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Capturing El Niño, Part II: The System that Works Best

Technology can only do so much if the people using it don't operate an efficient system.

For all the benefits technology might bring to California water management, it all sits on the idea that the people using it will use it cooperatively.

Celeste Cantu believes that the best way to manage water begins and ends with one idea: Watersheds are naturally occurring systems, and in order to use them efficiently, everybody involved in that system needs to work together.

“It’s not technology that helps us to see the hydrologic function of the watershed,” said Cantu, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. “It’s your ability to see past your boundaries.”

Watersheds begin in California’s mountains. That’s where clouds coming in from the oceans release their payloads, dumping rain and snow into the forests. Meadows clean up that water along the way, putting it into underground aquifers and rivers. Plants and animals use the water until it gets to a town, which uses it for everything from cooking to washing cars. Then the town puts it back in the river, and more plants and animals use it until it gets to the next town — and on and on, until it reaches the ocean again.

But all along the way, a drop of water never truly changes. The same bundle of atoms — two hydrogen, one oxygen — that falls out of the sky is the one that is eventually released back into the Pacific.

“Our goal is to allow for more uses of that [drop],” she said.

Left to itself, all the pieces of a watershed naturally work together. But in California, a state always more challenged for hydration than its eastern counterparts, the watersheds have served as a political battleground, and settlers have built an extensive infrastructure into the mix — reservoirs capture the water, pipelines carry artificial rivers of the stuff across hundreds of miles and in Los Angeles, one river now sits on a concrete bed.

And unlike the natural components of a watershed, the human-built pieces of the system don’t always work together.

“You may have a city water department, you may have another city wastewater [department], then you have a stormwater [department], which is usually managed by the counties … then you have wholesaler water districts,” Cantu said.

There are always myriad entities working in a given California watershed, she said, and often they compete with each other for the resource instead of working together to get the most out of it. But since the state Legislature passed the Regional Water Management Planning Act in 2002, that paradigm has been changing bit by bit.

As a rule, Cantu said, it’s best for every agency in a watershed to work together — even if it’s not obvious why.

“If you’re going to practice integrated water management, it’s just short-sighted to not include everyone,” she said. “Everyone needs to be included, and it needs to be defined by the … hydrologic region.”

California regulators call the practice “integrated regional water management (IRWM),” and since 2002, voters have approved $1.5 billion in bond money to support the creation of entities that bring multiple parties in a watershed to the same table. Because the state’s definition of cooperative groups allows for only a few entities to work together instead of all the agencies in a watershed, Cantu doesn’t believe the policy has done as much as it could. In many places, IRWM entities consist of only three agencies and can either work separately from or actively work against the other agencies using the same water for different purposes.

But the threat of increasing global temperatures — bringing with it more drought — is looming over state policy and has already begun to impact it on a large scale. As that’s happening, Cantu, along with state regulators, consultants and many others in the state, are seeing more and more reasons to take a cooperation-based approach to using water.

Arthur Hinojosa, chief of the state Department of Water Resources’ Division of IRWM, said a lack of cooperation can mean time and money wasted on unnecessary projects.

“If you’re trying to protect your … development from a creek that tends to flood it on a regular basis, you might say, ‘Let’s build a wall or levee to keep the floodwaters out,’” he said. “If you’re not talking to anyone else, you spend all this money and build a levee. But then down the creek there’s somebody saying, ‘Hey, I want to get some more water flow through.’”

A siloed approach to watershed management also creates an opportunity cost — water that might have been used many times before it reaches the ocean might instead be used only a few times.

“By managing consistently with the hydrologic system on a watershed basis, that in itself does not inspire more conservation,” Cantu said. “But if we become more … efficient in our use, that really maximizes the benefits of having this kind of watershed strategy. And the reason is … when we are not very good water users, not very efficient water users, we end up putting about twice as much water as is necessary on our yards. And once we put that water on our yards, we kind of lose control of it.”

There are a few problems with lawn watering. A big one is that people tend to do it inefficiently, Cantu said. Homeowners will use automatic sprinklers that water the lawn whether it needs it or not. They might also water grass too much or too often.

Another problem is that lawn-watering often allows water to exit the system and puts it out of reach for water managers like Cantu.

“Some of that may percolate into aquifers and replenish them, but some of it may percolate into aquifers that are of no use to us,” she said. “They’re contaminated or they’re not functional, but they’re of no use to us.”

If they cooperate, agencies in a watershed can look for ways to either reduce grass use or to simply water grass more efficiently. That could come in the form of directly controlled projects in public spaces or in the form of influencing private residents and businesses. According to Cantu, government suggestions can very much reduce grass watering — as an example, she pointed to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for citizens to use less water. Local jurisdictions in the state each have their own targets, and have conducted public awareness campaigns urging citizens to cut back on lawn watering. The majority of water suppliers have been able to meet their targets each month they’ve been in effect.

Then there’s the water that falls out of the sky. While Southern California does capture some of it, a lot of the stuff that could be used to refill underground aquifers winds up simply running back into the ocean — another unrealized opportunity.

So here’s a state, dumping water onto lawns and into out-of-reach aquifers, letting stormwater go without capturing nearly as much as it could, allowing pollution to run into its watersheds, and all the while adding more thirsty people and businesses.

That’s where the soft infrastructure component comes in. In Los Angeles, for instance, Geosyntec has recommended that the Department of Water and Power (DWP) form a joint powers authority or some other cooperative agreement with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in order to work together on projects to capture more stormwater. In the same document, Geosyntec also called on LADWP to work with the Los Angeles Unified School District on such projects and explore the possibility of setting up a multi-agency funding partnership to finance stormwater capture systems.

It’s not just L.A. According to the state Department of Water Resources, there are 48 IRWM “regions” in the state that cover 87 percent of California’s geographic area and 99 percent of its population.

On top of it all, the department itself is working on a strategic IRWM plan it hopes will strengthen the watershed management groups in the state.

“It’s the way progressive water managers are moving,” Cantu said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.