Diablo Water District

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown established a goal for California to be carbon neutral by 2045, but the Diablo Water District (DWD) has embarked on an effort to beat that goal by 18 years.

The DWD Board of Directors adopted regulations earlier this year intended to make the agency carbon neutral by the end of 2027. By the end of the summer, the board had taken its first steps toward that goal when they awarded a contract for the installation of solar panels and a battery backup system that will fully offset the energy used by the district’s office building.

“With pumping and treatment of drinking water being the single largest use of energy in California, California water districts will play a critical role in meeting climate action targets,” DWD General Manager Dan Muelrath said in a press release. “The board of directors and staff of Diablo Water District continue to remain committed to sustainable water management and environmentally proactive practices in its daily operations.”

According to climatepartner.com, carbon neutrality -- making no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere -- is achieved by a two-pronged approach. Converting to renewable energy sources where possible reduces carbon emissions, while investment in initiatives like renewable energy projects, forest conservation or reforestation can offset carbon emissions. Given the global concentration of greenhouse gases, the location where the emissions of greenhouse gases are created or avoided is irrelevant. As a result, emissions that cannot be avoided in one location can be offset by projects in other locations.

“Benefits vary agency by agency depending on the unique characteristics of each agency,” said Chelsea Haines, regulatory relations manager with the Association of Clean Water Administrators (ACWA). “For many water and wastewater agencies, energy is one of the most expensive costs in their operations. These local projects can reduce energy costs, which are ultimately passed to the ratepayers, while contributing to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals and increasing electric reliability.”

While other water agencies have started similar initiatives, DWD’s approach is unique. Muelrath said other agencies have relied, at least in part, on carbon offset projects in remote locations. The DWD board has conversely directed that their effort be achieved locally.

“The board’s directive to staff was that this needs to be a local, job-creating, job-inducing, bottom-line win for everybody – for the district, for the rate payers, for businesses in the area and for the environment,” Muelrath explained.

Executive Order B-55-19, issued by Brown in September 2018, set a statewide goal of achieving carbon neutrality no later than 2045, and achieving and maintaining net negative emissions thereafter. Those goals are in addition to existing statewide targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants the process of making the state carbon neutral on a more aggressive schedule. In July, he directed the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board to evaluate opportunities to achieve the state’s goal by 2035, shaving a full decade off Brown’s original target date.

“No action is not an option anymore,” Muelrath said. “We felt that we needed to act. We were looking at all the different ways that we could help protect our resources because the impact of climate change keeps going. If we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, we’re looking at sea level rise conditions that may (result in) increased salinity in the bay or higher water against the levees of eastern Oakley or Bethel Island. It comes down to having a water-secure future. The biggest way we can have an impact on this is preventing climate change that might ultimately cause water uncertainties or degradation of water quality.”

The installation of the solar power system at DWD’s office building is being funded by a $300,000 grant from the California Office of Emergency Services. The district will also add 600 solar panels to a new corporation yard that is already under construction. Those two projects will reduce the agency’s carbon emissions by one-third. Future projects include more solar installations and the conversion to electric vehicles where possible. Any remaining gap will be addressed through local, carbon sequestration projects, Muelrath said.

“Public water agencies have been actively contributing to California’s clean energy supply for decades,” Haines said. “Several of ACWA’s member agencies have implemented a wide range of renewable energy projects to reduce energy consumption and increase renewable energy resources and participated in a combination of energy efficiency, demand-side management, and peak-use reduction programs.”

Casey Wichert, assistant director of Public Works for the City of Brentwood, said that his agency has not received direction from city officials to develop a plan to become carbon neutral, but believes the topic could be raised as the City Council begins to discuss strategic initiatives next month.

“Agencies like ours are reckoning with the existential climate crisis we face,” said Paul Seger, president of the DWD Board of Directors. “Moving our district to carbon neutrality by 2027 will serve as a model for all agencies to do their part, as we have no time to waste.”