Welcome to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, where we talk to change makers who are working to make our cities better places for people to live, work and play. I'm your host, Davion Ford. This week we're heading to Los Angeles, California to talk with Anselmo Collins, Senior Assistant General Manager of the water system at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, also known as LADWP, which is the nation's largest municipal water and power utility.
Los Angeles, a city of iconic landmarks and rich history, captivates visitors with its vibrant energy and diverse cultural offerings. Founded in 1781 by 44 settlers, this sprawling metropolis in Southern California has become the global capital of entertainment. From the Hollywood sign and iconic emblem of the US film industry to the historic Walk of Fame, where the names of esteemed artists are immortalized, Los Angeles beckons tourists from around the world to explore its captivating past and bask in its dazzling present. LA has been the birthplace of countless films, television shows, and also musicals. From the historic Hollywood studios to the star-studded red carpet events, Los Angeles is a magnet for aspiring actors, musicians, and filmmakers looking to make their mark. LA offers a high quality of life for many of the people who live in the city, but like most cities, it also faces issues related to inequalities. In an effort to address these, Los Angeles is home to grassroots initiatives that uplift marginalized communities and provide resources for affordable housing, education, and other opportunities. Nevertheless, in recent years, LA has seen quite a lot of residents leave the city in search of more affordable places to live with lower costs of living, more favorable tax policies and business climates that are deemed easier to navigate. Another factor contributing to residents leaving Los Angeles is the growing concern over extreme weather conditions related to climate change. The city has experienced an increase flooding, droughts, and heat waves. In addition to this, LA is located on a major fault line and is therefore subject to earthquakes. Taken together, these challenges serve as a reminder to residents, or Angelinos as they're called, that it is increasingly important to proactively address environmental risk and build greater resilience within the city. And this is a priority focus for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or LADWP. Here's Arcadis' City Executive for Los Angeles, Macaria Flores.
LADWP has an incredible job for the city of Los Angeles. This city department is essentially in charge of making sure the 4 million Angelenos, businesses and visitors have power when they flick on the switch and water when they turn on their faucets at an affordable rate. When you're the nation's largest government-owned utility in the second largest city in America and getting ready for the world stage with the Olympics, there is no room for error. And doing business and providing a service in LA is tough. Here in Los Angeles, we deal with the looming possibility of an earthquake at any time or from a multitude of other natural disasters. From droughts to even hurricanes and the weather whiplash we've been experiencing, LADWP consistently delivers on providing water and power. And somehow they make it look really easy.
To gain further insights into LA's efforts to address climate change and ensure a sustainable future, we are pleased to welcome Anselmo Collins to the show. Anselmo is Senior Assistant General Manager of the Water System at LADWP, which provides reliable and safe water and electricity to 4 million residents as well as businesses in Los Angeles.
Hello Anselmo, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Davion. Hello to you. How are you?
I’m doing well. I’m really glad that you joined us. So first, can you tell our listeners what led you to work in water? And what is it in your work that really motivates you?
Absolutely. So on the personal side, I was born and raised in Panama, in Central America. And as you know, we had the Panama Canal there. And that was probably my first interest in water, specifically hydraulics. So when I moved to the US, I decided to study civil engineering. My emphasis was more like in construction, but I found myself going back to an interest in water. And I was lucky enough to get a job as a student engineer here at LADWP. And eventually got hired on. And you fast-forwarded 32 years. Now I happen to be the head of the water system, which is the second largest municipal water system in entire country. So I'm very proud of that and humbled by the job I have.
So it's almost a bit like you've got water in your DNA as far as that goes?
Absolutely. You cut me and I bleed water.
So obviously, it is well known that California and also L.A. in particular face some serious water challenges. What are some of the issues that you're facing there?
