water-related risk; understand impacts to water resources; or document best practices around water recycling, wastewater management, and collective action. To expedite and assist in using these resources, we have created a library of all the water-related tools and resources available for the apparel sector, accessible through the Hub’s apparel portal.

Using the Hub in the Noyyal-Bhavani

One resource provided in the Hub’s apparel portal is a guide to setting site water targets taking the local catchment context into account. In 2018 and 2019, the Pacific Institute, in its role as Co-Secretariat for the CEO Water Mandate, coordinated a clustered pilot of the site water targets informed by catchment context methodology in the Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin in South India with several apparel companies. This pilot sought to assist apparel facilities in setting water targets that take the basin’s context and desired conditions into account.

The Hub was an instrumental resource throughout this pilot and demonstrated a practical example of how it can help facilitate a project. The apparel portal helped in identifying and connecting stakeholders and project partners. Further, the library of compiled tools and resources for the apparel sector helped to identify available tools like WRI’s Water Risk Atlasand the HIGG Index, to support conducting a detailed analysis of the basin’s water challenges.

As the pilot process led to a realization of a shared ambition and vision for the basin’s future, participating companies became particularly interested in working collectively on water stewardship to foster basin water security. This project will span the next few years, and will be a collaborative process, involving regional and local stakeholders, including other industry sectors, government officials, academics, NGOs, and development agencies. The Hub has been and will be especially useful at this stage, in locating ongoing collective action projects in the basin, upcoming opportunities, and potential partners.

 

Sonali is a Research Associate at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. This blog post was originally posted on the CEO Water Mandate Water Stewardship Leaders Blog here.

How to Set Meaningful Site Water Targets

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By Tien Shiao

Water Insecurity is Increasing

Climate change is impacting all regions of the world, cutting across all sectors of society. It is closely connected to water resources, leading to more floods, droughts, poor water quality, and increased water demand due to higher temperatures – more water is needed for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial cooling.

Climate change impacts are already leading to increased water risks for companies.
For example, in 2011, flooding in Thailand led to manufacturing shutting down operations, which affected the supply chains of many companies. In 2019, drought in Brazil led to a 30% decrease in soybean production, resulting in a shortage in global supply.

Why Site Water Targets?

It is now more important than ever for companies to not only consider their own water use and discharge, but also to invest in healthy watersheds and water infrastructure to address their water risk.
While most sites are small contributors to their watershed, by setting targets informed by context collectively, sites can make a greater impact and become more resilient to water risk. Companies which are not able to do so will continue to face serious water challenges.

Setting site water targets helps companies:

  • Drive informed action at the local level;
  • Address water challenges, and;
  • Catalyze collective action.

Setting Site Water Targets

To assist companies with setting site water targets, in August 2019 the CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute helps manage, along with project partners CDPThe Nature ConservancyWorld Resources InstituteWWF, and UNEP-DHI, developed Setting Site Water Targets Informed by Catchment Context. The guide outlines how companies can set site water targets that maximize impact and improve water security by simultaneously addressing catchment water challenges and aligning corporate water strategies with societal goals, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. According to this publication, there are three key elements for setting meaningful site water targets:

  1. Responding to priority water challenges by examining and prioritizing site water challenges.Water challenges are prioritized based on operational risk (water impact and dependency of the site) and catchment water risk. For the Santa Ana watershed in California, where the guide was pilot tested, out of six water challenges examined, the priority challenges identified were water quality, water quantity, and freshwater ecosystems. The challenges were identified through: conducting in-person convenings with participating companies, representatives from the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), and other local agencies; reading relevant municipal and catchment planning and governance documents; and examining relevant state water targets and regulations.
  2. Using a site’s contribution to water challenges and desired conditions to inform a site’s level of ambition. The desired conditions are determined through water resource management plans and other literature sources. For the Santa Ana watershed, the primary resources used to understand the desired conditions were the One Water One Watershed (OWOW) Plan and the Santa Ana Water Quality Control Plan. The gap was assessed between current and desired conditions.
  3. Setting water targets that help reduce water risk, capitalize on opportunities (like existing water stewardship initiatives and collective action efforts), and contribute to public policy priorities. The targets should address the priority water challenges, the current and desired conditions, and the facilities’ ambition. In the Santa Ana watershed, a database of potential targets (measurable desired results) and potential interventions (actions to be taken to help achieve the targets) were developed for each water challenge. Targets were designed to be specific enough to be able to customize to a site’s needs and to take into consideration opportunities for on-the-ground collaboration. The Santa Ana watershed project included recommendations on the level of ambition when there were relevant resources and literature available.

Site Water Targets in Action

Several CEO Water Mandate companies have launched water targets informed by context, including Levi Strauss & Co. and Teck Resources Limited, because they realized that in order to reduce water risk, they need to consider where they are operating locally. Levi’s goal is to use only as much water as they can replenish naturally where they operate. Therefore, they use the best available water stress data to develop facility-level targets that contribute to the sustainability of local water resources. Teck’s goal is to reverse the trend of selenium and other substances in the valley where they operate, to ensure the ongoing health of the watershed, since their workers care about the local environment being protected.

Get Involved

If your company is interested in setting meaningful site water targets, please visit Setting Site Targets Informed by Catchment Context: A Guide for Companies and Case study: Santa Ana River Watershed, California. You may also contact tshiao@pacinst.org for more information.

Tien is a Senior Researcher at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. This blog post was originally posted on the CEO Water Mandate Water Stewardship Leaders Blog here.

Salton Sea +20

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By Michael Cohen

After decades of false starts and false hopes, progress might finally be within reach for California’s Salton Sea – the state’s largest and most maligned lake. California’s governor and natural resources secretary have demonstrated the commitment and political will needed to construct actual, on-the-ground habitat and dust control projects. California’s voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars for Salton Sea projects. And the state and the largest local landowner recently completed land-use agreements to move the projects forward.

An Ebbing Sea

It’s long overdue. The Salton Sea’s surface has dropped by about 10 feet in twenty years – and almost two feet in just the past two years. At the dry flats of the former Red Hill Bay, the shoreline has already receded more than a mile since 1999. Salinity has increased by almost 50%. The Salton Sea is now almost twice as salty as the ocean. In 1999, there were some 100 million fish in the Sea. Now, more than 97 percent of those fish are gone.

