By Bob Nieman | Jan 31, 2011
Adan Ortega, Jr. has devoted most of his 25-year career as a senior executive in strategic planning and communications in the public sector and business arena playing prominent roles with agencies and on governing boards of organizations such as Whittier College, Heal the Bay and the National Audubon Society. In addition to his activities at Adan Ortega Associated, he is managing partner of Water Conservation Partners, Inc., a company serving property developers and water planners.
For four years ending in 2009, Ortega was deputy director at the public affairs firm of Rose & Kindel and worked with various agencies of the City of Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Neenah Foundries, Calleguas Municipal Water District, the California Metals Coalition, the California Charter Schools Association, and was a key member of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan team.
Ortega helped the Water Replenishment District in Los Angeles County to evaluate and organize its communications and lobbying team, helping to also recruit key staff. He is currently engaged with the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District providing contract services as he helps the agency build internal capacity. He also continues to represent a coalition of neighborhood organizations headed by the William C. Velazquez Institute seeking economic and environmental equity in land use and water issues in Los Angeles.
What factors drive today’s water supply?
Two of the things that have been huge factors in California – and are going to become greater factors across the country – are technology and toxicology. Basically, the technology is evolving to the point where we can begin to detect contaminants like Chromium-6, Perchlorate and NDMA. In fact, the technology is now able to detect the presence of some of these chemicals at smaller and smaller levels, with the public expectation that somebody do something to reduce these chemicals in the water supply.
To the end, for example, water agencies often will blend their various supplies. If you’re in southern California, Nevada or parts of Arizona or Colorado, you will find that they have a diversified water supply that depends in part on imported water from other areas. What ends up happening there is you’ve got to blend the water to reduce your treatment costs. And if you can’t accomplish your blending requirements, you end up without water.
For instance, in southern California, we blend our groundwater with northern California water and Colorado River water. Colorado River water is very high in salt, so if they can’t get northern California water to dilute that Colorado River water, there is no water – because you can’t put the salty water into the system without causing corrosion within the infrastructure.
So, technology and, of course, the need to protect the public from toxics are becoming a greater arbiter of how much water is available.
You also write about “knowledge change,” as opposed to climate change, with regard to the water supply. Can you explain that?
Simply because of the expansion of technology, we’re starting to learn that the original water systems that were built in many parts of the United States, particularly in the Southwest, were based on hydrological assumptions that turned out to be false.
For example, we’ve got the great aqueduct systems in New York and here in California, which kind of evolved at the same time. And the way they determined how much of the system to build by referring to hydrological records that spanned a period of about 100 years. Based on those records, they had an expectation of how much water we would have – and they built systems to reflect those figures.
Unfortunately, we’re now finding out that the last 100 years in many parts of the country were abnormally wet. So, on average, we have come to expect less.
Also, many people will attribute the torrential rains that we’ve seen this year, for example, to climate change. However, if you look at tree-ring data, you will see that some of these patterns have existed for thousands of years.
So the kind of infrastructure – as well as the size, durability and capacity of that infrastructure – has to be recalibrated as its being rehabilitated. That’s going to drive costs for water. And it’s going to affect how much water is available and what the quality of that water is. It’s also going to affect land planning, because we’re going to need to figure out different ways of, for example, making sure we’re taking advantage of storm water.
What is your prediction for the water supply in the future?
The prediction is that it’s less predictable. And, if you talk to the scientists, that’s what they’ll tell you.
For example, this year we had La Nina conditions out in the South Pacific, which is the driver of weather patterns in much of the United States and the world. La Nina conditions usually predict drought and yet, as we speak, we’ve got 49 states covered with snow and California has an overabundance of water. So, I guess the prediction is that water supplies will be less predictable.
What factors drive water rates?
The bottom line here is water quality and aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers conducted a study on the cost to replace today’s degrading infrastructure, and it’s going to cost more to rehabilitate the current system than it cost to build the original one.
So, are we going to keep putting band-aides on the degrading water systems, or are we going to fix them comprehensively? That will determine water rates.
Comparatively speaking, water rates in most parts of the country are much lower than people’s telephone bills, cable bills and electrical bills, when accounting strictly for consumption.
