Meeting Customer Demands Over Diverse Service Areas

Balancing the demands of a diverse customer base spread across a broad geographic range presents special challenges.

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You are all responsible for providing the same level of clean water and quality service to all your customers. It’s a challenge, but it’s one you meet every day. 

In the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta, Canada, it’s a challenge of much greater proportions: The municipality’s water and sewer service area comprises 25,000 square miles. That’s larger than the whole state of West Virginia. Served by one utility. 

The municipality, profiled in this issue of MSW, aims to ensure that all rural residents are provided with high-quality water and sewer service that is dependable and economical. The department’s motto is, “No resident goes without if we have anything to say about it.” That’s not always easy, given the vast distances involved. From its operations base in Fort McMurray, the distance from the southernmost service area in Conklin to Fort Chipewyan in the north is more than 200 miles, and some of it is only accessible by air. 

While some rural residents have relied on private contractors to supply water and provide sewage pumping services, the municipality will soon be offering those services to every resident of Wood Buffalo at the same utility rate Fort McMurray residents pay for water and sewage services. 

That’s pretty impressive for a small department covering such a massive land area.

A different story to the south

By comparison, California is roughly 164,000 square miles in size, about six and a half times the size of Wood Buffalo’s service area. Imagine if the entire state was served by only six or seven utilities. 

In reality, California is served by approximately 950 water utilities. But as the state and its many utilities deal with a historic drought and a new mandate to cut water use, they too are tasked with balancing the needs of a diverse customer base spread over a wide and varied geographic area. 

Water needs vary greatly from the arid south to the more temperate north, and from large cities like Los Angeles and San Diego to small mountain towns. And of course there’s the state’s agricultural industry, which demands massive volumes of water. 

On April 1, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order mandating a 25 percent reduction in water use for all urban water users, but not all Californians have jumped on board. Overall conservation rates were only 2.8 percent in February. At the time of this writing, the State Water Board was considering an emergency water conservation regulation to meet the mandatory 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide. A sliding scale would lower mandates for communities that have been conserving water.

The fact that agricultural users are not included in these regulations — water allocations from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project for agricultural users have already been reduced to historically low levels — is another source of contention. If the farmers get all the water they need for optimum crop production, the rest of the state will suffer. And if farmers are forced to further reduce their usage, it will have a significant effect on everything from employment to the price you and I pay for a head of lettuce at our local grocery stores. Balancing these needs is a huge challenge, and it’s not going to get any easier. 

It will be interesting to see what happens as California moves through this year’s fire season and into the warmest, driest months of the year. Conservation is no longer an ideal or a feel-good-by-paying-it-forward mindset of the minority. It’s real. It’s necessary. And it needs to happen immediately. 

Those of you in other regions of the country aren’t likely faced with such dire circumstances, but California’s dilemma still illustrates the importance, now more than ever, of conservation and careful stewardship of our resources. 

Enjoy this month’s issue.  


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