Investing in a route out of drought Q&A

Water efficiency is no longer a wish-list item or an afterthought – it is a reality that Californians must face together. On Oct. 19, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for the entire state of California, as water saving efforts continue to fall short of the state’s voluntary targets.  

This month, we sat down with the Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) Board Director Bruce Whitaker for a Q&A about regional efforts to mitigate drought, the use of reclaimed water and what the future holds for Southern California’s water infrastructure. Whitaker is also SAWPA’s Vice Chair/Commissioner, serves on the One Watershed One Water (OWOW) Steering Committee and is the Mayor of Fullerton, California.  

Q&A with Bruce Whitaker 

OCWD Board Director Bruce Whitaker

Q: With Governor Newsom recently declaring a drought emergency, it seems more important than ever to help educate consumers. What does drought mitigation mean to you? 

A:  To me, drought mitigation means reducing water use to the greatest extent possible. If we can curtail water waste and the overuse of water, it can make a big impact here in Southern California. The idea is to reduce now for the longer term.  

Q: Tell us about the drought mitigation efforts that OCWD and other Southern California regional groups have initiated during your tenure.

A: Drought mitigation in the long-term means making sure we have resiliency. We need to be able to provide adequate amounts of water to meet requirements. We need to make sure that when you turn on the tap or fire up a fire hose, that clean, safe water comes out. That means that we want to have multiple sources in our water supply. We try to have as many opportunities as possible to help augment our supplies – especially in the very populous area that we occupy.  

For example, the OCWD operates the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS), and we are in the middle of a final expansion of that now. It is effectively a new source of water. We recycle runoff and used water, and then we get a second use of that valuable resource.  

OCWD is also very active in the Santa Ana River Conservation and Conjunctive Use Program (SARCCUP), which allows for storage that can be accessible to other areas if they develop shortfalls of water supplies. 

We have been making use of federal government support through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which has allowed us to come up with funds to augment and increase water storage and our ability to impound water to be able to recharge our reservoirs and recharge basins. This helps us build insurance against a low water supply.  

Q:What are the key public misconceptions about recycled water?

A: OCWD works very hard in our communication efforts to combat misconceptions about recycled water and change the public perception of it. Our water, when it comes out of the GWRS, is ultra-pure. The nature of ultra-pure water is corrosive to stainless steel pipes, so we actually have to add back in minerals and normalize the PH. Otherwise, we could have infrastructure issues.  

People should have no concern about the safety of this water. I like to say that water is the most renewable of all our resources.  

Q:  How is OCWD investing in local and sustainable water supplies?

A: We serve 19 cities and water agencies that in turn serve 2.5 million customers.

We are blessed here at the Orange County Water District to have a wonderful aquifer that underlies two thirds of Orange County – the northern and the central portions of the county. 

This low-cost source of water is naturally purified. We have recharge basins that we own and operate in the cities of Anaheim and Orange which are adjacent to the Santa Ana River. Mother Nature has a great purification plan, and we make the best use we can of that natural resource.  

Q: What ways can the public help with drought mitigation? 

A: Stop watering non-essential turf. A couple of years ago, we were all encouraged to go xeriscape with our lawns. For the average residential use of water, more than half is used for landscaping purposes.  

Many agencies and local water providers offer incentives for water-efficient appliances such as water saving toilets, faucets, showers and more. We do a lot to encourage reduced use and that is working. In the past 20 years in California, we have had substantial population growth, yet the amount of water we are using is about the same as it was 20 years ago.  

Keep the conversation flowing by following us on social media and sharing your water-saving strategies! 

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Twitter: @SoCalTapWater 

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