In 1999, the Sea stood close to its highest elevation since it formed in 1905, lapping at dikes and berms erected along its shores to protect farmers’ fields. In 1999, the Salton Sea covered 375 square miles – about twice the size of Lake Tahoe. Since that time, the Sea has shrunk by more than 45 square miles – roughly the size of the City of San Francisco. In eleven years, the Salton Sea will likely be another 45 square miles smaller than it is today.

A Changing Landscape

California and the West have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. In 1999, the Bureau of Reclamation was developing plans to share surplus water because Lake Mead was almost full. Twenty years later, Lake Mead will end the year less than half full, its surface down almost 125 feet. Colorado River water users recently completed a drought contingency plan, to better manage the river for shortage. As climate change decreases run-off, shortage becomes the new normal, placing ever-greater pressure on an over-allocated and increasingly stressed Colorado River.

In 1999, the Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer was still hotly debated and four years from being signed. This year, the Imperial Valley will send 160,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to San Diego County and another 68,000 acre-feet to the Coachella Valley. Meanwhile, the total amount of water flowing into the Salton Sea this year could be 400,000 acre-feet less than in 1999.

In 1999, the Pacific Institute released Haven or Hazard, projecting the rapid decline of the Salton Sea and calling for prompt action to protect people and birds. We released Hazard in 2006, and Hazard’s Toll in 2014, estimating the public and ecological health costs of continued inaction at the Salton Sea.

A History of False Starts

The reality of the Salton Sea has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Prospects for real action at the Sea continue to be elusive, cycling between brief periods of hope and years of subsequent frustration.

People have been planning to protect and restore the Salton Sea for more than fifty years. Twenty years ago, the Salton Sea Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation focused on managing salinity, with a pilot Enhanced Evaporation System and plans to impound portions of the lake to capture and manage salts.

The Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer killed those plans – there wouldn’t be enough water to sustain them. But the upside was that, in facilitating the water transfer, California committed to “undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the permanent protection of the wildlife dependent on that ecosystem.” The downside was that the water transfer did not include a volumetric fee, to pay for the significant annual operating costs that have subsequently and repeatedly delayed the construction of required habitat projects.

In early 2005, California convened a large Salton Sea Advisory Committee, charged with identifying a preferred alternative. Prop. 50 made tens of millions of dollars available. Yet in 2007, the state released a cobbled and bloated $8.9 billion ‘preferred alternative’ with no stakeholder support. The recession soon followed. Interest waned and the Sea’s prospects dimmed, again.

American white pelicans at USGS/Reclamation Saline Habitat Ponds. Photo courtesy of Tom Anderson.

 

From 2006-2010, two federal agencies operated and monitored a 100-acre pilot wetland project near the Alamo River delta. The project included four shallow ponds fed by blended water from agricultural drainage and the Salton Sea. Thousands of birds, from more than 200 different species, used the ponds. California had the opportunity to take over the ponds in 2010, after the federal contract expired. Instead, the state shut down and drained the only operational habitat project at the Salton Sea, collecting and moving more than a million endangered desert pupfish from the ponds to an unknown fate.

In 2008, California began developing a consensus “no-regrets” plan, now called Species Conservation Habitat. Although it’s been fully permitted and fully funded for many years, the project has yet to begin construction. Once completed, SCH will cover 3,770 acres at the New River delta with a series of shallow wetlands, providing habitat for a broad mix of shorebirds and waterbirds and eliminating dust emissions by covering that playa.

In response to requests from environmentalists, California’s state water agency hired a Salton Sea Program Manager in 2010, to focus solely on expediting Salton Sea projects. Recognizing the lack of direction and vision for the Salton Sea, California enacted legislation that same year, creating a Salton Sea Restoration Council comprised of state and local stakeholders, with science and community advisory boards. The law required state agencies to staff the Restoration Council.

Governor Brown’s new administration did not staff the Restoration Council. In 2012, the legislature disbanded the Salton Sea Restoration Council at the governor’s request – because the unstaffed council had never met. The Salton Sea program languished, low on the list of the governor’s priorities.

Five years ago, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) challenged the state’s indifference, petitioning for action at the Salton Sea. In response, the governor convened a state task force that, a year later, “directed agencies to develop a comprehensive management plan for the Sea that will:

  • Meet a short-term goal of 9,000 acres to 12,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects, and
  • Set a medium-term plan to construct 18,000 acres to 25,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects.

California hired an Assistant Secretary of Salton Sea Policy in 2015 as well – a new sign for hope. In late 2017, the state water regulator responded to IID’s petition with a new water order, creating explicit annual acreage milestones for state construction of habitat and dust control projects taken directly from the state’s own construction schedule. Governor Brown’s administration failed to meet those milestones.

Renewed Hope

But 2019 brought a new state administration and new enthusiasm and even hope for the Salton Sea.

The pieces are all in place for real action at the Salton Sea. Land use agreements have been signed. More than $350 million is available for Salton Sea projects, approved by California voters. Another $200 million or more has been authorized at the federal level but needs to get to California. More than 700,000 acre-feet of water – a staggering amount, much more than San Diego County uses each year – will continue to flow into the Salton Sea, available to support a host of habitat and dust control projects. We know what works; the 100-acre pilot projects that operated from 2006-2010 were quite successful. Completing and expanding the Species Conservation Habitat project, along with the Red Hill Bay project at the Alamo River delta and other similar habitat projects at the south end of the Salton Sea, combined with a deeper North Lake to provide recreational opportunities and better habitat for fish and the birds that eat them, offers a reasonable goal for the next five years. And – finally – the new governor and resources secretary are demonstrating the commitment and political will to hire and direct staff to get projects in the ground and protect public and environmental health.

Will 2019 mark the turning point, from hopes and plans to actual projects and the staff and funds needed to monitor and manage them over the long term?

In 1999 and 2000, research in a variety of disciplines led to a comprehensive understanding of the Salton Sea at the time. Yet the Salton Sea has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and questions remain:

  • What is our understanding of the Salton Sea now, of its inflows and water quality, of the invertebrates and fish that live in its waters, of the amount of dust blowing off of the more than 20,000 acres of lakebed exposed since 1999?
  • What is in that dust? What’s being done to limit the amount of dust?
  • What are the state’s plans for the Salton Sea?
  • What are the local agencies planning for the Salton Sea?
  • Are local communities being engaged in these state and local planning efforts?
  • Will there be enough money to pay for these projects?
  • Who will manage the projects over the next five or 10 or 25 years?
  • Will 2019 really mark a turning point for the Salton Sea, or will it signal yet another false hope?

