Adapting to New Water Realities in Sydney and Los Angeles: NGIN-LADWP Roundtable on Water Resiliency


During the previous three years of drought, California managed to reduce water consumption by 7 percent; still not achieving  Governor Newsom’s goal of a 15 percent reduction. In this excerpt from the online NGIN-LADWP Roundtable on Water Resiliency on July 5, Network for Global Innovation CEO and Founder Fred Walti discussed the contemporary best practices of building water resiliency in the face of climate change with leaders from all over the world. VX News has excerpted a portion of this roundtable where Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment Nancy Sutley and Global Water Lead for GHD Rod Naylor dive into how they are shaping the adaptability of our water systems, with an emphasis on increasing water recycling and encouraging conservation. A full recording of the panel can be found here.

Fred Walti: Good morning, afternoon, and evening to our audience from around the world as well as our panelists. My name is Fred Walti. I'm the CEO of the Network for Global Innovation. I would like to welcome you to another edition of the NGIN global roundtable series.

Today's subject is water resiliency. We have a real treat today because our panelists represent a real diverse perspective on this subject. We have panelists that are geographically diverse from four different countries. We have panelists that represent the public utilities, private utilities, private professional services groups, and of course, a world-renowned environmental organization. We will talk about water resiliency from a developed country point of view, as well as a developing country. We have organizations that are building large, centralized systems and organizations that are building decentralized systems. We will talk about technology and the challenges as well as environmental justice.

Water resiliency is a pretty complex subject and a large subject, but the goal is pretty simple. How do we deliver safe, affordable, accessible water to the world's population? We need to do a better job of it. Even though that's a very simple objective, getting there is very difficult. I think there's roughly 2 billion people today who do not have 24/7 access to clean, safe water in the world. Millions of people die each year from waterborne diseases of one kind or another.

All of us on this call are involved in climate in one way or another. Climate change is making the challenges of delivering water more challenging, whether it's in Northern Italy and the ravages of drought and flooding or challenges of figuring out where water is coming from if you're from Los Angeles. It is a global problem, even though the symptoms look very different depending upon where you are.

For those of you joining us from the United States, if you think that the US is exempt from this problem, you would be mistaken. All you have to do is think back to Flint, Michigan where a whole city was without water because of failure of infrastructure. I also read a pretty remarkable statistic the other day that roughly 250,000 water leaks from water mains happen each year across the country cause us to lose a trillion gallons of water.

With that, we're going to get started. We're going to start with Nancy Sutley. Nancy is the Deputy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles in charge of Energy and the Environment. Prior to that responsibility, Nancy was the Chief Sustainability Officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water Power, which is the largest municipally-owned utility in the US. Prior to that, she was the Chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality in the Obama administration.

I've had the pleasure of working with Nancy for a number of years on making the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator a reality and building its home at the LaKretz Innovation Center, which I still think is probably one of the first innovation centers in which there's an incubator and a utility under the same roof. With that, welcome, Nancy.

Nancy Sutley: Thank you, Fred. It's always good to be with you, and I enjoy the opportunity here to talk about one of my favorite subjects: water resilience.

As Fred mentioned, I'm Deputy Mayor of Energy and Sustainability for Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. I’ve been on this particular job for a little over four months, as the mayor just passed her six months in office. I spent the prior nine years at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as Chief Sustainability Officer. I have been working on water and water resiliency issues in California for more than 20 years.

It's really hard to overemphasize how important water is to Los Angeles as a city; its growth; its prosperity; its future. We live in a semi-arid climate. If Los Angeles hadn't developed other sources of water and we just relied on the precipitation we get every year, we would be a city for only about 400,000 people. We are 10 times that large. The ability to develop and manage water resources under various climactic conditions has been key to the growth of Los Angeles into the second largest city in the United States and the largest and the most populated county in the most populated state in the United States.

Water is so essential to LA's founding. There are a number of stories to tell, but the one that I will tell is that when California became part of the United States, after its time as part of Spain and then Mexico, most property rights did not transfer over. Some of the original Spanish and Mexican settlers of Los Angeles lost their property, but what did transfer over were water rights that had been conferred on the small pueblo of Los Angeles by the King of Spain. That's how important water was to the city and continues to be. LADWP has now been providing high quality, reliable drinking water to Los Angeles for more than 100 years.

