Interview with David Nahai on Going Water-LESS Outdoors

I am blessed to have learned about water conservation and quality from some of the world's most renowned water experts, like My Green Friend, David Nahai.  Among many other accomplishments, David’s tenure while CEO and Commission President at DWP was marked by a heightened emphasis on renewable energy sources and conservation, having increased DWP's renewable energy portfolio to 14 percent and having decreased the City of Los Angeles's monthly water use in to a 32 years low!  Lucky for us, David has agreed to share his wisdom and tips for Going Water-LESS.

Check out my interview of David Nahai below and prepare to be enlightened and inspired to make your PLEDGE to Go Water-LESS Outdoors. 

 As you know, this month our Everyday Eco-Habit is Going Water-LESS Outdoors.  As the president of David Nahai Consulting Services, the formerCEO and Commission President of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, former Chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, former Senior Advisor to the Clinton Climate Initiative, Board member of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, and Board member of Heal the Bay, you obviously know a plethora regarding water quality and usage, especially in Southern California.  Can you please shed some wisdom to our Everyday Eco-Habit Readers about why conserving water and protecting water quality is imperative?

Everyone knows that water is precious – indeed, indispensable to life.  However, our current sense of urgency arises not from there being any lesswater, but from the fact that our drinking water resources (which have been the same in terms of volume since pre-historic times) are under unprecedented pressure due to (1)an ever-burgeoning world population, (2) contamination of water bodies, and (3) the impacts of climate change.  Water challenges are both global and local.  Global, in that water shortages in other parts of the world can and do affect us here in the US and have been identified as a national security threat due to unrest, migration, competition for scarce resources and so on.  Local, in that the problems and solutions are often based on local geography, topography, weather patterns, demographics, technological know-how, financial capabilities and other factors.  Regardless of where one is, conservation is an essential part of any palette of options to address water shortages.  This is especially the case in places, such as the US, where water consumption is high compared to other places in the world.  For us here in Southern California, the impacts of climate change are already in full view – protracted droughts followed by periods of intense precipitation – and are likely to worsen.  We have a lot of room to use less water.  Also, conservation helps our pocket books as well.  The cost of water will certainly continue to rise as we make needed investments to offset the ravages of climate change, find new water resources, and remediate contamination.  Conserving means that although the cost of the water may increase, the size of one’s water bill need not do so.  


 I have been fortunate to hear you speak about your 10-point plan for water conservation and quality.  Can you please share that wisdom with my Everyday Eco-Habits community? 

Below are my 10 points for addressing our water challenges here in Southern California and, in particular, in Los Angeles.  In LA, we are heavily dependent on imported water.  Roughly 90% of our water comes from outside the City (from the Colorado River, the Sacramento Delta and the Owens Valley).  With the advent of climate change, increased demand from other water users and other factors, that imported supply, once cheap and plentiful, is now more costly and less reliable.  We have to adapt to a new reality – the next drought is around the corner.  The other 10% of our water supply come from our own aquifer which is a great resource, but which suffers from contamination.  The good news is that there is much we can do to secure our water future.  Here are my 10 strategies to consider.  Fortunately, much of the work is already underway; much remains to be done.     

  1. Conservation

  2. Infrastructure repair

  3. New building standards

  4. Wastewater recycling

  5. Rainfall capture

  6. Aquifer remediation

  7. Agricultural advances

  8. Financing (public and private)

  9. Encouraging innovation

  10.  Leadership


1.     Conservation.  LA has done well but more can be done.  During my time at LADWP, we reduced consumption levels by record amounts and we did it by adopting a 5 prong approach:

a.     Water Conservation Ordinance – we enacted a law to prohibit wasteful practices (such as restaurants serving water without a customer request, washing cars in driveways) and to restrict outdoor irrigation

b.    The Team – we deployed a team to educate the public and to enforce the law

c.    Public campaign – we devised an extensive outreach and information strategy to change behavior  

d.    Shortage year rates – we adopted a rate structure designed to incentivize conservation

e.    Rebates and incentives – the turf replacement program is an example of this prong

2.     Infrastructure.  Water pipes and treatment systems throughout the US are deteriorating.  California’s systems, designed to serve 16 million, now have to cater to nearly 40 million (population will grow by another 12 million by 2040).  240,000 water main breaks occur in the US every year.  This is a waste of billions of gallons per day.  We must make the needed investments to upgrade our water pipes and infrastructure.

3.     New building standards.  We have made good progress in LA with ordinances which require water saving appliances to be incorporated in development.  So much more can be done by way of legal mandates, especially with respect to gray water systems, cisterns, other design features to conserve water. These can be combined with incentive programs, but care has to be taken not to have the less privileged or the elderly, in effect, subsidize these rebate programs.

