The California-Nevada AWWA Section aims to help utilities comply with state water audit requirements. Is tighter water accounting becoming a national trend?
In a time of droughts across much of the country, water loss control is gaining importance for utilities. Of course, curbing losses starts with a thorough accounting of water coming in and going out.
Droughts have been especially hard on California, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the state has passed new laws requiring some 450 urban water systems to perform and validate water audits. Knowing that water audits can be challenging, the California-Nevada Section of AWWA sought and won $3.2 million from California’s State Water Resources Control Board to provide technical assistance.
Tim Worley, executive director of the California-Nevada Section, sees the challenges of compliance with the audit requirements paying off for utilities in more efficient systems and for customers in more robust water supplies. He also sees water audits as a trend likely to spread to more states. Worley discussed the topic in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: What is the background for California’s water system audit requirements?
Worley: California passed laws in 2014 and 2015 that require water utilities over a certain size to submit water audit results to the Department of Water Resources. The first law required those results to be submitted every five years in conjunction with utilities’ urban water management plans. The 2015 law makes audits an annual requirement, and it also requires those audits to be validated by a qualified professional.
TPO: When do these requirements take effect?
Worley: The audit requirements in the 2014 law start with July of this year. Under the 2015 law, it becomes an annual requirement in 2017.
TPO: Do you believe the drought is driving these requirements coming from the state?
Worley: I would say it was the drought that spurred these regulations to make water audits compulsory. Water audits and water loss control have been around for some time, and some utilities in California have been working with them voluntarily, but others haven’t grappled with it. The 450 urban water systems now have the state looking over their shoulder.
TPO: Why did your association decide to pursue funds for technical assistance?
Worley: We saw that there would be a need for California utilities to understand what goes into doing a system water audit — pulling together the data that’s required, validating that data, and knowing the gaps where they might not have good information. We saw a need to help bring utilities up to speed as quickly as possible.
TPO: How did you approach creating the proposal you presented?
Worley: We developed the program with a small but diverse group of stakeholders, using help from industry experts who are involved in helping utilities conduct and validate water audits. It’s an intensive two-year program that we believe can be very successful if we can implement it as planned. We somewhat followed the pattern of a program conducted in Georgia. We proposed paying for it with local agency training and technical assistance funds within the State Revolving Fund. The State Water Board passed a resolution on Jan. 5 to support the program.
TPO: How will the $3.2 million be apportioned among the 450 urban water systems?
Worley: We’re not passing the money through to the utilities. The program will provide direct technical assistance from experts who can help utilities understand the water audit and validation processes. Some funds will be used to administer the program, and some for outreach to get the utilities on board. The vast majority is for technical assistance in the form of workshops, small groups, one-on-one outreach by phone, and probably in-person meetings.
TPO: Why do utilities need so much technical support for water audits?
Worley: In a financial audit, all the money that comes in must be accounted for down to the cent. A water system audit is similar in that if you have good information about all the water inputs, you should be able to track where all that water ends up. But a water audit has some complications. You need to make sure your meters are calibrated regularly and registering properly. You need to accurately estimate the amount of water that is not metered.
You need to understand those variables and get the right information so at the end of the day you have the most accurate estimate possible of your nonrevenue water and what your real water losses are. This is not something many utilities have been doing. It’s a new way of thinking that will be beneficial to them in the long run but will take quite a bit of effort and help along the way.
TPO: Who will actually deliver the various forms of technical assistance available under your program?
Worley: We will contract with a company or group of companies to do a lot of the outreach. Some of that will be done by our staff, working with a consultant. We will select the consultant we need to run this program through a competitive procurement process.
TPO: Once trained in auditing methods and validation, what investments will utilities need to make to complete the actual audits and validation?
Worley: Their main investment will be a commitment of some real staff time. These water audits really can’t just be done by one person. The information will come from field personnel like distribution system supervisors, from the billing department, from engineering. Typically, there may be four or five or more people contributing to the process. It will require some labor time to really understand what they need to do and then actually complete the audit themselves.
TPO: What do you see as the most significant benefits of the audit process?
Worley: Water conservation has been a big issue in California for many years, but especially during the past few years of the drought. State officials want to make sure utilities don’t have major water losses, because during drought every drop of water is precious. While requiring anywhere from 8 to 36 percent reduction in water use by their customers, utilities need to be just as efficient in managing water resources. This change in thinking will result in better decisions on how they manage their systems.
TPO: What actions do you see utilities taking as a result of auditing?
Worley: They’ll get information they can use to help find the most economically efficient ways to address problems in their systems. It may be as simple as starting an annual calibration of their meters — both the customer meters and the production meters. They could also take the information and focus on a segment of the distribution system where they need to repair and replace pipe that is corroded and causing leakage problems. So I think for utilities the silver lining is that even though initially this is a mandate from the state, over time they’ll find the process and the resulting information very beneficial.
TPO: What is happening with water audits elsewhere in the country?
Worley: I’m not familiar in depth with what is happening in other states, but it seems this whole movement is sweeping across the country. We’re still somewhat on the cutting edge with what we’re doing here in California, but from what I hear, this is taking hold in a number of states. This is a new trend and probably overdue in some respects. Whether it comes from state law or voluntary efforts, I think it is going to spread quickly.