Opinion

Keeping our water on when the power goes off

A view of homes and stores along Bridgeway Street, Sausalito.(Photo: Boris Vetshev, viua Shutterstock)

During last month’s PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, like so many across California, my family lost electricity for four days. We couldn’t turn on the lights, access the internet or charge our phones.

But we didn’t lose water for a moment, thanks to the steps our water provider had taken to prepare for this kind of emergency. I sit on the board of that utility, and am proud to say that, while 95 percent of our customers lost power that week, virtually none lost water.

With fossil fuel emissions driving climate change, we simply can’t rely on gas-powered generators to run water systems built for another era.

Like other water providers, Marin Municipal Water District has planned access to backup generators to keep its pumps, treatment facilities and other systems running during power outages. Staff and management are prepared to pivot to ensure a smooth transition, respond to customer concerns and communicate with local partners.

These steps help keep water flowing to our homes and businesses, but they are not a complete solution.

With fossil fuel emissions driving climate change, we simply can’t rely on gas-powered generators to run water systems built for another era.

As we look ahead to another decade of intermittent power outages and a future with more droughts, fires and floods, we need to adapt our shared plumbing to be more water and energy-efficient. Both utilities and customers have a role to play in creating a more resilient water grid.

Wherever you live in the Golden State, the water that you use to make coffee and brush your teeth has traveled through miles of ditches and pipes before reaching your taps. California’s network of dams, reservoirs, canals and pumps is a jaw-dropping feat of engineering, and the backbone of our economy. We have to keep these waterworks running, whatever the weather brings.

But, as the changing climate introduces new stresses, we have the opportunity to expand the way we think about water infrastructure.

Many water suppliers offer cash-for-grass programs to help homeowners cover the cost of turf replacement.

The next wave of water innovation is more green than grey, relying on hard-working plants and new technology to make wiser use–and reuse–of the water we already have. It consists of a series of small steps distributed across communities.

Utilities are already investing in localized solutions. Los Angeles has replaced 48 million square feet of grass with native plants, saving two billion gallons of water. It has also doubled down on green roofs, trees, and rain gardens to recharge groundwater and reducing polluted runoff. San Francisco is working to increase the use of recycled water in new developments.

Individuals and businesses are taking action as well, with appliance upgrades, leak detection and smart irrigation systems, and landscape changes. With outdoor watering accounting for half of California’s drinking water use, swapping out thirsty lawns is one of the most important steps we can take.

Many water suppliers offer cash-for-grass programs to help homeowners cover the cost of turf replacement. Unfortunately, the tax exemption for those rebates expired last year, creating an administrative headache for utilities and consumers. When the legislature reconvenes, urban water suppliers will again urge lawmakers to renew that exemption so we can accelerate the transition from water-guzzling grass to beautiful, low-water landscaping.

Every drop saved reduces the amount of freshwater local suppliers have to pump to homes and businesses, and wastewater we have to treat. That increases the likelihood that all suppliers across the state can maintain essential services whatever mother nature throws at us.

In the 20th century, human ingenuity made it possible for us to grow prosperous cities and productive farms in the driest parts of our state.

Today, we can apply that same spirit of ingenuity and cooperation to meet 21st century challenges.

Ed’s Note: Cynthia Koehler is executive director of the WaterNow Alliance, and a Board Member with Marin Municipal Water District.


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