One of the major problems is that the water rates people pay are highly deceptive. If you combine the cost of water fully loaded, what it costs to bring that water to a place where it can be used and then how much it costs to treat that water after you use it, I think we can build a greater tolerance for what it would cost to truly fix the system. We need to integrate how we manage water as a way of being able to make the case to the public as to why it’s going to cost more to get it and treat it after we use it.
Water rates are going up. They have to. The question is not that they’re going up, but how much. If we choose to continue putting band-aides on the system, you’re going to see more moderate rate increases in the immediate future, with a doomsday scenario when those band-aides fail to work. And then we’ll have to make major investment without having a choice. Right now, we have a choice as to how we rebuild the system.
Are there certain areas of the country that are in more dire situations than others?
The tendency has been to make the major investments in areas that are newly developed. In terms of cost, the greater cost burden is going to be in rehabilitating areas in the inner cities, because you have to remove a lot of other infrastructure first; if you’re going to replace a sewer pipe or a water distribution line, you have to remove the street and move other types of infrastructure like communications lines. Also, it could be that, in some cases, water delivery systems are too close to sewage systems, in which case they would have to conduct some major relocation.
So, I think older communities face the burden of the greater cost on infrastructure. That’s something to anticipate, and it’s a reason for what I call “nontraditional stakeholders” to start chiming in with these water agencies.
With water agencies, are coin laundries even on the radar?
They’re on the radar whenever the agencies have rebates that they want to encourage laundries to take. But there is a degree of separation, because many of the rebate programs are driven by third parties.
For example, in southern California, the commercial industrial program is managed by Honeywell. So there is a degree of separation, and it’s not always the case that the water agencies – while they may be putting millions of dollars out in incentives – are conscious of who is taking those incentives.
The other factor here that coin laundry owners need to be aware of is that, in many instances, there is a big difference between a publicly regulated private utility and public water agencies. And it’s the private sector that, in some cases, performs better.
For example, if you have a regulated water utility that invests money into conservation, most public utility commissions that regulate rates will allow these utilities to recover from their customers. With the public water agencies, it takes a water rate increase. So what happens is that public water agencies will often see conservation as a burden, because it’s costing them sales. The way to win the hearts and minds of water agencies isn’t always by telling them that you’re conserving water.
It turns out that in the cases where they’ve integrated the management of water so that it accounts for the cost of both the supply and the discharge treatment, they’re going to see the value in water conservation, because if you conserve water, it means you can also reduce the demands on your sewer system.
But, unless the administration and management of those functions are integrated, they will not see the benefit. I think there is a lot of lip service that public agencies give to conservation that, once the drought is declared over, all bets are off – and they’re back to a more passive position on conservation.
What can laundry owners do to conserve water and save money?
I think saving money is going to have to do with things that indirectly affect equipment. For instance, I know that some laundromats are equipped with small reverse osmosis systems to remove salts in the water than can corrode the equipment. One of the things the laundry industry can do is look for new, lower cost methods of dealing with the salt question.
Also, there has been a movement in California to prevent the discharge of salt into sewers because of the difficulty in using recycled water. So, one of the things the industry can do is be proactive in salt management.
In addition, it would be good for the laundry industry to begin looking to diversify the kind of water it uses as sources. For example, depending on the cost of water in the system, would it be prudent to begin using rooftop cisterns to offset the use of water? New facilities can start thinking about those kinds of things. If supply becomes a bigger issue, that question will outrank the issue of cost. All things being equal, your competitors would be raising their prices along with the cost of water, and you would have the edge by doing some of these other things.
In southern California, there is growing tolerance for recycled water. In Orange County, for example, it’s been a pretty open fact that we’re now using recycled water to replenish the ground water basin, so we’re drinking reclaimed water here already.
As these issues of water supply and scarcity become less elastic, we’re going to have to make room for these things. The laundry owner needs to keep up with the latest information to take advantage of various technologies that are emerging, as well as any incentives that the water agencies may have.
It sounds like a new world out there, regarding water.
But you can write the rules. Like I tell people at the presentations I give across the country, if you know little about water, welcome to the club.
(Don’t miss Adan Ortega’s presentation at Clean 2011 in Las Vegas this June.)