Water and Power

Two recent events provide a timely backdrop for this conversation, the water level in Lake Mead, the huge reservoir on the Colorado River, reached a record low — and the National Center for Atmospheric Research released a new report on projected drought impacts, worldwide, described as “possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.”  — Ed.

David Nahai on at the Los Angeles River in 2006 (Photo: Ilse Setziol)

David Nahai was CEO and General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) from 2007 to 2009. On Nahai’s watch, the utility amped up renewable energy projects and launched new outdoor water restrictions that resulted in Angelenos cutting their consumption by more than 20%.

 I first met Nahai a decade ago when he and other members of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board were grappling with what was arguably the nation’s worst urban runoff problem.
 Currently he’s a green-tech consultant and advisor to the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI).

 I sat down with him in his little corner of a Century City high rise. He started by reminding me that opinions expressed in our discussion were his alone, not those of CCI:

The watering ordinance you championed restricted outdoor watering to two days a week (30 minutes a pop). We haven’t seen that kind of water consumption level in 32 years. It was very successful.

But the LA watering restrictions met a quick demise. The City Council retreated to a three-day/24-minute regime after a USC study found fluctuations in water pressure, coupled with corroded pipes, probably caused a couple of dramatic waterline breaks. Should residents blame you for the giant sinkhole in the San Fernando Valley ? It came out it was possible, or maybe even probably, the blowouts were caused by the two-day watering regime. I know DWP personnel didn’t necessarily agree with that but didn’t want to argue the point. And went back to the city council and said, we’re willing  [to compromise]. But there are some curious issues. This change has only just been approved; blowouts haven’t been reported during the last year. Also, the two-day watering schedule has been happening all over Southern California. Why has DWP experienced it and others haven’t?

Can the city still cut consumption with a three-day regime? If everyone went to three days a week, we wouldn’t have as much savings, but it wouldn’t be negligible. But enforcing water restrictions isn’t simply a matter of enacting the law. It’s a matter of motivating Angelenos to rally to a cause, because the law cannot be enforced on a daily basis by a water conservation team that is not a platoon. What is needed is the stigma of wasting a precious commodity unnecessarily.

 My concern is some of the council members made certain statements that tended to undermine the resolve of Angelenos as far as water cutbacks, and it left only the price signal of the rate adjustment.

You’re referring to Councilman Greig Smith, who openly ignored the ordinance, and Council President Eric Garcetti who said his wife couldn’t keep her plants alive on twice weekly watering. It would help if city council members weren’t being defiant of the law. 

People think the drought and the challenge is over. I see it in restaurants where the minute you sit down water is served to you. The law still says restaurants are not supposed to serve water to people unless it’s specifically requested. To continue with business as usual is very shortsighted.

We’ll never be free of our dependence on external water. What we can do is to decrease that dependence somewhat. The other reason it is so important for Los Angeles to do this is various interests are vying for limited water resources—Northern California, Southern California, and agricultural interests. In order to have a dialogue that’s credible we have to act responsibly ourselves.  [If we conserve], nobody can accuse us of hypocrisy.

As much as half of the water used in Southern Californian homes is applied to yards — but a significant chunk of the state’s energy use goes to transporting that water to the region. Something like 20% of the state’s energy is used in pumping water through the Sacramento delta to Southern California. It has a heavy carbon footprint.

Global Warming is expected to reduce LA’s water supply, and yet its utility still relies heavily on the most carbon-intensive fuel, coal. Yes, but when mayor Villaraigosa came into office in 2005 — and I think this is truly one of his major accomplishments, and one for which he receives no credit — DWP “boasted” a 3% renewable energy portfolio. By the time I left DWP, they were at 15%. They should hit 20% this year. And in April they will hit 27%. Of course, the percent fluctuates depending on the [power] load. 

We did it, I believe, without exorbitant rate hikes. Which brings me to Prop 23. Moving to renewables requires a great deal of planning, especially if you’re going to do it in a way that’s fiscally responsible. Having the specter of AB 32 being overturned really throws everything into confusion.

I know you’re eager to talk about Prop 23, especially as you’re serving on the executive committee of the No-On-23 campaign. I thought AB 32 enjoyed fairly broad support in California. This is really a move on the part of a couple of Texas oil companies to defeat AB 32. Part of the reason why the utilities [oppose Prop 23] is they won’t know how to plan. What happens if the unemployment thresholds are accomplished? Will AB 32 spring back into existence by some kind of immaculate conception? Will all of the suspended regulations some how take effect again? Prop 23 is nothing but an attempt to throw a grand hand grenade into the camp of climate change legislation.

 If AB32 is defeated, I think the stalemate in Congress will become entrenched. And you will see other countries turn away and look for another leader — the European Union or China — and this enormous amount of money that has been flowing toward renewable energy will leave the United States.

With federal climate change legislation already stalled and California ’s efforts under attack, should environmentalists and green tech investors shift their efforts to countries really wanting to do something? It’s unthinkable to give up on the U.S. The U.S. remains the leading economic power; and U.S. leadership is indispensable to [cleaning up power sources] in the third world, because it is regarded sometimes — wrongly — as a sacrifice by the countries that are reducing emissions. It’s also very important for the U.S. Deutche Bank recently reported that, for the first time, spending on renewables in China has outstripped investment in the United States. The U.S. must remain a leader because it benefits.

Why do you see a benefit where many members of Congress do not? Because members of Congress are answerable to their particular constituents. The question is, Are they thinking about this in terms of planetary benefits or national benefits, or are they responding to constituent pressures or special interest pressures?

With so much uncertainty on the horizon and the scientists saying we must make dramatic reductions quickly, are you beginning to despair? I was in a meeting with Shimon Peres one time, and he said something that I’ll borrow. He said: “Pessimists are always right to begin with, but optimists are always right in the end.” I continue to remain optimistic that just as human neglect got us to the place we are, human ingenuity will get us out.

Nahai was also interviewed for a Climate Watch feature on Prop 23, a version of which aired on public radio’s The World. The most recent polling suggests that Prop 23 has a slim chance of passing on November 2nd.