During the recent blistering heat wave, we had rotating outages and large power users (generally businesses and other utilities) were asked to curtail use. Large power users shut down operations or switched to generators, but rotating blackouts still couldn’t be avoided.
This was actually predicted by experts last year and is expected to get worse. It seems to be due to the evening drop-off of solar power, the variability of wind and hydropower, and a reduction in coal and natural gas power availability.
This week’s news featured a blame game between Cal-ISO (the grid operator) and the California Public Utilities (CPUC,) basically citing lack of resource availability for reasons unknown.
Throw in a new statewide wildfire liability policy plus aging infrastructure and you got extended public safety power shutoffs during fire season last fall, particularly in Northern California, though they did also occur in our area.
How are blackouts and shutoffs going to work with even more people dependent on the internet and working and schooling from home?
I am certain, from serving on the Association of California Water Agencies’ Energy Committee, that this is a jumbled mess, fixable only with monstrous price tags, political negotiations and regulatory changes. This speaks to the complexity of running utilities but is also exceedingly frustrating to residents and business owners who just want it to work. It doesn’t have to be that way.
You know what has worked, without fail, for more than 26 years? Our local water services. Some, but not all, folks lost water service due to the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Since then upgrades, mostly to storage tanks, have been installed to better withstand seismic activity. Earthquakes aren’t the only things planned for, however.
We have plans in place to ensure water availability in event of public safety power shutoffs or localized damage to pumping equipment. Our Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP), completed every five years, requires planning for problems up and down the state. The next edition is just starting to be prepared. The UWMP accounts for everything from problems in supply from Northern California, to levee failures, to aqueduct breaks, to the effects of climate change, multi-year droughts, floods and sea level rise. Lack of snow, lack of rain, even additional regulatory restrictions have been contemplated.
The consolidation of multiple agencies into SCV Water makes local coordination in emergencies much easier than in the past. Partnerships with other agencies to the north and south of us mean there are backup plans for dry years and places to store excess water in wet years.
Such comprehensive planning and obsession with reliability isn’t automatic. There have been very public cases of corruption or outright neglect of public health by water agencies in some areas of the state. Very small agencies — and there are a lot of them — often have trouble funding and replacing infrastructure. Some areas have seawater or pollution impacting their groundwater to the extent it is unusable. Some areas have no backup supplies. Some areas ran out of water in the last major drought and had to rely on trucked-in supplies.
Our area never had to ration water due to availability in the last drought declaration, though our customers did step up and follow statewide conservation mandates when passed by the governor.
I have had people call me to ask about water connection moratoriums in the past. They had bought property in Cambria or Montecito that was essentially unbuildable because of bans on new water service. Imagine land where there is no public water service, even if your neighbor has water. Imagine having no usable groundwater with no help in sight. Checking out water supply is just as important as checking out the school system if you relocate, certainly in the West.
I’m exceedingly grateful that our water is there for this community, come what may. It doesn’t turn off for a week, let alone a day, except possibly for pre-arranged construction. Even emergency repairs are done through the night, if necessary, to minimize impact to water users.
It is reassuring that, in a time when there are so many things going wrong, from power outages to slow mail to COVID shutdowns, water isn’t something we have to worry about here in Santa Clarita. I hope we can soon say the same for all our essential services.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.