Yeah, I think, Davion, the biggest issue that we have is climate change. As you might be aware, we just got out of a three-year drought, but which ended in 2022. It was a pretty significant drought. And it was highlighting what we knew already. That we in LA need to be able to diversify our water supply portfolio. And let me elaborate on that just to give some perspective to your listeners. The city of LA gets a lot of its water that comes imported from either the northern port of the state or from the Colorado River. L.A. has its own aqueduct system, the LA Aqueduct, which was built back in 1913. And it gets this water from the eastern Sierra. The State Water Project gets this water from the western side of the Sierra. And we buy it via metropolitan water district, which is a wholesaler. That same wholesaler has access to water from the Colorado River. So we can import our 90% of our water on a regular year, on an average year, either from our own aqueduct or purchase it from metropolitan. So what we have been doing for the last several years, and we're going to ramping it up even more, is to develop more local water supply projects, projects where we can reuse the water that we have here in LA. We can also capture whatever little bit of rain we do get in LA. We want to be able to capture it and use it to recharge the groundwater basins. Recycle water really is going to be the key for us. We are working on a really exciting program. It's called Operation Next. And what it is is to recycle 100% of the effluent from the largest wastewater treatment plant that we have in the city. It's called Hyperion. When we do that, we're going to be able to take all this water, which is approximately 240,000 acre feet of water per year, will use it to recharge our basins. But also our strategic goal is to use that water, treat it to a really high level, and be able to send it to our filtration plant. We'll be able to then blend the highly treated recycle water with the surface water from the aqueduct, filter it to the plant, and then we can reach 70% of our service territory. So that's a pretty exciting program that we have. And by the way, just a perspective, in a year, the City of LA uses around 450,000 acre feet of water. So that program by itself is almost half of what we use today. So that's a pretty significant amount of water. We see it as the most significant water supply project since the LA Aqueduct was built over 100 years ago.
OK, to the climate change point that you have made, and I think our listeners would be very familiar with the notion of climate change driving the types of drought situations and water shortage that you were just talking about, and how that can make that more severe. But I think when people think about climate change, they don't realize that one of the other impacts of climate change is sometimes you have too much water. So can you talk about that as well? Because I know that's something that you've also been dealing with in LA.
It's interesting because the drought that we had the last one ended in 2022. Because towards the end of 2022, beginning of 2023, we got a whole lot of precipitation in the state. So we went from not having enough water to a point where we had the wettest year in history in California. For our aqueduct, which once again gets this water from the eastern side of the Sierra, we had 296% of normal precipitation. So almost three times what we normally get. And this is in a form of rain, but mainly in the form of snow. So we went from one extreme to the other. So we had to really quickly pivot and take the time to figure out how to manage this excess runoff. The 296% of normal precipitation equates to around over a million acre feet of water that we're going to expect to get in runoff. And usually, runoff starts around April. As the temperature warms up, you start getting this water flowing. So that's a lot more than the aqueduct could actually manage. So we immediately had to go into a mode of one: spreading water. In other words, taking water from the creeks and the rivers and sending it to spreading basins. And recharging the local groundwater basins in the O.S. Valley. That allows that water to be set there and stored there, and limit how much water goes into the aqueduct. Also, because of this climate change and this huge amount of water that we got, we did have some challenges back in Mar ch after having all the snow event. We started getting rained. And when you have a rain event on top of snow, what it does, it speeds up some of the meltdown. And what we saw was a lot of flash flooding taking place. We had a little bit of damage to our aqueduct, but we were able to quickly shut it down, fix it, and put it back in service. So what it tells me to and what it reiterates is the need for storage. Not only LA, but all the other utilities have to now plan for this climate whip lash that we talk about. We need to develop more storage locations so that when we do have excess water, we can store it and use it later when we have droughts. Because we know we're going to have other droughts. For LA, we're focusing on storing it in the ground so that we have groundwater so that in the future we can pump it out. And the main reason is because in California, it is very difficult to build new storage, new dams because of environmental regulations and rules. So consequently, groundwater is a much more attractive way to store that water. So that's one of the areas that we're working on. The other thing that we've been doing here in LA is stormwater capture. We have spreading basins in the City of LA that we typically take the rainwater that falls in LA and we store it in the ground. This year because of all the work that we've done with some partner agencies, we have been able to increase our capacity to have the capture water. So just this year, we are able to capture over 100,000 acre feet of water and take that and recharge the groundwater basin. So once again, this is managing this change in the environment, this change in the climate and making sure that we can capture the water and use it for future years when we don't have enough.
One of the other things that LA and that part of the world is really well known for is seismic activity with the San Andreas fault being right there. And of course, when an earthquake happens or any natural disaster for that matter, it's really important that essential services like water provision are not knocked out or if they are brought back online as quickly as possible. So what has LADWP done to account for this reality of life in LA?
