Unintended consequences of conserving water: leaky pipes, less revenue, bad odors – L.A. TIMES

Hugo Gonzalez, a Leucadia Wastewater District technician, prepares a camera to search for roots in a Carlsbad, Calif., sewer line. Without normal levels of outdoor irrigation, tree roots in search of water have invaded sewer pipes and grown there over time. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

This morning’s L.A. Times post featured many CWEA members and the tremendous impact of low flows on agency systems and finances. Shout out to Dr. George Tchobanoglous; Christoph Dobson; Hugo Gonzalez; Mike Markus and Paul Bushee and their agencies for contributing to this story on the consequences of conservation in the CA Drought.

Under orders to slash water use amid a historic drought, cities and towns across the state saved about 75 billion gallons in July, eclipsing Gov. Jerry Brown’s once-daunting order for a 25% reduction.

But, in a paradox of conservation, water agencies say the unprecedented savings — 31% in July over July 2013 — are causing or compounding a slew of problems.

Sanitation districts are yanking tree roots out of manholes and stepping up maintenance on their pipes to prevent corrosion and the spread of odors. And when people use less potable water, officials say, there’s less wastewater available to recycle.

Water suppliers, meanwhile, say the dramatic decrease in consumption has created multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls.

Experts and industry leaders say this represents a shift into a new stage of the four-year drought.

“It’s unintended consequences,” said George Tchobanoglous, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “We never thought [conservation] was a bad thing. Every citizen thinks he or she is saving mankind, and I’m sympathetic, but it just so happens that our basic infrastructure was not designed with that in mind.”

Sanitation districts have worried about sewer spills for years, but officials say they have had to become especially vigilant in recent months as water use has plummeted.

Shorter showers, more efficient toilets and other reductions in indoor water usage have meant less wastewater flowing through sewer pipes, sanitation officials say. With less flow to flush the solids down the system, those solids are collecting and can eventually damage pipes.

“The costs that we’re going to face due to corroding pipes is going to be astronomical,” Tchobanoglous said. “It’ll dwarf everything else.”


About the Author

Megan Barillo

Support great stories about water professionals & projects. Join CWEA