In her keynote remarks at CA-NV AWWA’s AFC15, San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Maureen A.
Stapleton addressed the need for innovation and creativity in addressing contemporary water industry challenges.
She urged agencies to take risks, be willing to fail, and learn from their mistakes.
IT’S JUST WATER, RIGHT?
24 SOURCE winter 2016
Be Willing to Fail
By Maureen A. Stapleton
THE WATER INDUSTRY IN THE WEST has an impres-sive
history of building dams, moving water hundreds
of miles to where it’s needed, removing contaminants to
assure public health and safety, and developing distribution
systems that have set the international standard. These accom-plishments
aside, twentieth century solutions are becoming
less and less viable as disruptors to the status quo fundamen-tally
challenge the way we operate. The types of incremental
improvements the industry is used to aren’t adequate to ad-dress
the twenty-first century challenges we are facing.
Long-range planning is difficult in an unstable environment, but we wa-ter
leaders must learn to lean into our collective discomfort, take prudent
risks, try new approaches and learn from our mistakes. We need to move
from a command-and-control dynamic to one of partnerships and collab-oration.
We need to forge new models of operating and accomplishing our
mission, tap new technologies for communicating with our customers and
meet their water needs.
One-size-fits-all solutions imposed from the outside or adopted whole-sale
from elsewhere won’t work. Strategies must be tailored to each commu-nity’s
supply and demand characteristics, along with the political, financial
and engineering realities of each region. The first step is to identify disrup-tors
that are affecting a utility’s operations.
The first major disruptor is climate change and its effects on water delivery
systems that were largely engineered for an era when the climate was more
stable. California has a history of boom-and-bust precipitation cycles, but the
current five-year drought is different in a number of ways, including unusu-ally
high temperatures. The average minimum winter temperature for the Si-erra
Nevada in water year 2015 was 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the first
time in 120 years of record keeping that the temperature was above water’s
freezing point, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). DWR
data also shows that three of the nine April 1 snowpacks that have fallen be-low
50 percent of average since 1950 have occurred in the last three years.
A second disruptor is rapidly increasing water-use efficiency. Per capita
potable water use in San Diego County has dropped nearly 40 percent over
the past 25 years, and our water demand projections for the future include
more gains in efficiency. Per capita water use of 200-300 gallons per day
wasn’t uncommon in the 1980s and 1990s. These days are gone due to a
combination of technological advances such as highly efficient toilets, im-proved
irrigation technology, greater public awareness of the value of water,
and new regulatory pressures. Rapid declines in water sales that result from
effective conservation strategies can financially destabilize a water agency.
Higher rates are not a solution.
After identifying disruptors, the next step is to draft new approaches.
The Water Authority has been in the innovation business since the drought
of 1987-92 hit its crescendo. At the time we relied on a single supplier of
imported water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
(MWD), for 95 percent of our supply. In March 1991, MWD announced
what would have amounted to a 50 percent water supply reduction for our
service area. This would have been a major blow to the county’s $1 billion
farm industry, emerging life sciences industry, and the region’s then-$65
billion economy in general. Although the 50 percent cut never materialized
because the drought broke and so much rain fell that the industry still
refers to it as “Miracle March,” a 31 percent reduction in imported water
supply deliveries was imposed for more than a year. Business and civ-ic
leaders demanded to know why the Water Authority had put virtually
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