We face a lot of challenges due to the growth of the city and due to climate change. That is in large part because we are primarily reliant on importing water from outside of Los Angeles; from hundreds of miles away in the eastern part of California, from Northern California, and from the Colorado River.

Because of many factors, not the least of which is a changing climate, all of those sources of water are stressed. Los Angeles used to get about 75 or 80 percent of its water from its own aqueduct coming out of the mountains north and east of Los Angeles. Over the last several decades, in large part dealing with the impact on the environment, that water source has been constrained.

Our other big source of imported water is buying water from the region's water wholesaler: an agency called the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Its sources of water are Northern California and the Colorado River. Those sources are stressed as well. Managing water infrastructure in the middle of these natural environments has proven to be very challenging.

Los Angeles has really had to rethink how we manage water, how we obtain water, and how we assure that our residents continue to have a safe, clean, and affordable source of water. The city has been investing in projects that will help ensure water for another 100 years, even in a changing climate. The strategy is around all of the opportunities to reduce our reliance on imported water and increase the use of locally generated water.

We’re starting first foremost with water conservation. Los Angeles has been a leader in water conservation. In the last several decades, we’ve made investments in water conservation and in changing our building practices to ensure water conservation comes first. As a result of all the efforts of people in Los Angeles, we use significantly less water today than we did 30 years ago, even though our population has increased by more than a million people. So, water conservation will continue to need to be the leading strategy.

We’re also looking at better using our groundwater resources. In a typical year, we will get between 10 and 15 percent of our water from groundwater. The challenge with groundwater, like many urban areas, is that there's a legacy of industrial pollution in the groundwater. We have to clean that up before we can fully take advantage of what's actually a really good and a little bit climate-proofed resource for Los Angeles.

We’re looking at capturing more rain when it does fall. Last year at this time, we were lamenting the driest year on record. It was the third in a row of the driest years on record. Then, this past winter was one of the wettest on record. We're really dealing with, as a result of climate change, extremes of wet and dry. We are trying to invest in projects at all scales that will help us capture more of the rain when it does fall and put it to good use.

Finally, we're looking at recycling wastewater. The City of Los Angeles has a series of wastewater treatment plants to deal with all of the needs for the city. The city operates the largest wastewater treatment plant west of Chicago, just south of LAX airport. Los Angeles now has a plan to recycle on 100 percent of its wastewater to help to provide a reliable supply of water into the future. That plan is being worked on between the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation that owns the wastewater treatment facilities and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who runs the drinking water system. We really want to reuse all of our water and turn it back into drinking water, so a number of projects are moving ahead when it comes to recycled water.

The last piece I'll mention is that, as mentioned, we buy water from the water wholesaler Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They, as well, are working on a regional recycled water project called Pure Water Southern California, working with the County of Los Angeles to convert their largest wastewater treatment plant into a recycled water plant.

There's been a lot of innovation around recycled water in the arid west of the US and in Southern California. There are a number of questions that we have to answer as we develop these plans and make the investments to reuse 100 percent of our wastewater. Those are around whether we will go directly to potable reuse, waiting for some regulations coming out of the state of California or whether we will need to store that water in the ground and give it some time as part of the treatment. That's why the groundwater basins are even more important as storage.

We want to be addressing issues around affordability too. We are trying to not only reuse our wastewater, but reuse a lot of infrastructure that was built to do somewhat different things. How much of that existing infrastructure will we be able to use for recycled water and how much will we have to add, both in terms of treatment and moving that water around. How do we manage all that water for the benefit of all Angelenos?

I will stop there, but lots will happen in the next few years as we move forward with these plans.

Fred Walti: To put this in perspective, today, over 90 percent of LA's water comes imported from one kind or another and just less than 5 percent are from wastewater treatment? The objective of the LA  City program is to take what’s been less than 5 percent to 30% over the next several decades?

