Inland Empire Utility Leads Region in Resource Management

Martha Davis

Martha Davis
Martha Davis
With the Southern California region’s population growing and natural resources shrinking, sustainability depends on public agencies that can figure out how to do more with less. Leading the way is the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, which has adopted an aggressive agenda to conserve, recycle, and innovate on behalf of its customers on the western edge of the Inland Empire. CEO Richard Atwater and Manager of Strategic Policy Development Martha Davis spoke with VerdeXchange News about IEUA’s innovative initiatives.


The Inland Empire is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country. What challenges does that growth pose for the IEUA?

Martha Davis: At the Inland Empire Utility Agency, we’re anticipating almost a 50 percent increase in population in our service area over the next 20 years. With that comes a whole array of services, including water supply, sewage treatment and organics management.

Through our capital improvement program we are investing in projects that will expand our regional system to meet future needs. We’re building a recycled water system, groundwater recharge projects, and other local projects that will ensure adequate water supplies for the region.

Richard Atwater: We work closely with the seven cities in our service area and with the county of San Bernardino and the other utilities. We have our ten-year capital improvement program, which is over $500 million, and we’re trying to plan and work with the cities, developers, and constituents to make sure that the water and sewer infrastructure is able to accommodate the growth.

Some of IEUA’s web pages look like they’re from an agribusiness firm rather than a utility. What is IEUA’s interest in soils, composting, dairy waste, and food waste?

RA: We have four traditional sewage treatment plants, but with our water recycling plant we make three “products.” We want to recycle and reuse every drop of water that we use, and we do that. If we don’t use it locally it goes down the Santa Ana River and Orange County takes every drop.

In the sewage treatment process we make biosolids—in other words, sewage sludge. We compost that and make it into fertilizer that can be sold at Wal-Mart, OSH, or other places. Until a few years ago, the Chino Basin had the largest concentration of dairy cows in the United States, and possibly in the world. We had over 300,000 dairy cows in a five-by-ten-mile area. That’s the equivalent of an unsewered city of 2.5 million people. It’s also equivalent to the air pollution of LAX. We worked with water agencies and county supervisors in Orange County, Riverside County, and San Bernardino County to take our compost and put it through an anaerobic digester to break down the organic matter into biogas and compost fertilizer products. The biogas is renewable energy that is used to generate electricity and operate a groundwater desalter. So instead of buying electricity off the grid we’re using renewable energy, which represents about 20 percent of the drinking water supply in Chino, Chino Hills, and Ontario. So when you talk about global warming and traditional air and water pollution, we like to think that we make recycled water, compost, and renewable energy products for our residents in our service area.

Is IEUA a model public agency for conservation in the state?

RA: I think we do as good a job as most. I always like to think that we could do better, and many parts of California do a similar job of excellent water conservation. In fact, one of the reasons why we make compost is that soil management with compost and mulch conserves a lot of water. For example, we had people come here from the Sweden Chamber of Commerce. We learned a lot about biogas production from them, and we’ve learned a lot from people in other parts of the country about things like converting food waste, biosolids, and cow manure into better, more usable, environmentally friendly products.

MD: We’ve tried to be at the leading edge on a variety of fronts. Beyond conservation, it’s a matter of integrating a green approach to our business practices. That is why our agency built a Platinum LEED “green” building. We’re the first public agency in the country to build to the Platinum standard. We did that because we believe in conservation and knew it was a good business practice. And it is serving as a model. On the conservation front, we borrow good ideas from our neighbors, and we are aggressively pursuing conservation as part of that integrated water supply strategy. I think we’ll be at the front of the line on things like the use of recycled water, desalination, and implementing a groundwater protection strategy/conjunctive-use strategy to enhance local groundwater supplies. If I were to give a grade, it would be for being at the cutting edge of all these types of green programs and being pragmatic about making them work.

IEUA spans several municipalities but is only one of several such agencies in the greater Inland Empire. What approach do you take towards working across municipality boundaries and within the entire region?

RA: We have a long “water” history on the Santa Ana River. Orange County started suing in the 1930s over water rights in the Santa Ana River, but for the last 20 years we’ve been developing all types of regional collaboration over the watershed. We’re one of five agencies that belong to the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), which was formed in 1972 with a grant from the state.

Over the last six years we’ve spent about $1 billion on water infrastructure from Hemet to Fountain Valley, working on projects that ripped out invasive species of weeds along the river, to groundwater desalination, to wetlands, and all kinds of exciting projects that are all working together. We have a long experience of looking regionally and also at the community scale.

You developed the innovative Chino Basin Organics Management Strategy several years ago to “close the loop” on resource management. What does that mean, and how is the program faring?

RA: The Organics Management Strategy is about solving and recycling organic matter, whether it’s cow manure, biosolids, or organic waste. We have a joint $60 million project with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, which is a state-of-the-art project in Rancho Cucamonga where we’re bringing biosolids to a retrofitted 9-acre warehouse and are composting 150,000 tons per year.

