Small Systems, Big Challenges
They are located in urban areas and in some of the most rural parts of the state, but they have at least one thing in common: they provide water service to a very small group of people. In a state where water is managed and delivered by an organization as large as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, most small water systems exist in obscurity – financed by shoestring budgets and operated by personnel who wear many hats.
As water becomes scarcer, small systems have been caught up in the problems of continuing reliable service when faced with a variety of challenges, some of which are not of their own making. They are seeking answers through industry associations and the state and federal government, which are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles small systems face.
“Given their small customer base, many small water systems cannot develop or access the technical, managerial and financial resources needed to comply with the increasing number of EPA regulations and rising customer expectations,” notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “These water systems may be geographically isolated. Their staffs often lack the time or expertise to make needed infrastructure repairs; install or operate treatment or develop comprehensive source water protection plans, financial plans or asset management plans.”
Lacking resources and managerial experience, small systems nonetheless have to find ways to distribute water drawn from limited sources to customers who in some cases are not able to financially support anything more than the break-even costs of their water service. When operational problems arise, it can mean residents make do with limited or no water service. When the problems are on the larger scale of an extended dry period or declared drought, small systems feel the pain especially hard.
“Small water systems are the first to be hit and the hardest hit when we go into drought conditions,” said John Woodling, chief of the Department of Water Resources (DWR) conjunctive water management program. Woodling and several state and local representatives discussed the issues facing small systems at a November 2007 conference sponsored by the Water Education Foundation and DWR.
DWR initiated the conference to shed light on the drought risks facing small systems and to foster actions to improve small system drought preparedness. DWR informally uses the term “small system” to mean any system not required to file an Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP). UWMPs require every urban water supplier of 3,000 or more customers or that delivers more than 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to “make every effort to ensure the appropriate level of reliability in its water service sufficient to meet the needs of its various categories of customers during normal, dry and multiple dry years.” (An acre foot of water, about 325,000 gallons, supplies the annual needs of one to two California households.)
Drought looms as a major issue facing small systems, intensifying already challenging water policy. In April, DWR released an update of its 1988 Urban Drought Guidebook to help local water agencies and communities prepare for the possibility of a dry year or water supply interruption. While in the most general sense a drought is “a deficiency of precipitation over an extended time that results in water shortages for some activity, group or environmental sector,” DWR says it “cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon.”
Most rural small systems lack a connection to the supplies of other agencies and often have limited control or knowledge of the extent of their own supplies. Consequently, they are the first to be hit by a drought and are the most impacted. Often, they rely on a single water source and their distribution systems, their largest expense, are not easily modified.
Add to that the nature of a drought. Richard Haberman, supervising sanitary engineer with the California Department of Public Health (DPH) in Fresno, noted a news story’s description of drought as the “Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters.”
“It’s not something you see coming in these dramatic pictures,” said Haberman, contrasting droughts with hurricanes and tornados. “It sneaks up on you.”
An equal threat to small systems, likely to become more severe during drought periods, is the threat of water supply contamination. “In the Central Valley, we see safe drinking water go to unsafe drinking water with an acute contamination of nitrates you don’t want to give babies in communities as the water table drops,” Haberman said. “That’s another public health concern we have. It’s … a serious problem.”
Abrupt shifts in water availability are emblematic of the fact that small water systems are usually reliant on a single source for their supply, which makes them vulnerable. In many instances that single source is groundwater, of which much remains unknown. When wells in small communities are found to have high levels of drinking water contaminants, operators are faced with how to remedy the problem and how their customers will be served in the interim.
“When you are out of water you are out of everything. If you don’tbelieve it, just try going without it for 24 hours,” said John Pinches, a Mendocino County supervisor.
The problems are compounded by the fact that many people served
by small systems are low-income or on a fixed income and cannot
afford to collectively contribute to the projects needed to
“It’s economics,” said Mel Aust, national director of the California Rural Water Association (CRWA). “It’s one of the major problems.”
CRWA estimates there are as many as 10,000 rural water systems in the state. In Tulare County alone there are 363 small water systems with fewer than 200 connections, according to the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW). The tiny scale of operation means costs are significantly more expensive. “Economies of scale make water supply and treatment much more expensive for small mutual companies than for cities,” states a 2005 EJCW report, Thirsty for Justice. “Very small water systems require 8 to 10 times as much capital per gallon of water as systems that serve over 50,000 people.”
