Utility Becomes a Valuable Partner in Community

Data analytics and new infrastructure help California utility conserve water and boost reliability.

Utility Becomes a Valuable Partner in Community

The red valve crew with Moulton Niguel Water District works on a water valve replacement project in Laguna Niguel, California. (Photography by Doug Gifford)

Interested in Infrastructure?

Get Infrastructure articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Infrastructure + Get Alerts

With intricate links to distant primary sources of potable water and the ever-present threat of drought, the Moulton Niguel Water District takes a proactive, data-driven approach to both conserving water and ensuring reliable water service for its 170,000 customers in Orange County, California.

During the past decade, the district — based in Laguna Hills, about 50 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles — has invested more than $75 million in infrastructure and advanced technologies. The goal: Conserve water and keep customers’ faucets flowing in the event of a planned or unplanned outage of its imported water supply.

“We believe in being proactive — anticipating community needs for safe and reliable service,” says Joone Lopez, the district’s general manager. “We also take an approach that emphasizes smart investments and planning.

“We value our customers’ dollars. We treat it like it’s our own money. So when we make investments, we look for innovative opportunities that provide the greatest value and allow us to be a valuable partner in our community.”

The utility buys its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional wholesaler that provides water to 26 agencies serving approximately 19 million customers. That water comes from sources that lie hundreds of miles away — snow run off from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the north and water from the Colorado River to the east.

The only local source of water is recycled wastewater, which goes through three treatment stages and is discharged into a recycled-water distribution system for use in irrigating things such as parks, golf course, street medians and other landscaped areas.

With water such a scarce commodity, it behooves the district to embrace technology as a valuable water conservation ally.

“We utilize available data and resources to be efficient and effective in solving problems for our community, as opposed to developing blanket programs,” says Matt Collings, assistant general manager. “We try to be focused and smart about how we operate.”

The investments have delivered tangible results. In the early 2000s, a district study showed that it could supply customers with water for two to three days in the event of a water outage, perhaps caused by an earthquake, for example, or a planned-maintenance shutdown. Today that number stands at 31 days, Collings notes.

Furthermore, in 2005 utility customers used an average of 183 gallons of water per capita per day. Today that figure stands at 118 gpcd; even as the district’s population grew by about 50% during that time.

Smart technology

An $8 million advanced metering infrastructure program stands as a good example of the district’s penchant for high-tech adoption. Funded by a combination of grants and water-rate revenue, the four-year-old program was spurred by customer requests for more real-time usage data that could help them conserve water.

“When customers get their water bills, it’s after the fact,” Lopez explains. “So our customers wanted to understand their water usage better in real time. When they’re aware of their usage, it makes them more efficient. It also engages them and makes them proactive, as opposed to us telling them what they need to do.

“Public engagement is critical because it turns customers into active partners. For example, when we’ve asked customers to reduce water usage during droughts, we’ve seen some amazing levels of cooperation. We not only survived during our last drought (from 2014 through 2017), we thrived.”

The first phase of the project consisted of implementing smart meters on the district’s irrigation accounts, since they’re the largest water consumers, plus a couple thousand residential accounts. The second phase included smart meters for commercial customers, which allowed the utility to ensure that there was sufficient radio coverage throughout the service area for a full residential rollout.

The district is currently rolling out the program for remaining residential customers. Officials expect to complete the project within the next 12 to 18 months, Collings says.

Efficient leak detection

The smart meter project does more than just help consumers conserve water, however. It also supports other water-management programs. For example, when used in conjunction with the district’s SCADA system, the district can more efficiently target leaking connections.

This is no small matter for the district, which includes approximately 55,000 service connections. As such, trying to find leaks is the definition of hunting for a needle in a haystack.

But rather than send out technicians with acoustic leak-detection systems on random searches, the utility uses data from the SCADA system and smart meters to eliminate guesswork.

“We could go and listen to all 55,000 service connections,” Collings says. “But instead we use data to target certain areas.”