For answers to these questions and more, join us at the Salton Sea Summit in Palm Desert, California from October 17th to 18th 2019. Registration is free!

Find Your Partners for Water Sustainability with the Water Action Hub 3.0

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By Peter Schulte

Two weeks ago, I was delighted to launch Water Action Hub 3.0 at Stockholm World Water Week. You can see a video of the launch here.

For those who don’t know, the Hub is an online collaboration and knowledge sharing platform for water. Or, as we like to say sometimes, it’s a “dating” site for water sustainability partners. Originally launched in 2012 by the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, which is implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute, the Hub now features over 900 projects and 700 organizations around the world.

While we were initially inspired to build the Hub because CEO Water Mandate-endorsing businesses wanted to be able to better identify and connect to potential water partners, the Hub is actually designed and available for anyone in the world: NGOs, communities, utilities, academics, and individuals. Anyone in the world can go to the Hub, create an account for free in five minutes, list their water-related efforts and goals, and find and message others from around the world with similar interests.

 

New Features

Water Action Hub 3.0 – made possible through a grant from GIZ’s Natural Resources Stewardship Programme (NatuReS) – features hundreds of new projects and organizations, a new and improved interface, and considerable new functionality including:

  • Proactive matching that suggests potential water partners to one another via email
  • The ability to author and share lessons learned related to water sustainability efforts
  • Community “portals” that capture all relevant information on particular locations, topics, and interests and fosters discussion and coordination around their communities of practice

 

Sharing Lessons Learned

We are particularly excited for the new “lessons” functionality. Through these lessons, anyone in the world can articulate insights on good practices or barriers to project success and tag them by country, topic, project phase, etc. Once they publish the lessons to the Hub, they are then recommended to other projects around the Hub based on shared location, topic, project phase, etc. In this way, the Hub can help ensure that key insights on designing and implementing water sustainability can be shared around the world, making all of our efforts more effective and efficient.

As part of this effort, earlier this year  Hannah Baleta of the Pacific Institute traveled from her home in South Africa to four other countries in sub-Saharan Africa to talk to project partners and stakeholders involved with GIZ water sustainability projects there. Through these discussions, Hannah was able to glean several core lessons about water sustainability partnerships, which were published as lessons in the Hub.  And stay tuned for an upcoming blog series from Hannah about her visits and discussions.

 

More Relevant Content with “Portals”

New community “portals” on the Hub help you hone in on the areas most relevant to your work. So, if you are based in California, you can go to the California Portal and connect to others working  there. Or if you are focused on groundwater management efforts, you can go to the Groundwater Portal and do the same. In this way, we hope to better tailor the now hundreds of projects, organizations, resources, and lessons in the Hub to your own particular interests.

We encourage anyone in the world with an interest in water sustainability to create their free profile on the Hub today. Just visit the Water Action Hub and select “Sign up.” And feel free to drop us a line with any questions or ideas at: contact@wateractionhub.org. If you’d like, we’d be happy to help assist you in creating and expanding your profile.

 

Comparing Apples to Apples: Towards Better Communication Using a Common Language for Water

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By Karina de Souza

Writing this as I return from my family summer holiday, I am reminded of a trip to Siena, Italy where I visited the Piazza del Campo, home to the famous Palio di Siena horse race. I surveyed the view from a piazza café and in my best Italian ordered two lattes. The waiter returned with… two glasses of hot milk. No espresso in sight. After some exchange, I re-ordered two café lattes and realized if I had simply communicated using the ”universal” description of my drink, rather than the British vernacular, I would have gotten my drinks much sooner!

In a similar way, leading companies wanting to engage on water issues across their business have discovered significant fragmentation in water terminology and metrics across contexts, stakeholders, and regions. And this has led to some confusion. If you have a group of people sitting around a table comparing the contents of a fruit bowl – say a policy maker, a company, a community member, and a water management authority – if they don’t speak the same language, it may sound like they are describing different fruits. In the water world, this language barrier can lead to frustration and a lack of action on key shared water management issues.

Our Vision

Coming up with a common language to describe water issues is a must if companies and other stakeholders are to engage in meaningful action. As a precursor to this, in 2014 we collaborated on the publication of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) CEO Water Mandate Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines. A collaborative effort between the Pacific Institute, CDP, World Resources Institute (WRI), and PWC, this report offers a common approach for companies to disclose their water use and report on water issues. This was a great first step, but now companies are demanding that the reporting language barrier be dismantled to create globally consistent water terminology and accounting metrics guidance. This common language for talking about water accounting and metrics would aim to bridge the corporate sector and the public sector, enabling transformative collaborative action towards water security.

Towards this end, the CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute helps manage, and WRI are partnering in an initiative to develop a common language for water. Our vision is the standardization of the ”building blocks” of water accounting terminology and metrics to create a common water accounting framework for all users, in all contexts and at all scales – from facility to water catchment. This will facilitate more effective apples to apples conversations, enabling collaborative action and helping to achieve improved water outcomes for all. Our aim is not to re-invent the wheel, but to start with a simple enabling framework which builds off existing approaches and terminology and can be built out modular style.  We are planning to produce a first version of this guidance by 2021.

Vision for a Common Water Accounting Framework

We envision that this guidance will contribute to improving water data quality, coverage, and transparency for other areas  of society long-term.  As part of a broad outreach effort, we will seek to understand how this work might “plug in and play” with other initiatives that aim to make improvements in the areas of public health, food security, natural capital, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and sustainable livelihoods, so that nobody gets left behind.

Get Involved

If you’d like to discuss in more detail how you and your organization can get involved, or to learn more about upcoming events or workshops for this initiative, please contact Dr. Amy Herod at aherod@pacinst.org. Please visit our webpage to sign-up to the Pacific Institute email list for future communications on this initiative.

4 Reasons Why Urban Landscapes are a Linchpin for Climate Resilience

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By Cora Kammeyer

When it comes to water sustainability and climate resilience, urban outdoor landscapes represent a wealth of opportunity.

Outdoor landscapes are a vital component of our cities. Whether it’s outside a home, a store, an office, or a manufacturing plant, the landscape is a property’s primary interface with the community and the environment. Properly designed and managed using sustainable landscape strategies, these outdoor areas can help communities weather droughts, mitigate floods, sequester carbon, improve human well-being, and more.

We can build sustainable landscapes, by which I mean landscapes that are in balance with local climate and ecology and actively contribute to watershed health. Key elements of sustainable landscapes include:

  • Building healthy soils
  • Preserving vegetative cover
  • Using climate-appropriate plants
  • Conserving water and other resources

This could include strategies like removing turf, building rain gardens, or installing permeable pavement or rain tanks.