Absolutely. When it comes to seismic activity, LA is a very active area. We have the San Andreas fault, which is a pretty active earthquake fault. And the challenge is that the aqueducts that I mentioned before, the State Water Project Aqueduct or the California Aqueduct, as it's also known, the LA Aqueduct, they all cross the San Andreas fault. So when we have a next major quake, you always have the risk of those crossings being severed. So we have been working on retrofitting whatever tunnels we have in areas close to the San Andreas fault, to minimize or avoid an interruption of the water flow. But in addition to that, what we've been doing more locally is developing what we call earthquake resilient networks, networks where we are installing what's called earthquake resistant ductile iron pipe. This is a pipe that's ductile iron, but the joints where the pipes are put together allows for flexibility of that joint. You can expand, you can contract, it can move up and down, and it can stay intact more likely when you have a quake than the typical installation of ductile iron pipe. And what we focused on is developing networks so that we can ensure that after a quake, we have water for some critical facilities such as hospitals, to make sure that they have the water they need when they're caring for anybody who might be injured as a result of the quake. So we've been installing this pipe now for several years. We actually are installing right now and finished recently installing a pipeline as a trunk line that is made up of this special type of pipe. And I think that's the only project in a nation like that. And it's to build this resilient network to ensure that we have continuity of service. We've also reinforced, like I said, our tunnels. And I think that Operation Next, which I mentioned earlier during the conversation, is also going to be a solution to this issue. If we happen to lose the aqueducts coming into the Southern California area, we'll be able to draw from the water that we're going to be recycling and storing in the groundwater basins to be able to continue to provide service if we happen to have a quake and it severs any of the aqueducts coming in. So those are some of the things that we have been working on to ensure that we provide reliable service to our residents.
Okay, so you've rattled through drought, too much snow, too much rainfall, as well as earthquakes, making it very clear that folks in LA are really facing some big challenges when it comes to making sure that there's a safe and reliable water supply. You also mentioned reuse and recycling. It occurred to me that then there's a water purification piece there as well too. And I understand that you guys are actually using ultraviolet light to purify water. Can you explain a bit?
Absolutely. So we, for the last 20 years or so, have been working on a water quality improvement program. As you know, the environmental protection agency is responsible for sending the rules for drinking water companies. So we spend 20 years, over a billion dollars were invested in a program to change how we treat the water in LA. In Los Angeles, we were using chlorine as the secondary disinfectant. And when the regulation is changed, we have to switch from that to something called chloramines. Chloramines do not provide disinfection byproducts, but also it is not as strong as chlorine. So one of the things that we did is that we added ultraviolet disinfection to our treatment train. So in 2014, we completed construction of the first ultraviolet disinfection facility at our reservoir complex, which is where the filtration plant is. That is the second largest UV plant in the country. It was a project that was designed by Arcadis as a consultant and it was constructed by LADWP forces. And I'm very proud of that too because it's a state of the art facility. And it was all built by LA water and power forces. That's an example of a very innovative project that we have to work on. But I will tell you that in our history, we've had some pretty innovative programs related to water quality. One of the things that we did also is we covered some of our reservoirs with what we call shade balls. And you may have heard about this before. These are four inch diameter high density polyethylene balls. They're black, the ones that we have are black. And they float on the top of the reservoirs. And what it does, it allows for protection of the water from the sunlight, which means it avoids the formation of algae, but also the formation of bromate, which can be a carcinogenic, you know, if it's in high levels. That was an idea that one of our employees had because he saw the application of these balls. And for a different purpose. And he said, we can use this in LA. So we deployed 96 million of these shade balls at our LA reservoir covered it and that allowed us to not only ensure that we didn't have to put too much chlorine in the water because of the algae. But the side benefit, the secondary benefit was water conservation. We were able to avoid a lot of evaporation because now these shade balls are sitting on top of the water surface, and allow us to not have as much evaporation. So those are some pretty interesting and I think innovative projects that we've been able to work on that helps us, you know, continue to meet water quality regulations. But at the same time allows us to conserve water, which by the way conservation here in LA is something very important to us. Folks may not realize that in LA, we use less water today than we did 50 years ago, despite the fact is a million more people living in the City of LA. And that's because of conservation. We have been very creative and very innovative in in providing conservation incentives for our customers to be able to conserve as much water as possible because we want to make sure that in LA conservation is a way of life. So that combination with the other sources of supply that we've been implementing is going to make LA more resilient and sustainable city.
So shifting the focus here to equity, I think most of the folks listening to this are able to take for granted that they have ready access to clean water. They can just walk over to the tap, turn it on and there you go. This isn't always the case for everyone. And we also know that when there are water shortages and other types of events, things that are driven by climate change, for instance, it's those of us who have the least who suffer the most. So what is LADWP doing to ensure that everyone in LA, including people who are at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, always have that access to water and are also protected from water?
