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Environment & Energy Report

California Water Utilities Seek Generators Amid Wildfires, Outages

Nov. 6, 2019, 11:00 AM

Water providers across California are buying gasoline- and diesel-powered generators, arranging for fuel deliveries, and asking customers to cut back on showers during power outages triggered by electric utilities trying to avoid wildfires.

The outages are affecting both rural areas like Sonoma’s wine country, and sprawling urban centers like Los Angeles, where suppliers provide water for households and businesses—as well as fire departments battling wildfires.

“Every water supplier needs electricity in order to pump water where it needs to go and to treat water,” said Shannon Dean, corporate communications director for California Water Service, which has nearly 485,000 customers across much of the state, and has had to deal with power outages.

The outages are even affecting the state, which delivers water to contractors through a conveyance network. The Department of Water Resources is spending $100,000 per month on two rented generators in case power is shut down, said spokeswoman Erin Mellon.

“It is pretty universal across the state,” said Jack Hawks, executive director of the California Water Association, which represents regulated water utilities serving about 6 million people. “Just like the electric utilities are investing in asset hardening, the water utilities have to do the same thing.”

Generators in El Dorado

The El Dorado Irrigation District, which is between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, has spent $800,000 to buy 150 generators for its 220-square-mile service area, spokesman Jesse Saich said. Fuel costs have not been calculated.

Like other districts, El Dorado raised water levels in its reservoirs and asked the public to stop outdoor watering and reduce dishwashing and laundry loads during the outages. Generators were set up strategically throughout the system.

El Dorado supplies water, wastewater treatment, recycled water, and hydroelectric power to 125,000 people.

During four outages over three weeks, services were never interrupted.

“We don’t want this to be the new normal,” Saich said. “I don’t think anyone in California wants that, but right now it’s what we’ve got.”

Wildfires in California have typically been the result of human activity but utilities have also been to blame. The 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, which killed 86 people, was sparked by PG&E transmission lines and the potential liability forced the largest state utility into bankruptcy.

PG&E and other electric providers have increasingly been shutting down power in areas where the wildfire forecast is dangerous to avoid igniting additional blazes.

‘Entire System Needs to Be Reimagined’

A rush to avoid losing power led to a shortage of generators, and some small districts haven’t had standby power supplies, Hawks, the California Water Association director, said. In one of them, Sonoma, residents were, perhaps luckily, evacuated during an outage, he said.

“It did happen and is happening and may well happen again,” he added.

Districts must also coordinate gasoline and diesel fuel deliveries, which sometimes requires going into evacuated areas with fire department escorts and protection.

During a news conference Nov. 1 California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the public safety power shutoffs put lives at risk, caused sewer issues, and in some cases meant people did not have access to water.

“That is unacceptable,” he said, adding that shutdowns weren’t just about wildfire mitigation. “The entire system needs to be reimagined.”

PG&E said it does not provide backup generators but has been working for the past two years with cities, counties, and agencies on how to prepare for outages as well as available resources.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off power affects the operation of critical facilities, such as water providers and wastewater services,” PG&E Spokesman Jeff Smith said in an email.

Paying for Backup

The water and wastewater utilities say having the redundancy of backup power is necessary.

“We understand that in California we’re going to have to be resilient with these wildfires and climate change,” said Evan Jacobs, spokesman for California American Water, which serves 675,000 people.

PG&E has said outages could happen for the next 10 years.

Who will pay the costs is “a question for the future,” Hawks said.

PG&E, which is in bankruptcy, did not respond when asked if it planned to reimburse districts.

PG&E is in bankruptcy and it’s unclear how costs will or could be recouped. Hawks’ members have asked the California Public Utilities Commission to consider the extraordinary costs in case of future fare increase requests. And other utilities may pass increases on to ratepayers.

East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, which had two outages and a third that was never enacted, spent $400,000 on generators and estimates fuel costs over five days at $75,000.

“We will look at any avenue we can to get these costs reimbursed for our customers but at this point it doesn’t look very promising,” spokeswoman Andrea Pook said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com