To achieve sustainability, we need to make some changes.

Take California, my home state, as an example. California has notoriously variable precipitation patterns, and this is increasing with climate change. We are seeing longer and hotter droughts, and more intense storms; and more dramatic fluctuations between these two extremes. This means that our cities are facing increasing threats of water shortage on one hand, and flooding on the other.

Our current urban landscapes, marked by big lawns and paved areas, don’t do much to alleviate these problems. In fact, in many cases, they exacerbate them. Thirsty turf grass requires a lot of irrigation, especially in the peak of summer when it’s dry and hot, and water is in shorter supply. Over half of urban water use in California goes to landscape irrigation, and that portion is higher in the summer. Vast expanses of pavement—parking lots in particular—leave no place for rain water to go but down the drain, which has limited capacity to handle intense storms, leading to flooding and pollution.

There is a better option.

We can turn our urban landscapes into assets for climate resilience, rather than a source of risk. For example, look below at this side-by-side case study of two residential yards in Santa Monica, California (sustainable landscape on the left, traditional landscape on the right). Nine years of monitoring both landscapes showed that the sustainable landscape uses 83 percent less water, creates 56 percent less green waste, and requires 68 percent less maintenance than the more traditional landscaping.

 

 

Sustainable landscapes can provide a multitude of benefits, but I’ll focus on four themes here: drought, flood, carbon, and community.

Sustainable landscapes are resilient to droughts.

There are two key ways that sustainable landscapes can make urban communities more resilient to drought: using less water, and capturing water to use later.

Replacing grass with climate appropriate plants (and irrigating those plants properly) can reduce a landscape’s water needs by 70-80 percent. During the last California drought, we saw homes across the state doing this, a trend significant enough to be clear on Google Maps. This was a big part of why California’s urban communities were able to meet, in fact exceed, the emergency drought mandate of reducing water use by 20 percent.

Sustainable landscapes can also be designed to capture water and hold it—in the soil, groundwater, or rainwater catchment systems—for future use. Building healthy soils allows water not taken up by plants to infiltrate into the landscape, and even down into groundwater aquifers, rather than running off and being lost down the drain. Similarly, rain barrels and tanks can capture roof runoff, which can then be applied back onto the landscape when it’s needed. Research shows that applying these approaches across southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area could increase local water supplies by 20 billion gallons each year, which is roughly the amount of water used by the city of Los Angeles annually.

Sustainable landscapes help reduce flooding and water pollution.

As the climate warms, California is experiencing more precipitation in the form of rain (versus snow), and these rain events are growing in intensity. Our urban areas, particularly those in southern California, will need to better prepare for these storms, and in particular improve flood management. As discussed above, sustainable landscapes are great at capturing and holding water; this is also useful for mitigating local flooding. If water can run into rain gardens and soak into the soil, that means less water pooling on streets, parking lots, and sidewalks. Beyond designing existing green spaces to hold flood waters, reducing the amount of paved area and replacing it with permeable paving or more green space can greatly contribute to local flood reduction.

These strategies also help prevent water pollution in our oceans and stream, because sustainable landscapes can absorb and purify the “first flush” of a rain event, which contains the most polluted water (carrying all the grime and contaminants from our city streets).

Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Water, energy, and land use management are all intertwined and deeply connected to climate. Healthy soils rich in organic matter, a key component of sustainable landscapes, can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, providing climate mitigation. Sustainable landscape practices can also reduce energy use (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) because they require less mowing, blowing, and green waste hauling than typical grass-dominated landscapes. There is also the energy embedded in water to consider—less irrigation (through climate appropriate plants and capturing water for reuse onsite) means less water that needs to be collected, treated, and transported to a landscape.

Sustainable landscapes improve community well-being.

Finally, sustainable landscapes provide benefits to human-scale benefits to communities, beyond helping them weather droughts and floods. Switching from outdoor areas dominated by grass and pavement to ones with beautiful native plants and expanded natural spaces improves our well-being. For example, there is research showing the employees who have access to sustainable landscapes at their workplace are happier and more productive. In addition, sustainable landscape practices (especially replacing pavement with rain gardens) can help combat the urban heat island effect, a public health threat which is growing worse with climate change.

Transitioning to sustainable landscapes in cities around the world requires innovation and collaboration.

The challenge (and opportunity) of achieving resilience to droughts and floods, reducing carbon emissions, and fostering community well-being is one faced by cities around the globe. These are imperative and deeply interconnected issues, and urban landscapes lie at a critical nexus among them all.

With urbanization increasing rapidly, and climate change impacts manifesting more prominently every year, the call to action is becoming more urgent. Tackling this multifaceted challenge will take the efforts and collaboration of diverse urban stakeholders, from residents, businesses, scientists, city governments, and on-the-ground change makers. At the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on water and climate, we have been working for over 30 years on advancing innovative solutions for water-smart cities, including sustainable urban landscapes.

This blog post was originally published on Meeting of the Minds

Water Risk Management for the Private Sector

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By Peter Schulte

The complexity and local nature of the global water crisis requires collaboration, from community-based organizations to governments to businesses and others. Knowledge of water risks and opportunities can help businesses mitigate those risks and contribute to water security. 

Last month, Whetu and Columbia University’s Columbia Water Center’s launched its Certificate Program in Water Risk Management for the Private Sector.  This new online program helps businesses and others around the world understand the basics of the world’s water challenges, how they affect businesses, and what the private sector can do to understand and manage those risks. 

I have been delighted and honored to develop and teach the Certificate Program’s module on water-related external engagement collective action. This module shows why and how businesses can partner with others to advance shared water goals – from watershed-level projects in areas of strategic importance, to engagement with key suppliers, to raising awareness and changing behavior among their consumers. Given the highly local and shared nature of water challenges, collaborations and partnerships are absolutely vital to businesses’ managing their water risks and the world achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation.

The collective action module I led is just one of six course modules taught by top-notch experts in the field. The instructors include Upmanu Lall (Columbia Water Center), Paulina Concha Laurri (Columbia Water Center), Nick Martin (Antea Group), Paul Reig (World Resources Institute), and Kari Vigerstol (The Nature Conservancy), who all bring their own powerful perspectives to the discussion.

 In addition to lectures, each participant engages in an on-line learning decision-making experience that maps out consequences of choices on the topics covered under the six topics. At the end of the Program, participants are awarded a Certificate of Completion by Columbia Water Center, Columbia University.  

