Water Utilities Face Development and Drought

May 30, 2015

Being smart about how we grow and doing more with less” sums up the philosophy of the Las Vegas Valley Water District as it faces development in the Las Vegas Valley, according to Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the water district.

In the parts of the country such as the Las Vegas Valley, southern California, the area in east Texas around Austin, and parts of Oklahoma, drought creates additional pressures on water districts to guarantee water supply will be adequate for the next 50 years as residential and commercial developments expand.

Water conservation programs to reduce water use vary widely among the four water utilities covered here, depending on the severity of the drought in their areas. For example, the Las Vegas Valley, facing the most severe drought, uses water reuse to replenish its water source, but the other utilities do not.

Working With Developers
The review process for developers is similar in all of the municipal water utilities covered here. Talks between a developer of a master planned community and a water district may begin as much as two years before the first subdivision of the master plan receives approvals, and it begins in the planning department.

The first planned subdivision may be 3 miles away from a water source, so major facilities such as pumping stations and 42-inch pipes may have to be built. All must be operational, including connections to the water source, before the subdivision can be approved for construction, says Laura Jacobsen, a planner with the Las Vegas Water District. The reason is to provide fire protection capability, if needed, during construction.

Once boundaries are drawn by the developer, says Jacobsen, “We identify the pressure zones, or the range of elevations associated with the nearest water source. The pipes, once they are laid, must be able to maintain between 45 psi and 100 psi.

“A lot of the district’s work is determining what the demands the new development will have on the capacity of our distribution system,” she explains. The district may propose, for example, new facilities to be built to bring water from a reservoir to the development, she adds.

The developer will provide an engineering report that identifies the pipe sizing, the configuration of the subdivision, anticipated water demands, water pressure requirements, the water quality required, and fire flow capability, among other details. Negotiations between the developer’s engineering staff and the water district may take time to iron out the details.

Once the plans are approved, the developer files the final set of plans. In the case of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, it issues a water commitment that can be withdrawn if the developer does not advance the project, or if, at some future point, they disconnect water service. Construction can then begin.

The developer and engineering company designs and constructs the major facilities under the review of and inspection by the water district throughout the construction process to make sure they comply with state law. After a new section of pipe is laid and connected, the contractor must pressure test, chlorinate, and collect water samples for testing to make sure the pipe doesn’t leak and complies with safe water standards, says Jacobsen.

In the case of the Oklahoma City Utilities Department, it completes verification testing that includes hydrostatic and air testing, to make sure the pipes are water tight and comply with pressure requirements, according to Nathan Madenwald, a civil engineer with the Oklahoma City utilities department. A ball is pulled through the pipes to make sure the lines are fully open and then flushed with chlorinated water. Samples of water are taken over two days, and tested with multiple sampling protocols.

Once the tests are complete and approved, the water districts verify that all documents have GIS points in order, to guarantee they have a true record of where all pipes and valves are and to prevent others digging in those areas and damaging pipes. Only then can the contractor backfill the trenches and pave the roads.

Then, under a bill of sale, the developer turns over the new facilities to the water district. The only time this may not occur is when a property owner keeps ownership of the water distribution system if the entire development, such as an apartment house, is metered together.

Many Bosses to Please
Are water districts that serve multiple, perhaps up to a dozen towns, under particular stress? Maria Sambito, director of new business for the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, CA, addressed how the district handles complying with multiple municipal codes with developments being built throughout its service territory.

The district, located in western Riverside County, provides water and sewer service to seven small and medium-size cities—plus large unincorporated areas—scattered around its territory that has an arid desert climate. The best-known cities in the area are Hemet and Moreno Valley. The service territory covers 555 miles.

Sambito says most of the cities in her service territory have similar codes. Developers go to land or planning agencies in the city where their new housing or commercial development will be built. The city takes the lead in environmental review while the water district is the extension of that lead, she explains.

Once the developer gets to the water district, Sambito’s group performs due diligence. “We are very proactive with developers,” she says.

In an information-gathering meeting, they look at the preliminary sketches if the developer and his consulting engineer has them. “We tell them what facilities we have in the area,” says Sambito. If they do go ahead, “we create conditions of approval based on the proposal and the facilities in the area. This is called a plan of service.”

If water facilities such as tanks are required, the district likes to oversize an agreement for the benefit of the region, and if the developer agrees, the district fronts the cost, and current and future developers pay back their share, explains Sambito. For example, it would prefer having one 5-million-gallon tank built to serve two properties, instead of two 2.5-million-gallon tanks.

Commercial developments are different in that they may or may not be more complicated, she points out. The department classifies user types. For example, a clothing boutique will not draw as much water as a restaurant next door. Large warehouses may have few bathrooms, but have large fire prevention requirements.

