Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

While Waiting for New Rules to Emerge, Many Are Cutting Back on Water Use

Standing on dry grass where there should have been, by his count, five feet of snow, California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. jolted his state a few weeks back by ordering a statewide, across-the-board 25% cut in water use, declaring: “This historic drought demands unprecedented action.”

Historic is an understatement: April marked the first time in 75 years that no snow existed at 6,800 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the snowpack was at 5% of its historical average of 28.3 inches. Kevin J Anchukaitis, Ph.D., of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Daniel Griffin, Ph.D., a Woods Hole postdoc now at University of Minnesota, estimated the drought to be the most severe in 1,200 years, according to a Geophysical Research Letters study based on tree ring chronologies.

On May 5 California’s State Water Resources Control Board approved regulations designed to carry out Gov. Brown’s order. Those details were spelled out in a draft published April 28.

The regulations appeared to deliver welcome news for biopharmas and other California businesses, since they contain no specific use reduction targets for commercial, industrial, and institutional users served by urban water suppliers, defined as serving 3,000 or more connections. Urban suppliers serve all but 10% of the state. However, the state is demanding that its 400+ water suppliers cut water use, from 4% to 36% in affluent districts. (Self-supplied businesses and institutions must cut water 25% or restrict outdoor irrigation to no more than two days per week).

How? The state offers little in the way of guidance. In its Notice of Proposed Emergency Regulation, the water board encouraged suppliers to “look at their commercial, institutional, and industrial properties that irrigate outdoor ornamental landscapes with potable water for potential conservation savings.” Yet urban water suppliers have already been required to impose mandatory outdoor irrigation restrictions.

“Suppliers have initiated conversations with companies on water conservation initiatives, such as the turf removal program, the commercial rebate program, and the water savings incentive program,” BIOCOM, the industry association representing life sciences companies and institutions in the San Diego region, told GEN through a spokeswoman.

BIOCOM will review final water-reduction rules before commenting on their impact to life sciences users.

On April 22, BIOCOM brought industry leaders, suppliers, and water officials together at a workshop focused on regional water accessibility. “Water agencies expressed their understanding for the importance of water in the life science industry to continue producing innovative products,” while City of San Diego officials told attendees they have no intention of limiting access to process water “at this time,” the spokeswoman added.

Guaranteed Water

San Diego has exempted from conservation rules biopharmas and other companies engaged in water-intensive manufacturing within its “Optimized Zone,” where infrastructure allowing use of reclaimed water has been built, through the Guaranteed Water for Industry program adopted in 1998. To win the exemption, companies must use reclaimed water “to the extent possible” and implement “minor” potable water conservation measures. In return, the city has committed to helping those businesses win approvals for using reclaimed water from San Diego County and the state.

One Guaranteed Water for Industry participant, BD (Becton, Dickinson & Co.), has cut water use at its BD Biosciences facility in La Jolla, CA, for more than a decade. Abigail Cardona, BD manager, worldwide public relations, corporate/shared services, told GEN that the company in 2000 completed projects that include installation of low flow toilets, urinals, and faucets, as well as use of recycled water for:

  • Flushing of toilets and urinals at 11077 North Torrey Pines Road, which has dual plumbing to supply both potable and reclaimed water
  • Irrigation at 11077 North Torrey Pines Road and two other buildings, 10975 Torreyana Road, and 10995 Torreyana Road
  • The cooling tower at 10975 Torreyana Road

Since 2010, Cardona said, BD has installed water-saving controls on its autoclaves, while last year, the company switched to waterless urinals in the men’s restrooms at 10995 and 10975 Torreyana Road.

“Water conservation is a key component of BD’s sustainability strategy. We have set public commitments to reduce water at our sites worldwide, and have exceeded our target of 15%—reducing water by 31% worldwide from our baseline year of 2008. To build on this, BD now aims to reduce water consumption 40% worldwide (from 2008 levels) by 2020,” Cardona said.

Since last year, through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, businesses and institutions can win rebates of $2 or more per square foot of turf grass removed—by replacing it with landscaping that replaces live turf with plants, is permeable to water and air, and follows additional city and county rules. The district’s SoCal Water$mart program also rebates businesses that switch to more efficient landscaping equipment, plumbing fixtures, HVAC equipment.

Heeding the Need

Richard Yu, Ph.D., scientific and operations director for the QB3@953 incubator in San Francisco, told GEN his facility is also heeding the need for water conservation.

“I flagged a person for using cold running water to cool an eletrophoresis gel and begged them to use a recirculating water chiller, and then hooked them up to someone using that,” Dr. Yu said. “Our autoclave and R.O. [reverse osmosis] water purifier use a lot of water for cooling and purification, respectively. We're looking into solutions to reduce generation of, or reuse, “waste” water (in these examples, just warmed water or higher salt water). A large cistern to capture warmed water from the autoclave, and then letting it cool and recirculating it for later recooling, or some active electric chiller, are options we're looking at but haven't settled on anything yet.

Other biopharma users can be expected to embrace water conservation, as businesses in general have done in recent years, one close observer of California’s water challenges told GEN.

“We’ve seen this in the past, where our businesses immediately are able to increase production and reduce water usage by things like water reuse and recycling on site,” said Conner Everts, co-facilitator for the Environmental Water Caucus at Los Angeles Waterkeeper, a nonprofit whose advocacy centers on protecting and restoring Santa Monica Bay, San Pedro Bay, and adjacent waters.

Everts offers three reasons for California’s persistent problems with water: The state has over-allocated and promised water it cannot expect to generate except in the wettest of years. The state is virtually alone in the nation in exempting from regulation groundwater. And the presence of numerous water suppliers and local regulators prevents the coordination that he said is essential if California is to ever quench its thirst for more water.

Authorities across California have scrambled to develop piecemeal solutions: Orange County Water District is completing an expansion of the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) that will boost its capacity from 70 million to 100 million gallons of drinking water daily.

Later this year, Poseidon Water will complete the Carlsbad Desalination Project; it will tap 50 million gallons per day from the Pacific Ocean, enabling the San Diego County Water Authority to cut the amount of water imported from the Colorado River and northern California. On Wednesday, the state water board approved a regulatory pathway enabling permitting of seawater desalination plants by regional water boards based on standards designed to protect marine life and water quality.

The drought has stoked discussion of other solutions. Constructing more dams generates debate along political lines: Conservatives and libertarians say the dams could hold much of the water now draining into the Pacific. Environmentalists say the dams would only work for a limited number of years, and would harm fish. A 2007 federal court decision (upheld last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an opinion the Supreme Court let stand in February) ordered the protection of the two- to three-inch-long Delta smelt, a federally designated threatened species, resulting in diversion of water away from Central Valley farms into San Francisco Bay.

What California needs is several solutions involving “more”—more rain, more extensive collection and distribution of water, more monitoring of the water, more treatment and reuse of water, more conservation, and more tracking of the state’s water supplies. All of these require “more” money. With governments strapped for cash, and with suppliers and investors leery of years-long approval processes, biopharma users can only address their own water use while government and suppliers amble toward the necessary solutions to avoid turning California into the State of Thirst.

[This report has been updated from an earlier edition to include the May 6 approval by the California Water Resources Control Board of a regulatory pathway for new desalination plants.]


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