The complexity of today’s water challenges requires a holistic approach empowered by a deep understanding of water risks, as well as effective techniques and tools to address these challenges. If you’re at all interested in getting the skills to understand and address the world’s water challenges from a business perspective, I highly encourage you to explore this great opportunity. There are no prerequisites to join.

Visit this page for more information. 

Kilimanjaro, Home to a Great Example of Water Stewardship in Action. And the Highest Mountain in Africa.

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By Hannah Baleta

In Tanzania, between Moshi and Arusha, you come across a small town called Usa River, which is situated on the banks of its namesake: the Usa River, a tributary of the Kikuletwa and then eventually Pangani River. This region is a tourist-magnet due to its proximity to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Usa River in particular lies on the slopes of Mount Meru, a lesser known but equally beautiful dormant volcano.

My recent trip there was not to go birding or hiking within this spectacular scenery, but instead was to interview the partners of the Sustainable Water Management Partnership (SUWAMA), supported by the International Water Stewardship Programme (IWaSP).

SUWAMA Partnership in Usa River was officially launched on the 6th of December 2017 to collaborate in addressing and finding solutions to water challenges in the Usa River sub catchment. The initial partnership was created following consultative meetings between the Pangani Basin Water Board (PBWB), Upper Kikuletwa Water User Association (WUA), Kiliflora Limited, Tanzanian Horticulture Association (TAHA) and IWaSP. In 2018, other partners like the Usa River Water and Sanitation Authority (USAWASSA) and the Arumeru District Council joined.

To address the identified water challenges in the Usa River sub-catchment, the partnership is organized under three thematic working areas:

  • Good water governance and conservation
  • Water-use efficiency
  • Water quality and supply

Top and bottom: The eye of the Teema spring is protected within this thick forest. (Top photo credit: Hannah Baleta; Bottom photo credit: GIZ Tanzania)

Sounds great in theory, but what does that mean on the ground?

Good water governance and conservation have resulted in the activation of effective communication between the PBWB/WUA and village water and environment committees within the 11 villages that fall within the partnership area, along the Usa River. A water user survey, looking at permitted water use, was carried. This identified only 11 users holding valid permits and 54 users with no permits at all. , and facilitated the transfer of 40 old water rights into new water permits. This also potentially increased the revenue from water permits in the area from 15,722,000  TZS to 27,272,000  TZS, an increase of 42.4%. In addition, source protection was an important aspect. With the active support of the Arumeru District, Council springs (like the Teema spring photographed below) have been protected through the installation of markers to delineate the statutory boundary for protection around a water source. A vigorous tree-planting campaign was also carried out to reforest the area, bringing additional protection to the slopes. The trees were donated by Kiliflora.   

Water-use efficiency in agriculture has put into practice through training provided by TAHA to farmers in the area, while water quality and supply has been implemented through the rehabilitation of the Furrow #1 (pictured below at the furrow offtake). To ensure upkeep and sustainability of the furrow improvements, a furrow committee was reactivated through the support of SUWAMA to ensure that the furrow is managed to ensure secure water supply to all the farmers and villages downstream. Furthermore, SUWAMA supported the handing-over of communal water systems, including those developed and sponsored by Kiliflora Ltd. over the years around the flower farm, and other community-owned water supply systems, to the local water utility USAWASSA.

Launch of furrow #1 infrastructure improvements where contributions were made collectively among the farmers in addition to a furrow committee being formed to ensure sustainability (Credit: GIZ Tanzania)

The SUWAMA project has successfully implemented a suite of practical physical, as well as more complex, governance structures to ensure that the project can meet its original mission of addressing the water challenges in the Usa River. When I left Usa River, I left with a far more nuanced understanding of this lofty term, “stewardship.” What I saw in reality was a practical way of engaging the private, public, and civil society sectors in addressing shared water challenges. The SUWAMA partnership in Usa is a great example of this.

*This blog post is part of a project collecting lessons learned through stewardship. It is being implemented by the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute is co-secretariat for, and is supported by IWaSP.

Can California Shift to Proactive Drought Preparedness?

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By Cora Kammeyer and Heather Cooley

Precipitation in California is highly variable from year to year, and climate change is increasing this variability. We can expect to see more intense droughts and storms, and rapid shifts from very wet to very dry conditions. To address this and other challenges, the state passed Assembly Bill (AB) 1668 and Senate Bill (SB) 606 in June 2018.

Known jointly as the Water Conservation Legislation, these bills were drafted in response of Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016 executive order to “make water conservation a California way of life.” The directive called on state agencies to take actions to ensure that all Californians use water more wisely, eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience, and improve agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning. This came during the height of California’s recent drought—the longest and most severe on record. A key objective of these bills is to help California proactively adapt to climate change and the resulting longer and more frequent droughts, avoiding costly emergency measures in response to future weather extremes.

There are six key components of the Water Conservation Legislation:

  • Customized water use targets for urban water suppliers;
  • Performance measures for managing commercial, industrial, and institutional water use;
  • Drought planning for small water systems and rural communities;
  • Annual water supply and demand assessments;
  • Agricultural water management planning; and
  • Data reporting and transparency.

Now the work of implementing the Water Conservation Legislation is underway, and the Pacific Institute is actively work with state agencies and stakeholders to ensure its success. For example, Senior Researcher Dr. Laura Feinstein is helping to develop water shortage vulnerability factors and risk indicators for small water systems and rural communities. Her recent work on measuring progress towards universal access to water and sanitation in California has been a valuable resource for this group.

And on Monday May 20th, we attended the first urban overview meeting for the Water Conservation Legislation in Sacramento. At this public meeting, the California Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board walked attendees through the details of the legislation, work plan, and implementation timeline. Nearly a dozen working groups are being established to tackle various aspects of implementation across urban, rural, and agricultural contexts, each comprising stakeholders with diverse expertise and interest from across the state.

The state and stakeholders are just beginning the process of determining what “making conservation a California way of life” will look like on the ground. That vision will come from the cumulation of dozens and dozens of details, out of decisions that may seem small but must be considered carefully. We believe that the implementation strategies developed for the Water Conservation Legislation should:

  • Demonstrate a clear path towards more efficient water use across the state;
  • Be socially and environmentally equitable; and
  • Account for expected changes in climate and hydrologic conditions.

Using our extensive background and expertise on California water policy, we will engage in working groups and decision-making processes to ensure these tenets are achieved, towards an equitable and resilient water future for California.