Aust manages the Hidden Valley Lake Community Services District (CSD) in Lake County. He said it is “not the typical small community rural Mendocino County is one of the wettest areas in the state, yet small towns in thewater system in that we have a lot of [financial] resources.” Those resources are necessary to maintain vital services in a county that has 46 people per square mile. The average population concentration in California is 217 people per square mile. “That number says it all,” Aust said. “Four times the amount, four times the people that can pay for [operations and maintenance].”
The process of adjusting rates to keep pace with increasing operating costs can be a tricky proposition considering Proposition 218, which requires local governments to have a vote of affected property owners for any new or increased assessment. Because of that, sources say it is important for small systems to effectively communicate their needs to their customers to facilitate rate adjustments.
According to EPA, small systems comprise more than 94 percent of the nation’s 156,000 public water systems. In California, many small systems are located in mountainous, desert or coastal regions with groundwater sources that are especially vulnerable to drought. Others are in rural farm communities with limited finances and the inability to deal with extensive contamination issues.
California officials acknowledge the plight of small systems has historically received little attention from the state and oversight is fragmented among multiple jurisdictions. Small systems are regulated by the DPH, which in some cases has delegated its primary authority to local county health agencies. Private water companies are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the rates that can be charged to consumers. Mutual water companies are owned by the property owners (shareholders) within the service area of the water system. Their rates are not regulated by the PUC and their income is derived from established rates and, in the case of emergencies, by assessments on the individual shareholders.
Jack Hawks, executive director of the California Water Association, which represents the private regulated water utilities, said the last few years have shown the need for financial assistance to keep owner-operators from funding operating expenses from their own pocket.
“Some small systems haven’t been adjusting their rates to keep pace with the rising cost of service, nor have they been to the PUC for a general rate case in many years,” he said, adding that it is an “intimidating proposition” to come before the PUC to request a rate increase.
DWR’s involvement with small systems increased following the Governor’s Advisory Drought Planning Panel analysis that recommended assistance to small systems and homeowners in rural counties, especially the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and communities along the North and Central Coast.
“The drought panel was the first time DWR was directed to take a
good look at the 90 percent of water systems in California
(represented by small systems) and address some of the issues
around drought,” said Woodling. “We have traditionally focused on
the 10 percent of systems that are interconnected throughout the
provide 90 percent of the water.”
Since the drought panel’s report, DWR has responded with educational outreach, grant funding, installation of production and monitoring wells, help with leak detection and the establishment of a drought preparedness website. In the process, DWR has increased its knowledge of the thousands of rural systems throughout the state.
“One of the first things we realized was we really don’t know much about small water systems,” Woodling said. “They’re not the systems we generally work with. The CRWA helped us develop a database.”
Those in rural areas say it is important for officials to realize that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the oversight, regulation and management of water systems. “We need to recognize that rural systems are different,” said Amador County Supervisor Richard Forster. “We have hundreds of customers vs. hundreds of thousands of customers.”
Most rural water providers “should be classified as mini systems not small systems,” said Forster, adding that “maybe a new designation would help them get the appropriate amount of funding.” The differences in the economy of scale of urban and rural water agencies means the former are in a much better position to make system improvements when they are needed. “It’s like looking at me and Shaquille O’Neal,” Forster said. “There is a huge difference between urban and rural systems.”
As they forge ahead, small systems are looking to associations such as the CRWA to help them find ways to access grant funding or comply with drinking water regulations. Also lending assistance is the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which is recognizing that small systems face challenges unique and separate from other water providers.
“Two issues I keep running across are the ability of small agencies to get funding and coping with the regulatory agencies, especially the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and the Coastal Commission,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of ACWA. “Regulatory compliance is often terribly expensive for them on a per capita basis and they have difficulty competing with the big agencies for grant money.”
This issue of Western Water, based on the presentations at the Small Systems Conference, examines the challenges facing small water systems, including drought preparedness, limited operating expenses and the hurdles of complying with costlier regulations.
Click here to purchase a copy of the complete article.
This issue of Western Water is about how people in rural areas of California often depend on small systems to provide their drinking water. Writer Gary Pitzer’s article is about the people and organizations operating these small systems, often just wells. In this dry year, the communities in which these small systems are located face increased risks of unreliability and the need for information to prepare for drought years and increasing regulations. People are put in a very tough position when water service is reduced or shut down due to water quantity or quality problems.
The story about people put on a water mandatory water budget got me thinking about articles I have been reading about our water footprint. In 2003 I wrote in this column about ecological footprints – the measure of our impact on the world and the area required producing the resources consumed and absorbing the wastes generated by each person. Now water footprints are in vogue. Your individual water footprint can be calculated by taking a test about where you live, home indoor and outdoor water use, your diet and other daily activities such as driving and recycling.
