Responding to Water Demand

April 18, 2017

The term “demand management” is more commonly associated with the electricity industry than the world of water, but Matt Dickens, resource conservation manager for Valencia Water Company (VWC) in California, understands the correlation and recognizes that many of the principles of demand response can be applied to water management as well. In fact, he expects it to become water’s next buzz word. “Demand management means efficiency in consumption over time,” he says.

Efficiency is critical for a commodity in short supply. California has been severely impacted by more than five years of very dry weather. Because it remains under extreme drought conditions, the state’s reservoirs have dropped to critically low levels, causing an increased reliance on local groundwater supplies.

Half of VWC’s water supply is pumped from local groundwater—the shallow Alluvial Aquifer and the underlying Saugus Formation, Dickens says. The other half is imported water, which is purchased from the Castaic Lake Water Agency. Recycled water for irrigation started being delivered for the first time in the Santa Clarita Valley in July 2003.

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From that supply, VWC produces 21 million gallons of water per day to serve approximately 33,000 connections. Annual water delivery estimates top 7.6 billion gallons, sent through 364 miles of mainline.

Dickens estimates that residential accounts make up 50%, commercial and irrigation are 25%, followed by institutional and industrial, with just a little agricultural. “People demand 120 to 150 acre feet a day,” he says. “That’s about 48 to 50 million gallons a day.” Official estimates calculate the average residential customer usage at 95 gallons per capita per day.

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Because Valencia—a neighborhood in the northwestern corner of the Santa Clarita Valley within Los Angeles—enjoys a Mediterranean climate, its winters are wet and mild, but its summers are hot, leading to what Dickens refers to as peak demand.

“Peak demand is an engineering issue,” he believes, imposing stress on system capacity and infrastructure. “We must make sure the infrastructure can handle peak demand—and we try to reduce peak demand.”

Successfully facing demand requires efficiency. “We had programs to help customers identify where they could improve efficiencies during the drought phase,” notes Dickens. Rebates were offered for drip irrigation conversion and replacing old spray sprinklers with high-efficiency equipment.

In addition, Valencia Water Company’s Water Conservation Program gave away high-efficiency nozzles. “These weather-based controllers can increase efficiency 80%,” estimates Dickens. “Converting from spray to drip irrigation achieves a 50 to 80% increase in efficiency.”

Other methods to improve efficiency include use of waterless urinals and low-flow toilets. Dis-incentives in the form of a tiered rate program are also employed. “A GIS team measured every property, using one-foot pixel aerial imaging and mapping software, along with tax assessor data,” explains Chris Perez, vice president of operations. Adding that information to real-time weather data, VWC used real-time water budgets to create a tiered rate structure.

During the worst of the drought in 2015 and 2016, the state required a 20% voluntary reduction, using 2013 figures as a baseline. It increased to 24% if the district had to make restrictions mandatory, Dickens recalls.

After identifying the number of gallons used, VWC achieved a 30% reduction. “The target was 21%,” states Dickens.

An example of Valencia Water Company’s customer engagement conservation efforts

The success of VWC’s drought management is due in part to the fact that the utility identified actions to help customers achieve the goal and offered custom “personal drought reports” and an online tracking tool to measure monthly drought reduction performance—no small accomplishment for a utility without smart meters. The utility is, in fact, still “transitioning between manual and automated meter reading.”

Drought response analytics indicate that 88% of VWC’s customers conserved water. Among “high water users,” adds Dickens, the number was even higher: 90 to 97%. “Dedicated irrigation customers had the largest savings,” he reports, “followed by residential and commercial, with apartment/condo customers the lowest.”

The industry sector conserved 400 million gallons from 2015 to 2016, compared with 2013. “If we had more industrial customers, we would use more water,” admits Perez, adding that the water district was fortunate that during this drought period they had “no catastrophic failures, no earthquakes” because emergency demands must be met no matter what.

“Our system is designed for fire flow,” continues Perez.

“We have way more than we need for irrigation.” He says they maintain about 55 million gallons of storage to meet the demands of seasonal fluctuation, which increase in the summer.

To ensure demand will be met, the State Water Resources Control Board required all of California’s Urban Water Suppliers to conduct a “stress test” to determine if enough water is available to meet their demands, assuming three additional years of drought.

VWC successfully certified that their supplies can meet demand, assuming three additional years of drought. Thanks to this certification, VWC customers are no longer required to meet or exceed the 24% conservation standard mandated by the state.