The CEO Water Mandate launches a beta version of Water Action Hub 3.0 for World Water Day

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By Peter Schulte

This World Water Day, the CEO Water Mandate, a UN Global Compact initiative implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute, will launch a beta version of Water Action Hub 3.0. The Hub 3.0 is a collaboration between the Mandate and GIZ to highlight, share, and scale stewardship lessons learned around the world and to proactively match potential water partners to one another.

Background on the Hub

The Water Action Hub is a global online collaboration and knowledge sharing tool developed by the CEO Water Mandate. Since its initial launch in 2012, the Hub has enabled organizations of all kinds from all corners of the world to find and connect to potential partners for their water sustainability efforts, to showcase their own projects, and to learn about others efforts already underway in locations of interest. The Hub now has over 1500 users from over 600 organizations and 550 projects, including hundreds sourced from CDP, BAFWAC, California Water Action Collaboration, El Agua Nos Une, and others.

 

Introducing Hub 3.0 – Lessons Learned & Matching

The water community has already unearthed many critical insights into the challenges that hinder stewardship efforts as well the best practices that can drive impact effectively, credibly, and efficiently. Unfortunately, as of yet, there is no way to systematically and reliably ensure that new water stewardship efforts integrate these past lessons into their project plans. Further, existing lessons learned have only scratched the surface of insight possible and necessary. There is much more knowledge and experience remaining to be captured and integrated into existing mainstream stewardship practice. This dearth of access to lessons learned among new water stewardship projects means they often repeat preventable problems and in so doing waste precious time and financial resources.

Water Action Hub 3.0 seeks to address this critical need. The Hub 3.0 features new functionality that allows us to compile key stewardship lessons learned from GIZ and other stewardship practitioners and allows Hub users themselves to author, publish, and share their own lessons learned.

For example, through its years of supporting water stewardship partnerships around the world, GIZ has learned that developing and implementing robust project governance plans is critical to project success and the failure to do so often impedes otherwise promising efforts. The Hub now features a page that describes how projects can go about implementing such a plan and why, while offering practical examples and also tracking how many projects around the world have done so.

While the Hub now only features a handful of lessons, we hope to use this beta launch to test this functionality and solicit organizations like yours to author your own lessons learned in time for the official launch at this year’s Stockholm World Water week in August.

Get involved

While the Hub is developed and maintained by the CEO Water Mandate, a business-oriented initiative, the Water Action Hub is built for businesses, NGOs, government agencies, communities, academics, and more. It is entirely free and open access. Anyone in the world can use it! Indeed, the more organizations use it around the world, the more powerful and useful it becomes for all involved.

You can register for the Hub any time at: https://wateractionhub.org/accounts/register/

If your organizations has learned critical lessons implementing water sustainability efforts, we encourage you to share your insights with others around the world, by publishing them in the Hub.

And if you’d like to discuss in more detail how you and your organization can get involved, I’d be delighted to have a chat with you. Please feel free to contact me at pschulte@pacinst.org with any questions, suggestions, or opportunities.


The CEO Water Mandate is a UN Global Compact commitment platform for water stewardship, implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute since its inception in 2007.

The Private Sector as Part of the Solution to Address Water Security and Sanitation Issues in Brazil

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By Giuliana Chaves Moreira

January 2, 2019

A few months after the 8th World Water Forum (8th WWF) in Brasilia, between November 26th and 28th, the Brazilian Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering (ABES, in the Portuguese acronym) held the first ever Rio Water Week (RWW) event in Rio de Janeiro.

The event was a second opportunity for the private sector to reaffirm its commitment to water issues and to present the results achieved by the private sector’s engagement agreed at the 8th WWF, as well as to disseminate the private sector’s messages on water security, sanitation, and infrastructure.

On March 18, as Brazil hosted the 8th WWF, the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI), the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), and the UN Global Compact Network Brazil (GCNB) had their first opportunity to amplify the business voice within the 8th WWF as a key partner for solution delivery. The key business messages of this event were compiled into a report.

ABES invited the promoters of the 1st Water Business Day to bring the voice of the Business Sector into the agenda of the RWW. This culminated with the organization of a full side day event at RWW called “Water and Business”.

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Climate Resilience in the Urban Context: Sustainable Landscapes for Southern California Businesses

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By Cora Kammeyer

February 5, 2019

Today the Pacific Institute, in collaboration with the CEO Water Mandate, California Forward, and Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, released a new report, “Sustainable Landscapes on Commercial and Industrial Properties in the Santa Ana River Watershed,” accompanied by an interactive online map. This report represents phase one of a collective effort among the business community, public sector water managers, and other stakeholders to improve water and climate resilience through sustainable landscapes. With the release of the report, we are now launching into phase two, for which we are actively recruiting companies to participate.

Through sustainable landscapes, we can improve the resilience of our cities.

Around the world, communities are facing water-related crises at an unprecedented scale. Two of the top five global risks identified by the World Economic Forum for 2019 are extreme weather events and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, both of which have direct ties to water. Extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, manifests through water – storms, floods, and droughts. Adapting to these new extremes will require rethinking our water management systems, including the way we design our urban areas to interact with water.

Like many other places, California is experiencing severe climate and water impacts. Precipitation in the state is highly variable from year to year, and climate change is exacerbating this variability, producing rapid shifts from very wet to very dry. For example, the years 2012 to 2016 were the five hottest, driest years and 2017 the wettest year on the instrumental record. At the same time, pressures on water resources are intensifying due to aging infrastructure, population growth, and other factors.

The combination of continued growth and climate change puts California cities at a critical nexus for water and climate resilience. Yet, California’s urban landscapes are not designed for resilience; they are characterized by vast expanses of thirsty lawns and impermeable pavement. Fortunately, more sustainable options exist, and implementing them can provide tangible benefits to individual properties and to local communities.

The new report examines the benefits and opportunities of installing sustainable landscapes on commercial and industrial (CI) properties, with a focus on the Santa Ana River Watershed in California. It also explores barriers to more widespread uptake of such landscapes by companies, coupled with recommendations for overcoming these barriers and scaling the approach. While focused on the Santa Ana River Watershed, the approach and methodology can be replicated elsewhere, and it is our hope to scale this work to other regions. Here is a snapshot of some of the key findings:

Sustainable landscape practices provide multiple benefits.

