Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) in Southern California has long been at the forefront of meeting the needs of a rapidly growing service area, thanks to proactive investments in water use efficiency and local water supply sources. With drought conditions again taking a stranglehold on California’s water supplies, EMWD has positioned itself to provide its customers with safe and reliable services while also supporting a culture of water use efficiency among the nearly 1 million customers in its service area. In this interview, we speak with Lanaya Voelz Alexander, EMWD’s assistant general manager for planning, engineering, and construction, about the steps the district has taken to invest in local water supplies, its efforts to become less vulnerable to drought conditions, and its new programs designed to assist customers who are seeking ways to become more efficient.
Municipal Water Leader: Please discuss your background and how you came to be in your current position at EMWD.
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in environmental engineering and subsequently became a licensed civil engineer. I have been working in the water industry in Southern California for over 20 years. For the first 20 years, I was in the private sector, where I worked for a global engineering and construction firm. I supported a variety of water resource programs throughout Southern California. I gained experience in many of the same services EMWD provides, including recycled water, desalination, water resource management, and more. I also managed projects and programs through their complete life cycles, and I really think that has given me a unique ability to serve here at EWMD.
I joined EMWD 3 years ago as the senior director of water resources. I oversaw water supply planning, conservation, groundwater management, and the environmental and regulatory compliance teams. In that capacity, I had the benefit of contributing to all EMWD projects and initiatives. This involvement began early on, when a project was identified as needed for facilities or water supply planning, continued through the planning studies, and included overseeing the compliance of completed projects. This experience, combined with my prior experience in the private sector, provided me with a proficiency in the various aspects of planning, engineering, and construction that are required in my current position at EMWD.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about EMWD’s history and current services.
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: EMWD was established in 1950 and is a full-service provider of water, wastewater, and recycled water services for both wholesale and retail customers. We are located in western Riverside County, California, and have a 558‑square-mile service area in which we serve nearly 1 million residents. One of the things that distinguish EMWD from other water suppliers is that we are only 38 percent built out. That means our water supply challenges are different from those of more-built-out agencies. We not only need to plan for a sustainable water supply for our existing area, but we have to plan to provide for future generations as our service area continues to grow.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the makeup of your water supply and how vulnerable each source is to drought.
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: I think to really frame this answer, I want to start out by saying that EMWD has made significant investments over the past 20 years to increase our water supply’s reliability in the face of drought conditions. Back in 1990, EMWD relied on imported water from the State Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct for more than 65 percent of our total water supplies. Those two supplies, imported from hundreds of miles away, are vulnerable to hydrological conditions. They are dependent on rain and snowpack in their respective watersheds every year. Today, despite our population having doubled, our reliance on imported water has decreased to just under 50 percent.
The other half of our portfolio is local supplies that we have much more control over. Having half our supplies managed locally does reduce our vulnerability during droughts. Our local water supplies include groundwater, desalinated groundwater, and recycled water. All of these are components of our Groundwater Reliability Plus program, which is a comprehensive program focused on managing our local water supplies. We have the opportunity to bank water in our basins for use in dry years. We currently use all our recycled water, and our planned Purified Water Replenishment program will take our recycled water initiatives to the next level by taking that recycled water, which is already cleaned for nonpotable uses, and further treating it to replenish our groundwater basins to maintain the sustainability of our local supply. We are also expanding our groundwater desalination program, which allows us to use a supply that is otherwise nonpotable and also protects portions of our basin from the salinity effects of migrating water. All of these programs are important to protect our local water supply not just now but in the future as well.
Another aspect of our portfolio is our water use efficiency programs. EMWD was a leader in establishing tiered rates based on a customer’s individual needs. We are able to promote water use efficiency through the fair premise that those who use more pay more and those who use less pay less.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the difference between drought mitigation planning and water conservation planning?
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: I think of them as complementary. When I think of drought mitigation, I think of how to reduce vulnerability during a drought. But part of that is using less all the time. The important part of being prepared is planning— being proactive in preparing for water supply challenges instead of being reactive. It is important to develop strategies that allow us to store water when it is available, such as our water banking program; to maximize the use of drought-proof supplies like recycled water; and to invest in our water use efficiency programs. They are all complementary actions that EMWD has been employing for many years.
Municipal Water Leader: How is the ongoing drought in California affecting your water supply?
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: At EMWD, our customers have maintained the water saving measures established during the previous drought and responded to the continuing voluntary water use reductions. We are simply asking most of our customers to be aware and to continue doing what they have been doing since the last drought. EMWD did respond to the regional and state requests for conservation by implementing the next stage of our water shortage contingency plan, which asks customers who are using more than their budget to reduce water waste. We ask that they not refill swimming pools, that they make timely repairs to leaks, and that they be cognizant of the types of landscaping they are installing so that they are consistent with the efficiency standards for outdoor water use. We are focusing on some customers who have the opportunity to reduce waste and doing extra outreach to them to assist them to do so.
Municipal Water Leader: How are you educating and helping your customers during the ongoing drought?
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: EMWD has many long-established water use efficiency tools that have become part of our everyday life. Our water budgets and tiered rates inherently result in water use efficiency. We have also developed a variety of tools and programs for our customers to help them further embrace their commitment to efficiency. We offer an interactive website that customers can use to participate in rebate programs and that provides them with a variety of tools to help them understand their water use habits. We just completed an upgrade to our billing system that gives customers more information about their real-time water use. Knowledge is power, and a lot of our customers, if they know they can do something more, will do so.
All of these tools and our outreach resonate with customers. In 2021, we also launched our Landscapes for Living program, a comprehensive program that combines a lot of our existing resources and rebates into a one-stop shop on our website. Customers can sign up for rebates on smart controllers, which help with outdoor water use efficiency; apply for rebates for turf removal; and access landscape designs for different lifestyles and recreational opportunities they may want to enjoy in their outdoor spaces while incorporating water efficient landscaping. The program also offers tutorials and landscape-contractor training courses, which expand our reach by making contractors advocates in the community who can provide services. We have seen a high level of interest and participation in the program and have had over 600 application submissions since the program’s launch in July 2021. We have also had 65 contractors sign up for the contractor training program, which provides information on how they can help customers understand the benefits of a water efficient landscape.
Municipal Water Leader: In addition to diversifying water supply and encouraging water efficiency and conservation among your users, what other approaches is the district taking to address ongoing and cyclical drought conditions?
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: One of the key aspects is planning and identifying strategies to adapt to changing conditions. Over the past 5 years, we have experienced conditions that we did not anticipate. Through our long-range planning, we have identified tools and projects that we could quickly implement, which has put us in a strong position. The most important aspect is long-range planning and incorporating adaptive management strategies into those plans. We have to strike the right balance in using our funds in a manner that provides us with a just-in-time approach rather than having stranded assets. We have to identify certain signposts for when we have to take further action.
Municipal Water Leader: EMWD is only 38 percent built out. What is the district doing to ensure it can meet the increase in demand expected in the coming generation?
Lanaya Voelz Alexander: First and foremost, we have to continue to embrace efficient water use behavior. One of the things EMWD adopted several years ago is a more stringent tiered-rate structure for new development. This sets expectations that new development be more efficient than existing development, both indoors and outdoors. We also have to continue to protect and further develop our local water supplies and embrace technology as we see new opportunities for new water supplies. Our Purified Water Replenishment program is a great example of this, as it will take recycled water and treat it with advanced treatment processes to recharge our groundwater basins. We have to continue to maximize our drought-proof resources and capitalize on technologies as they become available while continuing to promote the efficient behavior that so many of our communities have already embraced.