Conservation Scorecard: Background

California has long been a leader in water conservation programs, developing new technologies and approaches that have been copied worldwide. Much of this innovation has been in direct response to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed since 1991 by water providers throughout California pledging to do best management practices (BMPs) that are cost effective. Significant conservation implementation has been accomplished in the 15 years since the MOU was first adopted. However, it has been difficult to accurately assess the actual "success" of each of the best management practices. Even though the MOU sets forth a number of options for complying with the practices, the resulting patchwork quilt of individual water provider compliance has been confusing to decipher.

The California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC), the "keeper" of the MOU, built in 1999 a detailed web-based reporting system for compiling this information for individual water providers as well for individual BMPs. The data in these reports are publicly viewable on the CUWCC web site. But until now interpreting the reports and making comparisons has been difficult because of the lack of an aggregated summary.

This Water Conservation Scorecard compiles into a single public document for the very first time all of the conservation reports from retail water utilities across California that are participating in the CUWCC. The report shows how well each water utility has fulfilled its commitment to implement the fourteen BMPs for water efficiency. The compliance records are presented in an understandable graphic format familiar to consumers. Water usage data for each utility are also presented using three different metrics: average gallons per residential connection per utility, and two different approaches to gallons per capita per day (gpcd) for each utility.

2007 marks the end of a ten-year reporting period during which each CUWCC member had committed to voluntarily complete implementation of all fourteen BMPs. Signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that created CUWCC made voluntarily completing all fourteen BMPs within ten years the policy of each signatory water agency. Significant regulatory measures and third party litigation were set aside in the water wars of the early 1990's because of the stated intention to achieve the water efficiency promises made by commitment to the MOU. With the end of this ten year period upon us, and with new calls for water savings from the Governor and the legislature, it is important to look at how well we are doing.

There are some important caveats to this analysis. First, the scorecard only compiles information that has been reported by water providers and cannot de facto include information that has not been submitted. Second, a water provider may be doing conservation programs that are not part of the list of the fourteen best management practices, and therefore the agency might not have a platform for reporting that activity. Third and most important, a water provider may have legitimate grounds for a cost effectiveness exemption but it might not have performed that analysis and filed it with the CUWCC in an official exemption request. Thus, for these reasons, the Water Conservation Scorecard results are an initial compliance picture that will need more complete review in the long run.

Based on the available CUWCC reports, the Water Conservation Scorecard data currently shows:

  • Only four water utilities successfully implemented all fourteen BMPs; only two completed all fourteen BMPs without declaring an exemption of some kind — City of Rohnert Park and City of Santa Rosa.

  • About 15% of the water utilities did not report compliance data at all.

  • Only 5 of 14 BMPs show more than 75% of water utilities in compliance.

  • The chart below summarizes BMP compliance results:

    Stacked column chart showing, for BMP, the number of members reporting compliance.

    The 2005-6 reporting period is the latest completed data that shows how well water utilities are doing in complying with the ten-year commitment; the full ten-year data from 2007 will be available at the end of the 2008 two-year reporting cycle. "New members" in the 2005-6 two-year cycle do not file, and are indicated in purple [top of columns]. "Non-reporting" members are shown in light blue [just below the top of columns]. "Not-on-track" indicates minimal or no activity for that BMP reported by the agency; "Partial" indicates substantial effort toward compliance. However, "Performing" [bottom of columns] is the only category representing successful compliance to the voluntary goals established by becoming a signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding.

Despite the inadequacies of a voluntary compliance program, the fourteen Best Management Practices continue to be viewed as important actions for all water utilities, and are in dynamic evolution, not a static condition. In 2008, CUWCC has undertaken an extensive process to revise and refine several of the BMPs, to streamline the approach to all BMPs and to improve accountability and reporting methodologies. The major revision process is scheduled for completion December 2008. During the past fifteen years since its inception, CUWCC itself has developed strength and capacity to manage complex data that agencies submit, provide technical assistance and training workshops, produce high quality publications, create an award-winning website, conduct substantial research, manage implementation projects, and conduct collaborative forums for problem-solving. However, as a nonprofit, CUWCC has no authority to require BMP compliance or data reporting.

Using existing CUWCC data reports, the Water Conservation Scorecard also suggests that BMP reporting is an incomplete measure for assessing the success of water utilities and water use efficiency. Some overall observations are:

  • Measuring BMP implementation does not easily convert to measuring water use efficiency savings. Many BMPs are non-quantifiable as to how much water they really save (public information programs, for example). Those BMPs that are quantifiable have been well studied and have been modeled by the CUWCC on the BMP reporting web site for their annual as well as cumulative water savings, based on data from the numerous field studies available. However, these cumulative savings numbers still represent a partial picture of water saved statewide.

  • Data collection protocols differ among agencies; standardizing approaches is essential to ensuring that the data can be productively compared. Providing background data is currently not required as part of the BMP reporting process, and many agencies did not.