Major City Sprawl
Oklahoma City, OK has an even larger service territory. According to Nathan Madenwald, Oklahoma City is one of the largest cities in the US in terms of land—621 square miles. Areas are already zoned, and when a developer comes in to submit a planning case to the planning department, it is routed through all departments.

The planning case, he says, contains the density of the housing development and details of what the developer wants to do. “We review what water services are available in the area the developer is planning to develop, and whether new services are required.”

“We do master planning for key water mains,” says Madenwald. The policy is if he and his staff determine the master plan calls for a 20-inch main to accommodate for future growth, they make the developer aware of the requirement at the time they review his planning case. Some developers may ask ahead of time what the requirement is in that corridor, he says.

Once plans and designs are approved, the developer has one year to begin construction, explains Madenwald. If he goes over the deadline, he will have to go through the planning review process a second time. Usually there are no changes, and the review is quick.

Credit: OKLAHOMA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE
Oklahoma City’s Water Conservation Garden, located southeast of Oklahoma State University–Oklahoma City John E. Kirkpatrick Horticulture Center, was developed to educate city residents about water conservation and drought-tolerant plants suitable for Oklahoma.

Following completion of construction once the water system is structurally approved and water quality is tested, the project is approved, says Madenwald. The utilities department provides the meters, and the developer pays a fee for water and sewers in order to get a permit to start construction on the housing.

The newest 50-story skyscraper was built three years ago by Devon Energy in downtown Oklahoma City and Madenwald had to work through issues with them to determine water demand, pressure requirements, and fire flow requirements, “but in the end, we had the infrastructure and water capacity to meet those requirements,” he says.

Oklahoma City is unique in that its water supplies are drawn from several man-made lakes that serve as water reservoirs located northwest and southeast of the city. “We are looking at efficiencies to utilize all our assets so we are reviewing the potential for interconnecting those lines to improve the flexibility of the water infrastructure,” says Madenwald. Since they are in tornado country, preservation of that infrastructure is all important.

Resort Area Expands
The resort town of Lago Vista, population 6,400, lies about 30 miles northwest of Austin, TX and is in active development. It is set on the North Shore of Lake Travis, and according to the local Chamber of Commerce, Lago Vista is the gateway to the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

The area between Lago Vista and Austin will be built out in seven or eight years, says Dave Stewart, director of public works. In the last four and a half years, 37 miles of mains and services have been built, he says, half of which were laid by the Public Works Department. The newest subdivision is called Tessera and has required a 20,000-foot pipeline to connect the subdivision to a water source.

The review process is virtually identical to the processes reported by the other cities here but given the smaller city size, the process is condensed. Stewart reviews the construction plans and looks for glaring mistakes and utility design problems. For example, he says “suck out” points in force mains may be missing. They are used to clean out the HDPE lines as the department requires.

The construction plans are then transferred to the development department for further checks. Stewart says the engineers in other departments may have to sign off the plans three times. Final approval comes after insurance and project fees for the review process, parklands, bird studies, and a drainage study are paid. The builder or homeowner pays for water meters which are installed by the city.

The new 2,200-home Tessera subdivision is under construction, and Stewart estimates it will take seven or eight years to complete. A second development was purchased out of bankruptcy and is showing some life, and a third development that went through bankruptcy is now up for sale.

“We were doing 350 hours of reviews a year before the recession, and then they dropped to 20 hours during the downturn,” he says. “We’re now smack in the middle of a drought.”

The source of Lago Vista’s water, Lake Travis, is drying up, and the city needs to develop new sources, he says. “We are building a new water plant with a new intake. We’re fixing to be the next hot spot if it doesn’t rain.”

Finding Water in the Drought
Lago Vista also has a strong water rationing program. Irrigating landscaping is permitted only once a week at night and many uses of water are prohibited such as using water to wash motor vehicles outside of commercial car wash facilities; washing sidewalks, driveways, and buildings for aesthetic purposes; and filling new and existing swimming pools, hot tubs, and wading pools except in specific situations.

According to the Texas Water Development Board, the 2012 State Water Plan (the most recent), states the region has a large number of surface water and groundwater sources available. Since the drought has not faltered in the three years since, that judgment may need to be revised. Texas Water Board data indicated Lake Travis was 34.2% full on February 18, 2015.

The principal surface water supply sources are the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Highland Lakes system which includes Lake Travis. The region shows a need for additional water by 2060, the water plan says. The Lower Colorado Lower Colorado River Authority is building a new reservoir downstream in the lower Colorado River basin to reduce demands on the Highland Lakes and to add storage. It will be completed by 2017.

Michael Mecke, formerly a water specialist with the Texas Water Resources Institute and before that a planner with the San Antonio Water System, says Texas—and the Austin region in particular—have been “on growth hormones” for decades without any significant water conservation.

The state has required regions, towns, and cities to develop intensive five-year water resource plans since the late ’90s, he says. “I am sure a major conservation plan including Xeriscape and rainwater harvesting would be a good supplement to their issues. But I’m doubtful that is happening.”