The SCADA system enables district staff to remotely operate equipment at various treatment plants, pump stations and flow-control facilities — turn pumps on and off, open and close valves, adjust flow rates and so forth. But it also gathers and aggregates operational data, such as the amount of flow coming into the district, the amount of water that flows through pump stations and any change of volume in its 21 storage reservoirs, which can store 71 million gallons of water.

“Using both systems allows us to break information down into defined zones and run water-loss analyses,” Collings explains. “The ability to compare real-time source data for defined zones with actual water consumption in those zones allows us to calculate water loss in those particular zones.

“With that information, we can direct our leak-detection staff to focus their efforts on areas with higher water loss, which yields a more effective output.”

In addition, the district is using the smart meters to gather data on urban water runoff in a local watershed. It hopes to use that data to work with local agencies to reduce runoff, which will improve the health of the watershed and its beaches.

Keeping water outages at bay

To improve system reliability, the district also teamed up with other regional water agencies to build additional water storage and treatment infrastructure. The effort included three major projects: The Baker Water Treatment Plant, the 250 million-gallon Upper Chiquita Reservoir and the Irving Ranch Water District-Orange County Water District emergency interconnection line, Collings says.

The Baker plant, which went online in 2017, can treat up to 28.1 mgd. By contract, it also provides about 30% of the district’s water needs. The plant treats surface-water supplies from the MWD and delivers it to regional transmission mains. It also serves as a redundant source of treated water from MWD.

“It’s the region’s first new surface-water treatment plant in 50 years,” Collings says.

The Upper Chiquita Reservoir, which provides emergency storage of treated water for five agencies in southern Orange County, more than doubled the district’s treated-water storage capacity. It went online in 2013.

During emergencies, the critical Irving Ranch-Orange County emergency interconnection line provides otherwise inaccessible potable groundwater to six agencies in south Orange County, including Moulton Niguel.

Innovative project

A 410-foot-long, 72-inch-diameter microtunnel that carries waterlines under I-5, a major north-south freeway that splits the district’s service area, represents another major infrastructure project aimed at improving system reliability and capacity. Completed in 2020, the $8 million project, funded with bond proceeds and rate revenue, is unusual because it combines a potable waterline with a recycled waterline inside the same microtunnel casing, Collings says.

“It’s the first time the State Water Resources Control Board has allowed a recycled waterline and a potable waterline within the same tunnel. The two-in-one design saved the district millions of dollars.”

At issue was an aging 14-inch-diameter potable waterline installed in the 1960s that was prone to leaks. In addition, two recycled waterlines that also were installed in the 1970s — 8 and 12 inches in diameter — also needed upgrades.

The design featured a 20-inch-diameter, fused PVC pipeline for potable water and a 30-inch-diameter fused PVC pipeline for recycled water, both enclosed in PVC pipe casings. In turn, those two casings then are enclosed within a larger, 72-inch-diameter steel casing, Collings says.

Improved system reliability

These infrastructure projects, coupled with expanded recycled water capacity and a budget-based rate structure that financially incentivizes customers to use water more efficiently, all helped the district achieve its goal of 31 days of water reliability.

The projects, many of them jointly funded ventures, also underscore the value of developing and maintaining strong relationships with neighboring water agencies. Collings says the operational staffs of regional water agencies meet regularly, as do members of their respective boards, to talk about issues and opportunities.

“Good relationships help these agencies come together to put great projects into place that benefit the region as a whole, but would be difficult for each agency to do on its own.”

Looking ahead, Lopez says she remains excited about finding new ways to further engage customers and promote water-conservation efforts, as well as continuing to embrace new technologies as they emerge. She believes there might even come a day within the next 10 years or so when district customers will be able to drink recycled water.

“Water is a very scarce resource here,” she says. “And it gets worse with each drought, which is why we need to be so efficient about how we use it. We’re trying to get people to embrace water conservation as a way of life.” 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.