  • Measuring statewide water efficiency based on the subset of 200+ CUWCC signatory agencies is not adequate. There are over 1000 water utilities in California, although many of them are very small agencies. Roughly 450 water providers are of a size greater than 3,000 connections or serving 3,000 or more acre-feet per year. The CUWCC signatories represent about half that that number but approximately 80% of the delivered water in the State (including both wholesale and retail agencies).

  • A voluntary approach to fully implementing BMPs does not appear to have been compelling for all water utilities. Successful agencies appear to conserve due to local, intrinsic drivers, not statewide concepts of beneficial use of water.

California water use efficiency as a whole has improved in the past two decades, though very unevenly. Some utilities have very successful programs, and fortunately many of those are large urban water purveyors and/or wholesale water suppliers. Examples are the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the same quantity of water is used now as twenty years ago despite dramatic population growth. But many mid-size and smaller utilities have been lagging; some entire regions have shown little progress in applying water use efficiencies, like the Central Valley areas. Outdoor landscape conservation has lagged behind indoor conservation measures, and yet landscaping constitutes a growing 50-75% of water use, depending on location in the state (marine vs. inland, north vs. south, etc.). Recent studies are showing that often new homes are using more water than older homes, in spite of modern, efficient fixtures mandated by plumbing codes. Water is following wealth, with the market offering lush landscaping, huge houses, pools, hot tubs and water amenities as part of its display.

Meanwhile, non-locally derived water supplies are becoming less reliable. Ecosystems, like the Delta, are suffering from multiple stressors and are likely to receive more water for restoration, sustainability and resiliency. Historic planning assumptions pertaining to water supply availability from entire watersheds, like the Colorado, are subject to increasing skepticism about their long term accuracy; combined with uncertainties associated with climate change, the notion of "firm yield" is becoming a practical fiction. Demands for additional environmental water are being made in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) dam re-licensing processes. The revelation that about one-fifth of California's electric energy consumption is used to supply water, with one-third of California's gas consumption used to heat that water, has finally productively married energy efficiency with water efficiency. Reducing the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) footprint of providing water supply becomes another driver under AB 32. The drivers for conservation are significant and compelling. Consequently, expectations of improved BMP compliance and movement to the next generation of BMPs and accountability is reasonable, an appropriate step in the right and necessary direction if we are to meet the demands of growing population while preserving California's economic and environmental vitality.

The potential for more water conservation has been well assessed and is considerable. Department of Water Resources (DWR) has compiled the statewide potential for water conservation as well as almost all other resources in Bulletin 160-2005. The chart cited below from Bulletin 160 shows that the most available capacity among all resource areas is water conservation. DWR used cost estimates of no more than $230-522 per AF for 3.1 million acre-feet (AF) of available conservation, shown in the chart below from DWR Bulletin 160.

Column chart comparing various sources of water capacity from low (precipitation enhancement) to high (applied urban water use efficiency).

An independent study conducted by Pacific Institute in 2003 entitled "Waste Not, Want Not" concluded the available conservation was 3.5 million AF, using existing technology and a $600 per AF investment cap. Pacific Institute has noted that since their report a number of new technologies have been developed which make their estimates more conservative, like evapo-transpiration (ET) controllers for landscape irrigation. On the other hand, some of the conservation potential stated in 2003 has since been captured. Pacific Institute noted in their comprehensive report: "The availability of good data is a major constraint to comprehensive assessment of conservation potential." However, it is increasingly clear that conservation represents the greatest potential for increasing our water supply, and is generally the most favorable option in its costs and benefits.

POWER has defined seven challenges to water utilities in order to improve water use efficiency in California. POWER believes that water conservation is our first priority in the order of water resource options, and that it is our duty to first use water well and achieve excellence in efficiency and beneficial use. POWER believes that we can not only attain the Governor's stated goal of 20% reduction in per capita consumption by 2020, but that we can significantly surpass that goal, and in so doing our quality of life will be enhanced. Our local, state, and global environment will be improved; our personal and community economies will be healthier; and our relationship to where we live will be enriched. To accomplish excellence fully, we will have to change how we think about making our choices. An example is to integrate the energy intensity imbedded in water into the analysis of costs and benefits, and to incorporate greenhouse gas emission analysis as well. An integrated approach to valuing our resources will make conservation potential even more attractive, as shown by the chart below developed by Dr. Robert Wilkinson of UCSB.

Column chart comparing the kilowatt hours per acre-foot in various water supply sources.

Our good fortune is that water resource options with the least energy intensity are the most abundant. These new analysis tools will help us make the right choice — focus on conservation and re-use first. The good news is we have plenty of opportunity.

POWER developed the Water Conservation Scorecard to help us reflect on how well we are doing, and to challenge us to make the right decisions for continual improvement. Additional information and source data are available at this website. Examples of agency excellence in conservation are also presented on the site to point the way.

©2018, P.O.W.E.R.