The winter of 2016–2017 brought much needed rain to southern California, alleviating some of the immediate crisis. Nevertheless, in response to ongoing drought conditions and beginning another year of serious drought, the Governor asked that everyone continue to reduce their water use.

According to Dickens, there has been “some rebound in demand,” but customers are “holding at 20% [overall reduction].” To continue conservation, education and communication are necessary.

During the height of the drought, Dickens says state messaging about conservation was “in the news all the time.” But now he understands that communication must continue in a different form in order to inspire customers to conserve. “The concern is that during drought there is behavior modification that drives reduction, but as the drought dissipates, so does the response.”

To continue motivating customers to implement programs to maintain their landscapes and prepare for future droughts, he says they must “engage with the customer to improve efficiency.” VWC is doing so through education outreach, using widgets, materials, incentives, rebates, training, and ongoing communication, although he says that commercial customers require more complex communication than residential customers.

Transferring reports to a smart allocation report reinforces positive behavior and allows customers to view their usage. “One lesson we learned, post-analysis is that low water users still conserved, but their usage went up because they had less opportunity,” recalls Dickens. “Now we do two versions of reports: one says to keep doing what they’re doing, the other asks them to conserve.”


Positive reinforcement through the reports is one method of behavior modification, but changing habits is an uphill battle. Conservation remains the most cost-effective solution to managing and “stretching” highly valuable local and imported water supplies, but once a crisis has been survived, it can be difficult to motivate customers to continue implementing efficient methods.

“We have the same problems as everyone else,” believes Perez. “It’s a cultural mindset. Behavior wastes resources.” He says VWC has drafted vision statements and goals for the future. “Our strategic goal is to motivate the customer to maintain reduction. We have to focus on education to bring about cultural changes. Water should serve a purpose, not run off into the street.”


Perez says the utility is also changing its own behavior, setting an example for its constituents. “We’re cognizant of when we’re moving water; after hours is cheaper.” It’s also off-peak, reducing stress on the infrastructure by avoiding hours of heavy demand and usage, just as the electric utilities do.

“We work hard on ethics: the value of water,” says Dickens. “There’s a challenge in moving the culture, but people here value water.”

Unfortunately, he concedes, many also value their lawns. “We are marketing native plants versus a turf mindset, but lawns are still prominent. It’s a lifestyle.” Even for those who persist in keeping a lawn, VWC offers tips, such as water infrequently and for longer durations. Dickens says that 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. is a good time to water for minimal evaporation and to provide plants with the water they need for the day.

To show them the way, the VWC headquarters landscape has been converted into a demonstration garden with native plants replacing carpets of grass. “There’s lots of color. New wildlife visits,” observes Dickens.

He believes there’s significant savings to be gained through changes in how we view landscapes. Dickens refers to Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Phoenix having similar programs to reduce usage through irrigation. “Albuquerque had to reduce usage 30% in order to purchase water from the Colorado River. They did it through landscaping.”

The challenge, Perez says is that “water is cheap here. It only costs about $2 for 750 gallons.” The estimated cost of water to the average residential household is only $1.78 per day, or $642 per year. “No one wants to spend $10,000 to rip out landscape to save $50 a year in water.”

Another hurdle is that Valencia, home to the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park, is an affluent area. But some of the advantages VWC enjoys is that it’s a “relatively young water system,” says Perez. “The first line was put in in the late ’50s.”

That is likely a factor in the district’s low water loss: 4 1/2%, compared with the national average of 11 to 13%, but Dickens also credits their “best-in-class approach to break response, pro-active maintenance programs, and exceptional team.”

Nevertheless, the drought is significant and water is scarce, with volatility in the water supply. “The supply varies,” agrees Dickens, “but the distribution issues remain the same. Water waste contributes to contamination—it’s the ‘tea of modern life’—picks up oil, gasoline, manure, and material—so we have to look at the system, distribution, and contamination of waste downstream.”

Despite the fact that the fixed costs don’t change and only the variable costs go down with conservation, Perez says that conservation does contribute to long-term cost savings. Efficiency helps to lower those costs.

“As we recover from drought, we want to establish a framework for the next one,” says Dickens. “We have to transition to a new norm.”  
About the Author

Lori Lovely

Winner of several Society of Professional Journalists awards, Lori Lovely writes about topics related to waste management and technology.

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