FIVEPOINT'S COMMITMENT TO WATER CONSERVATION
“If there’s one silver lining to the California drought years, it’s that everybody got more interested in where their water comes from and water conservation...”
Cool, cool water
Irvine Ranch Water District has mastered the management and conservation of a precious resource
Terence Loose | November 13, 2016
Apparently, water management is cool. Case in point: The Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) gives tours of their facilities on Saturdays – and they’re completely booked. In fact, there’s not a spot open until 2017... and that’s for tours of water facilities!
“If there’s one silver lining to the California drought years, it’s that everybody got more interested in where their water comes from and water conservation,” says Paul Cook, IRWD’s general manager. “In fact, I’m finally popular at parties.”
It’s fair to say that Cook has earned the honor. For the past few decades, the IRWD has been out in front – way out in front – when it comes to innovative ways to ensure a reliable, relatively inexpensive water supply to its customers in Irvine and the surrounding areas.
Consider the fact that in 1990, at the time of the last major drought in California, the IRWD imported 66% of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River. Today, that figure is just 16%. Recycled water, for landscaping and industrial use, increased almost two-fold. Perhaps most impressive, while their customer population increased from 114,000 in 1990 to 390,000 today, the water needed, or supplied by IRWD, increased only a fraction, from 70,000 acre-feet to 81,000 acre-feet.
Those are a lot of impressive – if dry – statistics, but their success lies in some pretty cool programs designed to make all our lives a lot richer.
One of IRWD’s most successful programs accomplishes that in a very literal way: their tiered rate structure, adopted in 1991 and still going strong today. “We were the first to adopt a rate structure that rewards customers when they use water efficiently and sends them a very strong price signal when they have inefficient use,” says Fiona Sanchez, IRWD director of water resources.
Importantly, the rate structure is very equitable, says Sanchez. It takes into account family size, land size, and even the weather. “We have three weather stations in our service area that give us information on how much water plants need,” she says. There’s one at the coast, one in central Irvine and one in the foothills. “The weather can be very different at the coast than in the foothills and that means that our customers in the foothills might get a little more water allocation than our customers at the coast,” Sanchez says. Using such sophisticated equipment means the people of Irvine and surrounding areas get some of the cheapest water in Southern California when they use it responsibly.
Other programs, such as the rebate program of $2 for every square foot of turf customers replace with more drought-tolerant plants, dedicated waterbanking that takes advantage of the flood-or-drought traits of nature, and the use of battery banks to power their facilities during high-energy-cost times, allow IRWD to pass on more savings to its customers.
Predictably, the people of Irvine responded positively. The typical consumer in other parts of California uses an average of about 200 gallons of water a day; in Irvine that number is 61 gallons per day.
Recycled water is a perfect example of an IRWD innovation maximized by forward-thinking master planning. Decades ago, when the goal to lower their dependence on imported water was pushed to the forefront, IRWD worked with project planners to install dedicated pipes for recycled water – often even before there was recycled water available to flow through them. (Fun fact: Recycled-water pipes everywhere are colored what is known as Irvine Purple in the industry because an IRWD manager chose the color.)
Today, of course, recycled water is a huge benefit to the communities. “There are a lot of great uses for recycled water,” said Mark Tettemer, IRWD’s recycled water development manager. “It’s used for landscape irrigation, toilet flushes, composting, cooling towers, carpet dying, and more.”
IRWD’s innovations in water conservation have been echoed as well as championed in recent neighborhoods, too. For instance, in the developing Great Park Neighborhoods, landscape designers have pushed water conservation to another level, while at the same time enhancing community and common area experiences. The unique plant palettes and park designs have won the attention of planners and the admiration of environmentalists in equal measure.
“The benchmark that most people use for sustainability is so exhaustive of our precious resources, i.e., water, that the people who are hitting the sustainable measure are still far above and beyond what a local landscape should target,” says Brett A. Park, principal at Brightview Landscaping Services, which designed the FivePoint communities’ landscaping. For the Great Park Neighborhoods, Park’s firm based their water usage on native Southern California plants, and then tried to come in below that.
“It’s a responsible approach that respects local resources and makes the community a better place to live,” Park says. People have a natural instinct to bond with nature, he says, and they can feel when things are in tune.
Maybe that’s why Paul Cook is a hit at parties and those IRWD tours are so darn popular. It almost begs the question: what’s in the water around there?