Nancy Sutley: Yes, that's right. It’s to reuse 100 percent of that treated wastewater. That will constitute a lot of our water supply. We understand that these sources of imported water are really strained, and we will be better off not being so reliant on them. The overall goal is to reduce our reliance on these imported sources of water coming from far away to less than 50 percent of our total water supply. Recycled water will play a really key role in making sure that we can meet that goal.

Fred Walti: For those of you who are not familiar with LA's plan, this project is both a massive scale-up of the ability to treat wastewater, but also about the ability to take that water and get it geographically spread out to the aquifers around LA.

Nancy Sutley: Yes, the way our water infrastructure was built—and, I think this is true for a lot of cities--was to try to get our wastewater away from the city as quickly as possible. In a coastal city like Los Angeles, that meant treating it and putting in the ocean.

We have to get back to supplying water to where the people live. Among the many engineering challenges of completing this plan, is the challenge of reconfiguring a system built to do something else.

Fred Walti: We're getting, figuratively speaking,  on our plane now, and we're flying further east to Australia, except Rod is in Texas today.

Rod Naylor is the Global Water Lead for a professional services company by the name of GHD. Rod has over 30 years of experience in the world of water. He has some really unique perspectives and case histories. I think you're going to start off by talking a little bit about what is in each conversation about water: money.

Rod Naylor: That's right. Thank you very much, Fred. In 10 minutes, I'm going to try and cover a little bit of work we did around the money – ie of the economic impact of water resiliency; and thus, the potential reframing the question from “who pays?” to “who pays if we don't do it and what are the implications?”

I'd like to tell a story about the history of the last 20 years of Sydney. I'm hearing strong parallels from Los Angeles about droughts and flooding rains.

To provide a little more explanation, GHD is a company that was founded in Australia over 90 years ago as a water consultancy. It's branched out now to 12,000 people worldwide focused on water, energy, and communities, and making them sustainable for generations to come. I keep upsetting my colleagues in saying none of that's possible without getting water, right. Water is part of energy; water is part of community; water is part of our resilience.

The work that we did we called Aquanomics and was a piece of work on the economics of water risk and future resilience. It was work we did with Cambridge Econometrics and Man Bites Dog in the UK. We looked at 10 countries, but I'll focus a little bit on Australia and the USA because that's where I'm from and that's where I'm sitting.

We took a look, based on the two degrees temperature change from the year 2022 to 2050, at the economic implication of water risk that manifests through climate change. That’s droughts, floods, and storms. I don't need to convince this audience that if climate change is a shark, then water is its teeth.

We did that assessment and across those areas, using econometric modeling, we found across the 10 countries, including the UK, US, Canada, UAE, Australia, and the Philippines, it was $5.6 trillion worth of economic loss and damage just from water related events. An interesting take for me was storms hit 49 percent of that, floods were 36, and drought only 15. The biggest impacts were in manufacturing, distribution, FMCG, and retail. What was interesting was things like agriculture depended very much on which country you're and the climate risk. The valuation varies dramatically across the different countries, from as little as a little 0.1 percent of GDP per year reduction, up to 0.7 percent. If you take that over 30 years, that's a huge economic cost if we don't act to deal with these issues.

For Australia, the total bill was about $300 billion in damage. For the US, it actually went to $3.7 trillion. There was also a 0.5 percent of annual GDP loss if we don't act properly to mitigate those damages. Listening to Nancy today, we're on the way to doing much better about it, which is a great outcome. For me, that really set the challenge and the paradigm for what we need to do. Otherwise, we're going to get in trouble.

It also draws out how water is extremely local. We all know that the solutions are not the same wherever we go. The solutions need to take into account local communities and circumstances as well as the effects of drought or storms on the water cycle, locally, plus the local economics.

What we drew from it was three strategies to do something. They are strategies that we’re taking into account in Sydney, and I've heard repeated, even today, in Los Angeles.

The first is to take an adaptable approach to building resilience. The answer is not one megaproject that'll fix it forever. We used to think that way. Looking out the window here in Houston, there's a lot of concrete out there that was premised on that idea. Our idea is around actually building an adaptive planning process with adaptive pathways and staging investment.