‘Sustainable landscapes’ are in balance with local climate and ecology and actively contribute to watershed health by providing economic, social, and environmental benefits. This report focused on five sustainable landscape practices:

  1. Turf replacement;
  2. Bioswales and rain gardens;
  3. Permeable pavement;
  4. Green roofs; and
  5. Rain tanks and cisterns.

These landscape practice can make substantial contributions toward improved surface water quality, flood management, and water supply reliability. They can also reduce energy usage and associated greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, improve ecosystem and human health, promote economic activity, and enhance community resilience.

Businesses stand to gain from investing in sustainable landscapes.

In addition to the broad-reaching water security and climate resiliency benefits that sustainable landscapes can create, businesses stand to gain directly from investments in sustainable landscape practices. Through surveys and interviews with Southern California businesses, we found that these can include, but are not limited to:

  • Financial considerations: Sustainable landscape practices can provide financial benefits through, for example, reduced water, energy and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs.
  • Corporate sustainability goals: A growing number of companies have adopted sustainability goals and investing in sustainable landscapes can help contribute these, particularly to water and energy targets.
  • Reputation and public perception: Converting to a sustainable landscape is a highly visible way for a business to signal their commitment to sustainability to customers and the local community, as well as to investors and peer companies.
  • Social responsibility: Companies are increasingly recognizing the water-related risks facing their business operations and their communities. While companies are often motivated by the desire to reduce business risks, many are also motivated by a commitment to social responsibility.

Businesses have a vital role to play in transitioning to sustainable landscapes.

The scope and scale of urban resiliency challenges warrant action by all – including the business community. CI properties are disproportionately landscaped with turf grass and have large impervious surfaces. In the Santa Ana River Watershed, for example, CI parcels have three times as much turf grass as residential parcels. Impervious surfaces on CI properties make up almost 10 percent of the entire watershed area. As a result, there are vast areas owned and operated by businesses that can be converted to sustainable landscapes, contributing to shared watershed goals.

Curious about the water benefit opportunities at your facilities? You can explore them using this interactive mapping tool.

Click map to view

About the Project

View the project on the Water Action Hub

The Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate, in collaboration with California Forward and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), are leading a collaboration with the Southern California business community to motivate the installation of landscapes on corporate properties that provide multiple benefits, such as water conservation, enhancing stormwater capture, improving water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These landscapes represent a highly visual way for the business community to showcase its commitment to sustainability and will help to promote similar actions by residents and others.

This project is now in phase two, the implementation phase. Throughout 2019, the project team and participating companies will work with local partners to install, and measure the outcomes of, sustainable landscapes on the participating properties. We are actively recruiting companies with facilities in the Santa Ana River Watershed to participate in the project (participation does not mean a priori commitment to investing in landscape changes). If your company is interested in getting involved, please email Cora at ckammeyer@pacinst.org.

The Stormwater Opportunity

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By Morgan Shimabuku and Sarah Diringer

Navigating around puddles that form on streets and in parking lots after a rainstorm can be a nuisance. But this water, technically known as stormwater, has the potential to become an important water supply for many Californian communities. For example, one studyshowed enough potential supply from stormwater in major urban and suburban centers in California to annually provide millions of gallons for the recharge of local aquifers. In addition to providing valuable water supply, effective stormwater management can help reduce local flooding and prevent trash and other pollution from getting into streams or the ocean. What’s more, many stormwater capture projects have further co-benefits, such as providing habitat, reducing urban temperatures, reducing energy use, creating community recreation spaces, and increasing property values.

With all of these advantages, many Californian communities are beginning to expand stormwater management programs to not only address flooding and water quality, but to recharge aquifers, irrigate landscapes, and provide an additional, climate-resilient water supply. In a recent Pacific Institute report, we highlight some innovative and practical strategies that communities throughout California and the country are using to improve local stormwater policy, overcome funding challenges, and harness this viable local water supply.

Advancing policy to support stormwater capture

In some areas, communities are updating municipal codes and guidelines that inadvertently and unnecessarily prohibit stormwater capture. The City of Gonzales in California, for example, updated the city’s design specifications for curbs and planters to allow runoff from stormwater to flow from places like parking lots and streets to be directed into vegetated areas where it can soak into the ground. This relatively easy update to the municipal code allowed for urban designers to incorporate stormwater capture into new projects and retrofits.

Source: Conservation Design Forum

 

In addition, cities throughout California are adopting policies to encourage or even require stormwater capture in urban areas. In San Francisco, an ordinance makes capture, treatment, and reuse of stormwater — and other non-potable sources such as graywater  — mandatory in new construction projects larger than 250,000 square feet. And in Santa Monica, a new policy to source all the city’s municipal water supplies locally by 2022 has been a driver for stormwater projects, such as the Los Amigos Park Stormwater Harvesting and Direct Use Demonstration Project that provides water to the park for the irrigation of sports fields and for restroom toilet flushing.

Developing dedicated, local funding sources for stormwater capture

Paying for stormwater management is no trivial challenge, and California has an existing funding gap of between $500 million to $800 million annually. However, the benefits of stormwater management far outweigh the costs, especially when accounting for the many co-benefits, such as improving water quality, providing habitat and open space for communities, and in some cases, providing an additional local water supply. In California, water supply generated through stormwater capture is among the cheapest options for new supplies. And communities are increasingly pursuing stormwater projects that meet a variety of objectives, allowing for innovative approaches to funding these projects. For example, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County received voter-approval for a $10 annual vehicle registration fee to improve both transportation and stormwater management, including projects like permeable pavement to reduce flooding, filter stormwater runoff, and support infiltration. In Fresno, the regional flood control agency created a development fee that supports flood control and stormwater capture and places the cost of additional structures on future growth. By tackling multiple issues simultaneously, these entities were able to fund stormwater capture while addressing flooding and water quality challenges in their regions.

Looking outside the state, Dubuque, Iowa partnered with several agencies to reconstruct alleyways with permeable pavement to reduce flooding, reduce pollution from runoff, and beautify neighborhoods. These partnerships helped them obtain low interest loans through the Iowa Clean Water State Revolving Fund. California has a surrogate fund, but to date it has rarely been used by California communities for stormwater programs.