The Texas Water Development Board hopes to change that. In its 2012 State Water Plan it is requiring every water authority in the state to develop conservation, ground and surface water desalination, and aquifer storage and recovery plans, among other efforts to reduce water use and increase supplies.

Oklahoma City, on the other hand, takes a long-term view and has a permanent water conservation program because of its variable rain patterns, sometimes experiencing no rain for months. Therefore, it maintains a Stage 1 lawn watering regulation with odd and even building-address watering days. Its total accessible lake capacity is at 51% but if it reaches 50% a two-day per week watering regime will kick in. One day per week watering will be required when the lake capacity reaches 45%.

All water purveyors in southern Nevada have to comply with the uniform design and construction standards for potable water. Water conservation standards must also be met that are set by the various agencies that have planning and zoning powers. For example the county code requires only drought-tolerant plants can be landscaped, says Doa Meade, an engineering services manager with the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

The water district has a strict water commitment process that must be followed for new residential developments. This includes a minimum financial commitment equal to $5,000 per acre-foot of projected water use.

“We’ve had several master-planned communities built here,” the best known being Summerlin, says Meade. If major facilities need to be built, the district enters into a cost-sharing agreement with the developer, since the facilities may also serve surrounding developments.

The biggest problem we see, says the district’s Jacobsen, involves market-driven changes. For example, each of three sections of a development may be built out over a long period of time and the market for housing may change during that time. Engineering designs might then require changes for the third section that has become high density housing.

Another problem may be maintaining water quality during the initial phases of construction. “We do like to monitor the developer’s use of water and we make suggestions where they take construction water from the potable water system” for say, dust control, explains Jacobsen.

Chlorine residual must be maintained, and if there is no demand for the water, it sits there and the chlorine residual is lost. “So we discuss with the developer our water quality concerns and check chlorine residuals,” he says.

Meade says that a lot of good savvy contractors will flush the water mains and then use that water for dust control.

Jacobsen’s advice to developers is: “When you’re thinking about something, come talk to us in advance, so you can have all the best information up front.”

Will There Be Water?
Mack, the Las Vegas district’s spokesman, says “We’re not worried about future development because of improving water conservation efforts, better land use, and reduced use of outdoor water.”

The water district has a robust water conservation program and limits landscape watering to nighttime assigned schedules that vary with the seasons. There are also a variety of conservation measures affecting golf courses, government facilities, parks and community use, and swimming pools.

The district benefits from regional planning by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), says Mack. SNWA has a 50-year resource plan that identifies projected population growth in the entire Las Vegas Valley and how much water is needed to support that growth.

Mack says 40% of the water supply is reused. Waste water flows into the sewer system, it is treated and goes back to Lake Mead—the valley’s water source.

“We are now using 40% less water per person per day than we were 20 years ago,” he says. Contributing to that reduction are the developers, all of them, who install energy efficient fixtures in new developments, Mack adds.

SNWA’s resource plan has been revised to account for the possibility that Lake Mead will drop another 83 feet, says Mack. The water authority is constructing a third drinking water intake which will be completed in May 2015. Design and construction of a low lake level pumping station could be completed as early as 2020, according to SNWA. It will replace its existing pumping facilities should Lake Mead fall below 1,000 feet within the next decade.

Educating Developers
Denver, CO, has experienced two droughts since 2000 and it is being proactive about avoiding future water shortages. Jeff Tejral, manager of conservation for Denver Water says the department is developing plans to incentivize developers to build highly efficient high-density housing in the city center. He says demand is driving this. There are an increasing number of customers looking for smaller homes with less landscaping.

Denver Water convened a week-long meeting in late February with developers and partners, such as the Fire Department, to figure out how to deal with easement issues and meters for high density housing. Traditionally, apartment buildings and condominiums do not have meters for each unit.

“But if you don’t have a meter the homeowner won’t know how much water he or she is using,” says Tejral. Furthermore, the utility loses the communication link with the customer, he adds.

The city has a 30-foot easement requirement to create space for installing and maintaining distribution pipes from the water main in the street to the home and allowing room to work on the pipes. However, with high density construction, this 30-foot space is diminished.

“The challenge is how we balance between the developer and the water utility so we have meters and area to work. The third leg is the customer who needs his bills,” explains Tejral.

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education is designing a professional development course on water fluency, says Jayla Poppleton, the content program manager for the foundation.

“The course began April 21, and ran for four weeks. It targeted elected officials, community and business leaders, and developers to educate them about land use issues and how they impact water use, including planning for new developments to reduce water use. Water utility managers can work with land use planners,” says Poppleton, which will lead to planning for new development while reducing water use.

About the Author

Lyn Corum

Lyn Corum is a technical writer specializing in water and energy topics.

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