4.    Wastewater recycling This has to be a crucial element of any program to produce new water.  Good work is being undertaken but we are lagging behind other places (such as Israel and Orange County).   In LA we’ve spent billions of dollars building facilities to treat our wastewater to very high degrees (secondary and tertiary levels) only to dump it in the ocean. Other jurisdictions have long discovered that wastewater is an asset and have devised ways to reclaim it safely and affordably.  With can do it too.  Recently, our Mayor (Mayor Garcetti) directed that all discharges of wastewater to the ocean must cease by 2035.  This is an essential step to provide water security for our city.  The treated water can be stored in groundwater basins (then extracted and treated again as needed) rather than being thrown away in the ocean. As the saying goes: “it’s not waste, unless it is wasted.”Currently, the Mayor’s directives also call for the following measures:

  • Reduce imported water by 50% by 2025

  • Source 50% of water locally by 2035

  • Reduce per capita potable water use by 22.5% by 2025, 25% by 2035

  • By 2035, 150,000 acre feet of stormwater capture

5.     Rainfall capture It is estimated that in LA, 60% of the rain that falls on the city is lost.  It hits impervious surfaces – roofs, streets – enters a vast storm drain system and runs to ocean untreated.  In doing this, the rain carries the pollutants on our streets – from cigarette butts to oil to animal excrement – straight to the shore. It is thus a water quantity and water quality problem.  This is a central LA paradox: in exactly this place so dependent on imported water, our own rainfall is treated like some evil force to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.  We have to learn to build differently so that we don’t just continually add impervious surface.  We also have to create and implement stormwater capture projects large and small to keep more of our rain.  Of course, we also have to recognize that we live in a flood prone area and must strike a balance to protect against flooding.  Fortunately, LA County voters recently approved Measure W which will infuse $330 million into the water sector to fund stormwater capture projects. This is a huge boon to the effort to battle urban run off pollution and to augment our water supply.

6.     Aquifer remediation.  In LA roughly 10% of our water comes from our own aquifer in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a real pity that this irreplaceable resource is suffering from VOC and perchlorate contamination. However, work has begun to restore the aquifer to health and there is reason to be optimistic that it will continue to serve the city well.  

7.     Agriculture.  The vast bulk of the water used in California is consumed by agriculture.  In the past, the ag sector has been slow to adopt watering techniques that save water.  In addition, farm runoff has been a source of contamination to surface water and groundwater resources.  On top of this, over pumping of groundwater in many farm areas has led to surface subsidence and degradation of groundwater assets.  Much remains to be done, but I am hopeful that the lessons of the drought together with prescriptive laws such as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will bring improvements.

8.    Financing.  Utilities need funds to carry out the measures referred to above.  The money for projects must come either from local rate increases or from voter initiatives such as Measure W or Prop 1 or from state or federal sources.  However, none of these are easy roads to funding.  Having obtained rate increases, I can attest to how difficult it is to navigate a rate increase campaign.  The failure of Prop 3 on the last ballot shows that voters do not simply rubber stamp every water bond.  Other pots of funding are notoriously hard to find and mine.  Better ways to raise money need to be devised.  The secret may lie in developing public-private partnerships which facilitate the building of projects while ensuring that water remains an asset of the public.  Additionally, more needs to be done to attract investment for companies involved in the water industry.  Small companies can only invent and innovate and survive if they have access to capital. For various reasons, capital does not flow as easily to companies in the water world.  We need to tackle the investment challenge by identifying the causes and removing the roadblocks.  As I participant in its water financing roundtable, I commend the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for its efforts in this regard.

9.    Encouraging innovation.  As stated above, innovation is dependent on investment.  Many great ideas and companies wither and die for lack of financial sustenance.  To counteract this problem, we must facilitate investments by angel investors and venture capital funds, but we must also support the work of our universities and incubators.  In this connection, the work of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator deserves special mention.  I am proud that the concept of LACI was born during my tenure at LADWP and equally proud to serve on its board today.  Many start ups, including water companies, benefit from the many services LACI offers. 

10.  LeadershipWithout strong leadership, tenacity, and persuasion the overall transformation envisaged in the foregoing paragraphs will not come to pass.  Without a doubt, there will always be skeptics and detractors.  But every step outlined above is fundamental to our future.  Our leaders need to be able to inform and educate the public as to the necessity of these steps, with the emphasis being on the investment, not just the cost. However, we must also ensure that the burden of making these investments does not fall on those least able to bear it. With the right leadership, such as that being provided now by Mayor Garcetti and previously by Mayor Villaraigosa and our current City Council, we can envision a future with a secure, affordable water supply fueled by innovation and good paying jobs.    

I would like to thank David for his time and all he does to make the world a better place!