As I clicked through the test on my computer, I realized you definitely want to answer the questions on the “low” end of the water use scale. So I found it a little painful to be brutally honest in my answers. Just for the record, our family did come out below the average American use of 1,190.5 gallons of water per day! You can calculate your water footprint at several websites including www.h2oconserve.org
Related to the water footprint is the concept of “virtual water.” Virtual water also includes the idea of the volume of water needed to produce food. Professor John Allan from King’s College London was given the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize for introducing the virtual water concept. In the early 1990s, he was studying the option of importing virtual water as a partial solution to problems of water scarcity in the Middle East. He suggests moving water-intensive commodities from places where they are economically viable to grow to places they are not. Professor Allan wants to import food as an alternative water “source” to reduce pressure on domestic water resources. He explains how nations such as the U.S. “export” billions of liters of water each year, while other countries including Japan, Egypt and Italy “import” billions. Although there seems to be some critics of the idea because his theory assumes that all sources of water - whether from rain, irrigation or desalination – are of equal value, his theory brings another way of drawing attention to and weighing our water use.
In California, March and April were the driest two months in the northern Sierra since 1921, the first year records were kept, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The state’s final 2008 snow survey indicated snow water content of 67 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the Colorado River Basin remains in a drought. As water districts across California and the West call for voluntary conservation, some areas especially hard hit have instituted mandatory cutbacks.
And that brings us back to this issue of the magazine and the problems of those people operating the small water systems, which have a higher per capita cost for system operations and maintenance. Compounding the problem is that many of these small systems serve low- and fixed-income people. The good news we learned researching this issues is that the state of California can help through technical support, grant funding and installation of wells.
Have a good summer while you use water wisely.
In the News
Agencies Aim To Trim Water Use Amid Consecutive Dry Years
Consecutive dry years have prompted water agencies to institute measures designed to intensify water savings. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has launched a Drought Management Program that includes mandatory restrictions to attain a targeted 15 percent reduction in water use throughout its service area.
EBMUD received about half its normal runoff in the 2008 water
year and projects its water storage will be short by at least
200,000 acre-feet than the amount desired on October 1, the
beginning of a new water year. (The water year runs from
September 30-October 1.)
The calendar year 2008 began with a wet January and February, followed by virtually no significant rain or snow in March and April. Combined, the two months are the driest in the northern Sierra since 1921, the first year records were kept, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The state’s final 2008 snow survey indicated snow water content of 67 percent of normal.
The lack of water “further underscore the need for immediate
action to solve California’s water supply and delivery problems,”
DWR Director Lester Snow said in a press release.
According to DWR, the snow’s water content is being absorbed by soil still parched from last year’s dry weather. Water runoff into streams and reservoirs is only 55 to 65 percent of normal. At press time, Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), was at 48 percent of capacity, and 58 percent of average storage for this time of year.
Exacerbating the problem are court-ordered restrictions on Delta water exports limiting water deliveries to protect the threatened Delta smelt. DWR estimates that it will only be able to deliver 35 percent of requested SWP water this year to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.
Throughout California, water agencies are asking their customers to voluntarily reduce water use by as much as 20 percent through measures such as limiting outdoor irrigation. The San Diego County Water Authority is promoting increased voluntary water conservation since the early 1990s and hopes to achieve 56,000 acre-feet of water savings in 2008.
Former and current elected officials have weighed in on California’s water woes. In a May 8 opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times, former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis noted that “future water supply reliability will increasingly depend on local self-help measures such as conservation, reuse, more below-ground storage of surplus supplies and even desalination.” Four days later, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi unveiled a plan called “H2O 2.0” that would enable more water to be stored behind dams when “real time” data indicates a low risk of flooding.
The Colorado River Basin – in the grips of an eight-year drought – received some good news in April when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that an above average snowpack (conditions on May 6 were 102 percent of normal as compared to 46 percent of normal in 2007) will result in a higher than normal inflow into Lake Powell. The projected runoff into Lake Powell will be 122 percent of average, raising the lake level approximately 50 feet by mid-July – its highest elevation in six years, according to Reclamation. Under terms of the interim shortage criteria signed in December, Lake Powell will increase its releases to Lake Mead. Although it appears hydrologic conditions have improved this year, officials are not yet ready to declare that the drought is over, and with reservoir storage at roughly 50 percent of capacity, it will take many years of above-average runoff for Powell and Mead to fully recover.