While State Revolving Fund dollars and other bond funds can help to pay for capital costs of stormwater projects, communities also need continual funding for operations, maintenance, and other ongoing costs. There are several options for funding these ongoing costs, such as parcel taxes or property-based fees, sewer utilities, and development impact fees. While California state law sets onerous voter approval standards for implementing stormwater fees, a growing number of communities have successfully passed measures to create dedicated stormwater funding sources. For example, in 2016, Culver City passed the Clean Water, Clean Beach parcel tax, which charges an annual tax to property owners to cover the cost of keeping pollution out of local streams and beaches with multi-benefit projects that also recharge local groundwater supplies. In 2017, Palo Alto residents voted to approve an update to their stormwater drainage fee, increasing funds for stormwater management with nature-based solutions that help to clean and infiltrate water rather than directing it to the Bay. Lessons learned from success stories such as these can help provide guidance for other communities seeking to create ongoing, dedicated funding for stormwater management and capture.

Stormwater has long been managed to reduce its impact on water pollution and to mitigate flooding challenges, but the time has come to also use it as a source of water supply. Due to California’s highly variable weather, most rain falls during just a few winter storms. Stormwater capture could help provide relief from both California weather extremes – dry and wet; during wet periods it can help reduce the impacts of flooding and water pollution, and during dry periods it has the potential to augment water supplies. Through our research, we found many examples of communities taking new approaches to tap the potential of this valuable local resource, but we can, and must, do more.

As winter nears and the rain begins to fall, communities across the state can collect this valuable resource, turning puddles into a plentiful, local water supply.

Want to learn more about what communities are doing in California and beyond to capture stormwater? Check out our report!

Water Is a Source of Growing Tension and Violence in the Middle East

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By Peter Gleick and Charlie Iceland

In the hot, dry Middle East, where populations are growing rapidly and all major rivers cross political borders, water has become a focal point for escalating violence. From the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in Turkey that feed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the desert wadis on the southern tip of Yemen, the history of water conflicts provides a cautionary tale: When water and politics mix, and when cooperation gives way to conflict, freshwater becomes an issue of human and national security and a tool of violence.

The long history of conflict in the region is intertwined with the history of water. The earliest recorded water fight is a dispute around 2400 BC over the use of irrigation canals in the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Umma and Lagash between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When the walls and temples of Babylon were razed around 690 BC, the waters of the Euphrates were used to wash away the ruins.
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Collective Action Toward Water Security in Brazil

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By Abbey Warner and Giuliana Chaves Moreira

Credit: Ryan Tacklin

Brazil’s water basins hold 12% of the world’s freshwater, yet the country continues to face serious water challenges, with multiple effects on people, environment, and the economy. Brazil estimates that close to 35 million citizens lack access to safe water, while 100 million lack access to appropriate sanitation. Water pollution and wetlands degradation threaten the country’s myriad species of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, 30-40% of treated water is lost during distribution, a significant economic loss. And multiple water risks threaten business viability. The country’s growing economy and burgeoning population, combined with its vulnerability to climate change, will place added pressure on its water resources.
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Study: Climate Change Threatens Major Crops in California

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California currently provides two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, but according to a new study published Tuesday…

Water is Connected to Every Major Global Risk We Face

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By Cora Kammeyer

Water crises have been among the top five global risks in each of the last seven years, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). This year is no exception. ‘Water Crises’ is listed as the fifth-most impactful risk for 2018. In addition to being a major risk in its own right, water is also linked to many other of the most significant risks, social and environmental, confronting our society today.

Defining Water Crises

“Water Crises: A significant decline in the available quality and quantity of fresh water, resulting in harmful effects on human health and/or economic activity.”

– WEF Global Risks Report 2018

While WEF’s definition of “water crises” is focused on insufficiency, it is important to remember that the world’s water challenges are not constrained to scarcity and pollution. As we have said before, physical water risks can stem from a variety of issues, including having too much water, not enough water, or water that is unfit for use. This year’s risk report highlighted all three types of water challenges: (more…)

Why Companies Should Dip Their Toes in Clean Water (and Sanitation)

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By Abbey Warner

“While considerable progress has been made over the past decade across all areas of development, the pace of progress observed in previous years is insufficient to fully meet the Sustainable Development Goals and targets by 2030.”United Nations, 2017

As of 2015, 29 percent of the world population did not have access to safely managed drinking water and 61 percent did not have access to a safely managed sanitation service, according to a World Health Organization and UNICEF report. Additionally, more than 40 percent of the global population is affected by water scarcity, and that number is projected to rise. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of global wastewater is discharged without treatment.

In 2015, the United Nations Member States committed to the 2030 Agenda, a 15-year plan to support people, the planet, and prosperity. The Agenda aims to eradicate global poverty sustainably and (more…)

The World’s Water Challenges (2017)

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By Cora Kammeyer

Water is perhaps the most vital natural resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input into our food, manufacturing, and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates upon which both our built and natural world rely.

Today we are putting more pressure on freshwater resources than ever. Between a rapidly growing population and a shifting climate, water stress – and therefore water risk –  is increasing around the world. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 is focused on water, with several sub-goals related to different water challenges. We have seen promising progress, but there is much work to be done to make water sustainability a reality before the SDG target date of 2030.

Global water stress map. Source: World Resources Institute.

Growing Water Demand and Water Scarcity

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Watershed Context & Water Stewardship Goals: Why Thinking Local is Critical to Hedging Global Corporate Water Risk

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By Morgan Campbell

What do the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, destructive monsoon flooding in Mumbai, India, Hurricane Harvey’s devastating storm surges in Texas, the recent five-year California drought, and the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico all have in common? They are all water risk events. Although they are characterized by differences in geography, they show water risks faced today are as diverse as the world’s topography and precipitation patterns. And while global pollutants, such as carbon or chlorofluorocarbons, can be addressed by global reduction initiatives, the inherently local nature of water risk requires that we weave together localized solutions to protect the future sustainability of water resources. (more…)

How Your Business Can Play a Role in Ending the Global Water and Sanitation Crisis

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By Peter Schulte

No one need explain the true value of water to 54-year-old Elizabeth and her family in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She spends more than half her meagre salary on buying drinking water from a local water vendor, as she knows the water from the nearby lake could make her unwell, unproductive and unable to provide for her family.

Elizabeth knows that installing a safe water supply and decent toilet close to her home and market stall makes good business sense. She’ll spend less money on buying water. And a decent toilet will increase her productivity and reduce her absence from work, because she’ll get sick less often. In the long-run, if $1 were invested in water and sanitation, an average of $4 would be returned in increased productivity.

Imagine now that instead of Elizabeth working at an independent market stall, she works in the supply chain of a multi-national food retailer. The lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in her workplace could cost the company millions in lost productivity; every year, the equivalent of US$4 billion in working days are lost due to poor sanitation.

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