That's a great question Davion and I will tell you that. Luckily for LA because of all the work that we've done and investments that we made we're able to provide reliable clean water to all our customers, regardless of where they live, regardless of where they are. But certainly the issue about accessibility to water in other cities in other areas is a challenge and there are certain cities and service areas outside of the city of LA where they've had issues with that. Also for us we see it as our goal on our mission to provide reliable service to everybody. One of the ways that we do this is to make sure that we have a system that has a very diverse water supply portfolio. So regardless of the situation we can continue to provide water to our customers. And I’ll use an example of just this past drought, we were asked in middle of 2022 to reduce our demand, because there was not enough water in the state system. There was not enough water in our own aqueduct and the state basically put us in on a budget and they said we'll give you enough water to meet your health and safety needs only. So everything else you know, we don't have enough have enough water for you. So we ask all our customers to go from being able to water three days a week to two days a week but we did it across board all our customers. That was important for us. Now what I will tell you is, equity is something that is front and center for us. So we believe operation next is going to support that equity component by making sure that that recycle water, which will be a new source of water, is accessible to all our customers all the rate pair to regardless of what they live. But I think when I think of equity also I think about what are the impacts that our projects have on all the communities. Many times some of these projects and Operation Next being one of them is going to be crossing some of the disadvantaged communities that we have here in Los Angeles. One of the things that we're make want to make sure is that as we develop these projects we want to look for opportunities to provide certain improvements in the community. For example, as we are installing these large ductile pipelines we may need to have what we call lay down areas to put all the materials. We may choose to do that for example in a park that is in this repair so that when we are done with it will restore the park to even better conditions up the way we found them. Another part that I think is critical is operation next as well as many of our programs are going to create many jobs operation next has a potential to create something in the order of 30,000 new jobs in the city of LA. So here's an opportunity for us now to develop a workforce development program to now help people in those disadvantaged communities be trained in the water industry and be able to get some of these good paying well paying jobs. So not only are they getting the water service that they should be getting from us, but now that also get an opportunity to potentially work for the city of LA. So in some of these new high tech jobs that are being created as a result of using now advanced reading recycle water as a source of water. And the last component I would say is to when you talk about disadvantaged communities we have a pretty large contracting community here. We recognize that for a lot of small firms and small contractors, it’s difficult for them to compete with larger firms. So we're looking for to ensure that when we talk about equity, this equity in contracting. So that not only the large companies but also the small firms that tend to be small businesses might already own women owned businesses having an opportunity to compete and get some of those jobs. So to me when you look at that in totality that is what we can bring to the table when it comes to equity in providing water and power services to our customers.
And if you look into the future Anselmo, can you describe for me briefly what a truly water resilient LA would look like?
I think that a truly resilient water system is going to be one that is fully diversified. It will have surface water, groundwater, recycle water, stormwater capture, all these different elements, all fully developed. I think that also a resilient system we want to be able to sustain us during a drought like we just had, but be able to really sustain us doing potentially even a longer drought. I think a resilient system is one that allows for growth and vitality of the city. We know that city of LA is going to keep growing and being able to have a system that provides enough water to accommodate that growth is going to be important to us as well. I also think it's going to be a water efficient city. We want to make sure that we have as water efficient as possible of the city. And what I mean by that is not just what we do at LADWP, but our customers. Making sure that our customers are able to be as efficient as possible at home. Interestingly enough, a lot of the water that people use at home is outdoors is for irrigation. And we want to make sure that we work with our customers to educate them and provide them with programs and incentives that would allow them to change the landscape and go to something that's more drought tolerant, something that is more climate appropriate. So that LA doesn't have all these big, you know, expansive lawns that look like a golf course in Scotland, because that is not the climate that we have here. We need to go to vegetation that is more appropriate for the type of climate that we have here in LA. And I believe that we're making great strides there, which by the way, in the City of LA, we've been able to replace over 53 million square feet of turf with drought tolerant material. That's a huge win. That's more than anybody else has done in the entire state. As a matter of fact, the previous governor had a goal of 50 million square feet for the entire state. And just the City of LA is a 53 million square feet. So it just kind of highlights the commitment that our customers have to water conservation. So to me, that's the way I see a resilient LA in the future. That will support not just the folks that live here, the folks that come here to visit, the businesses that come and want to move into LA, that expect to have a reliable water supply to be able to do their function. So to me, that's what I see as a reliable city in the future.
Anselmo, thanks so much for joining the show.
Thank you very much, Davion. I appreciate the time too.
That's it for this episode of the show. A big thank you to Anselmo Collins from LADWP for being our guest. Stay tuned for our future episodes as we continue to bring changemakers to the table who are driving progress in urban development. And if you haven't already, please be sure to subscribe. Also check out our other episodes. I'm Davion Ford and you've been listening to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, the world's leading company delivering sustainable design, engineering, and consultancy solutions for natural and built assets. You can learn more by visiting our website arcadis.com, or by following Arcadis on LinkedIn or Facebook. Stay curious, get inspired, and remember the future belongs to those who dare to make a difference in the cities we call home.