The energy and emissions footprint of water supply for Southern California
Due to climate change and ongoing drought, California and much of the American West face critical water supply challenges. California's water supply infrastructure sprawls for thousands of miles, from the Colorado River to the Sacramento Delta. Bringing water to growing urban centers in Southern California is especially energy intensive, pushing local utilities to balance water security with factors such as the cost and carbon footprint of the various supply sources. To enhance water security, cities are expanding efforts to increase local water supply. But do these local sources have a smaller carbon footprint than imported sources? To answer this question and others related to the urban water–energy nexus, this study uses spatially explicit life cycle assessment to estimate the energy and emissions intensity of water supply for two utilities in Southern California: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire Utility Agency, which serves the San Bernardino region. This study differs from previous research in two significant ways: (1) emissions factors are based not on regional averages but on the specific electric utility and generation sources supplying energy throughout transport, treatment, and distribution phases of the water supply chain; (2) upstream (non-combustion) emissions associated with the energy sources are included. This approach reveals that in case of water supply to Los Angeles, local recycled water has a higher carbon footprint than water imported from the Colorado River. In addition, by excluding upstream emissions, the carbon footprint of water supply is potentially underestimated by up to 30%. These results have wide-ranging implications for how carbon footprints are traditionally calculated at local and regional levels. Reducing the emissions intensity of local water supply hinges on transitioning the energy used to treat and distribute water away from fossil fuel, sources such as coal.