That is primarily to do with the fact that we're not sure yet just how bad climate change is going to get. How do we design 100-year assets when we're not sure just how far we're going to go and how bad the implication is? We're better to develop adaptive pathways and evolve as we go as we innovate and create new ways of managing and delivering water and sanitation services.

The second to implement is circular economy. The multi-utility system translates to such great opportunities to integrate water, wastewater, and energy to bring circularity and distributed asset philosophy into play. The, we are able to do things, not just on a grand scale, but also on a distributed local scale. With circular economy, it’s also important to think about regenerative systems and leveraging and increasing our use of nature-based systems instead of the massive concrete answer for forever.

The last strategy is to focus on using digital innovation capability and technology to drive innovation in how we manage better, whether that's managing the efficiency and performance of the assets that we already have or in terms of being able to react quicker and predict better what those impacts might be. It can also help us to plan better in the long-term, based on that data.

Fred Walti: Did anybody believe your report’s predictions?

Rod Naylor: It was interesting. In general, yes.  

We took that work to COP27 in Egypt. We had a few doubters and people who just couldn't believe the problem was on that big of a scale, but by and large, and particularly in the field, people said they understood the damage and implications. We're now working towards solutions. But yeah, it was really well-received.

Now, I wanted to just talk a little bit about Sydney, Australia. Sydney and Los Angeles share a lot of similarities like the Pacific Ocean and the La Nina/El Nino cycle, which drives our droughts and flooding rains.

Sydney, back in 1996, started to experience what we call the Millennium Drought. We didn't realize in 1996 what that drought exactly meant, but it went till 2010. It was an unprecedented dry spell. What we did is we waited to see what happens. We didn't have good prediction analytics, and we didn't have as good of an understanding of the projection of climate change. When we got to the crunch point, we invested billions in large projects at that time, solely identified for increasing water supply. We built six major desalination plants and a huge recycled water scheme, with the intention of going to indirect potable reuse.

We got through the drought happily and what happened next was we actually moved into floods, which is a pretty common scenario. What we found perversely was the desalination plant that we built in Brisbane, where we also had built the recycled water scheme that wasn't turned on at that time, became our savior during a flood when water quality issues and the floods meant our conventional water treatment plants couldn't keep up. The desalination plant actually stepped in and now is standard practice for that part of Australia in situations of flood and poor water quality to maintain water supply and water security. That was the start of a different way of thinking about different assets in adaptable roles for resilience.

 What's happened in the meantime is we've started to think very differently about how we plan water resilience and the services of Sydney, not just around water supply, but also around providing equality and opportunity around access to green space, to swimmable rivers, and to recreation.

Coming up to 2017 and 2020, we had another drought in the intervening years, although we have, like Los Angeles, reduced our per capita consumption dramatically. During that short drought, the trajectory of our reservoir reduction in level was severe, almost double the rate of the previous drought. Suddenly, where we had planning windows for five or six years, we realized that our planning window actually kicked in critical path at about 85 percent reservoir level. The world had shifted and thinking had to change.

 I'm glad to report that Sydney is actually adapting and responding with a diverse approach and with a more distributed strategy on a large scale. Sydney already has a desalination plant. Sydney has a large dam that provides us flood protection, but also is our primary source of water. We then went into three 1-in-100 year floods in a year in Sydney, where the flood mitigation capacity of that dam was in debate. Should it be increased by lowering the level to protect us from floods which compromises our water security?

One huge takeaway for me, which is pretty important for recycled water, is that our baseline surface water or groundwater cost is $1.10 to $1.20 Australian per cubic meter delivered. The first real lesson I did hear from Los Angeles is water efficiency measures cost us about 41 cents, less than half. Stormwater capture and treatment is $3.29. Small stormwater tanks are even worse at $10. Recycling water for industrial uses is $4.35. The one that really shifted the thinking for keeping options on the table and being adaptive was potable recycled water for drinking. Potable recycled water for drinking is $2.34. That's primarily because of the opportunity to leverage existing infrastructure and not have to build new infrastructure.

“The overall goal is to reduce our reliance on these imported sources of water coming from far away to less than 50 percent of our total water supply. Recycled water will play a really key role in making sure that we can meet that goal.” -Nancy Sutley