In the sewer system we have a huge problem of fats, oils, and grease plugging up the sewers. If you manage that right and put it in our anaerobic digesters, the bacteria break that down and, from a biogas standpoint, the resulting product is like jet fuel. We’re trying to figure out how to do all of that in a very energy-efficient manner.

MD: In some respects, Rich is too modest. In 1999 a number of people, including Rich, started looking ahead and trying to figured that if we were not dealing with our organic materials locally, we would be forced to truck them further and further afield as California urbanized. We needed a strategy for managing organics locally. The Organic Management Strategy represents an evaluation of all the different sources of organic materials in the area.

We are investing in infrastructure that enables us to close the organics loop and turn these materials into value-added products that can be used locally rather than simply pursuing the old way, which is pushing the material somewhere else.

RA: In fact, the city of L.A., Orange County, and other parts of Southern California have a tradition of putting it on diesel trucks and hauling it to Kern County and Arizona and other places. They have been hauling biosolids and just putting them on farmers’ fields. When you consider in Southern California all that wasted energy and air pollution from hauling it all over the place, having local solutions is not only cost-effective, but it also helps avoid the litigation that has occurred over the past few years, especially in Kern County, which does not want L.A.’s sludge to go up there.

Several months ago Mark Cowin of the Department of Water Resources spoke of the need for regional planning and admitted that a “regional focus” was a “shift” for the DWR. He also said, “we’re reaching out to other agencies and trying to engage them so we have a strategic water management plan that works with other plans for California resources management.” Is his analysis correct, and, if so, what is the solution?

RA: Mark has spent a lot of time working on the latest update of the State Water Plan, and his comments reflect that the State Water Plan recognizes that developing 75–90 percent of all the new supply probably requires a community, bottom-up approach. That includes using every drop of recycled water, using purple piping for outdoor landscaping, using local groundwater, and a forming a regional strategy to store water from the High Sierras or the Colorado River for future use.

No mega-projects are going to solve the water challenges of California, like Pat Brown with the State Aqueduct in 1960. It’s going to require regional and community partnerships to use existing systems efficiently and recovering and reusing supplies, whether it’s contaminated groundwater or water recycling. That is the new supply of the 21st century.

Even the governor’s package including a couple new dams in the State Water Plan represents only 5–8 percent of the new supply. Over 90 percent of it is what we’re talking about, plus seawater desalination. I saw the quotes from Jeff Kightlinger and Robert Wilkinson in MIR; seawater desalination has its place along the coast, but in the scheme of Southern California, it’s like 3–4 percent of the solution.

How will the state infrastructure bonds and Prop 84 benefit IEUA?

RA: We actively supported Prop 84, so we were very pleased that the voters approved it. We think what we’ve been doing on the Santa Ana River is a prototype for the billion dollars for integrated regional watershed management programs. That effort of incentivizing people with state grants at the community watershed/regional partnerships is a great model.

MD: With the success of Prop 84 and DWR’s promotion of integrated regional water planning, we need to realize that we have an enormous amount of water in our own backyards that has not always been appreciated or developed as well as it could be. The next generation of water-supply development is going to come from water conservation, recycled water and groundwater/conjunctive management. Those projects are going to have to be put together region-by-region, and that’s why Prop 84 and Prop IE are so important.

The intriguing aspect of this approach will be the multiple benefits that emerge. When you’re capturing stormwater for groundwater recharge you’re also helping to deal with some of the stormwater problems and water quality issues that affect our cities. There’s a lot of crossover in these infrastructure investments that will strengthen our communities and help us all do a better job of managing our water supplies locally.

How does the state’s greenhouse gas initiative, AB 32, affect IEUA’s work?

MD: We are very concerned about climate change. One of the interesting projects that IEUA has been working on in partnership with RAND has been an evaluation of our 2005 urban water management plan to assess the implications of climate change on our region.

We are looking at the implications for imported water, because we do receive water from the State Water Project. We are also taking a closer look at the water supply options locally and how resilient they will be in 30 years based on the climate change. It’s not a big surprise that things like groundwater management, recycled water, and improved conservation have a tremendous effect on making a community more resilient to climate change.

Martha, you were involved in this month’s New Partners for Smart Growth conference. Why does a utility have an interest in smart growth? And how is IEUA affecting how the Inland Empire grapples with growth?

MD: The question should be, how are we impacted by the choices our communities make about how they grow? Smart growth helps us figure out how to integrate water supply, energy efficiency, healthy communities, and healthy ecosystems into urban areas as they’re developing. Let’s take conservation as an example: it’s been really expensive to do conservation after the fact. But when people build conservation into their homes—high-efficiency toilets, high-efficiency clothes washers, efficient irrigation systems—then we’re building the ability to use water resources more efficiently. We don’t have to go back and retrofit these homes.

The choices we make today profoundly affect the way communities are going to function in the future, and as we anticipate changes in the patterns of rainfall, if not the amount, figuring out how to build communities to prepare for that future is smart. That’s what the conference is all about.