As water cutbacks and rate hikes loom in the face of the worst drought in 15 years, many local businesses are figuring how to slow the flow of water today and looking for innovative ways to turn back the spigot in the future.

Among the techniques: One big manufacturer is using pressurized air instead of water to clean containers, a small nursery has installed a drip irrigation system, and building owners all over the area are eyeing an offer to get rebates for installing waterless urinals.

"We understand the situation that the Southland is in. Water is a finite resource and it has come under increasing stress, especially in the last year," said Bob Phillips, spokesman for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. plant near downtown Los Angeles. The plant has chopped its water use by 20 percent in the past year and is looking at even more steps next year.

Phillips was referring to an unprecedented convergence of factors that have conspired to crimp Southern California's water supplies, including last year's record low rainfall, a much-lower-than-normal Sierra snow pack and a seven-year drought along the Colorado River that has forced cutbacks in the region's draw from that source.

On top of these conditions, a federal judge ruled this summer that water levels must be raised in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area to protect the endangered Delta smelt species. The smelt's numbers have dwindled as large numbers of the fish have been caught up in the huge pumps that help transport fresh water from Northern California to farms in the Central Valley and on to Southern California.

In response to the court ruling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session of the Legislature to address problems with the Delta area and proposed a $9 billion bond package including the construction of two dams. But with Democrats in the Legislature objecting to the building of new dams, the session reached an impasse.

The court ruling is forcing water deliveries from the Delta region to be slashed by about one-third, which in turn prompted the Metropolitan Water District the wholesale water agency serving most of the southern half of the state to announce this month that it was cutting agricultural water deliveries by 30 percent and that it would raise water rates for deliveries to member water agencies about 10 percent next year.

MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger also warned that absent significant rainfall, mandatory water rationing would likely go into effect by next spring for the first time since the drought of 1990-91.

Drip irrigation

One city, Long Beach, decided not to wait until next spring to issue restrictions on water use. Earlier this month, the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners banned restaurants from serving tap water unless customers ask for it, as well as prohibiting washing driveways and sidewalks with hoses and irrigating landscapes on days other than Monday, Thursday or Saturday.

These restrictions prompted Ricardo's Nursery in Long Beach to install a drip irrigation system to replace the traditional hand watering of plants.

"The main reason we did this was to save water," nursery spokeswoman Annika Knoppel said. Knoppel said that drip irrigation in which pipes or hoses with little holes for release of water are spread throughout the grounds consumes only about one-third of the water that's used in hand watering.

Besides saving on water costs, drip irrigation also saves labor costs.

Enough nurseries and landscape contractors have switched to drip irrigation or other water management products that one supplier of the systems has seen a roughly 25 percent increase in sales over the past 18 months.

"Our most popular product, especially since this past summer, has been the MP rotator," a sprinkler nozzle that is much more sparing with water than traditional rotating nozzles, said Nina Colasurdo, Southern California water management specialist for Phoenix-based Ewing Irrigation.

The biggest driving force behind the demand, Colasurdo said, is rebates from water agencies.

Not all nurseries have switched to drip irrigation. Gilbert Lopez, owner of the Gardena Hills Nursery in Los Angeles said he's sticking with hand watering of plants. "I grow berry plants that need to be sprinkled from above and don't do well if you just trickle in water from the bottom," he said. Lopez said that in the last few months, he has told his workers to check the soil around each individual plant, so that there is no unnecessary watering. "If it's even a little moist, we skip that plant that day and move on."

Cutting out water

Some major manufacturing water users are taking more dramatic water conservation measures.

At the L.A. Coca-Cola bottling plant, for example, plant operators earlier this year switched from rinsing containers with water to using high-pressure air jets. "Thus far, we've saved about 10 percent to 15 percent of our total water use with this step," spokesman Phillips said.

The plant has saved another 10 percent by switching from a soap-and-water mixture for lubricating its conveyer belts to a dry lubrication method.

As the plant is one of the biggest commercial water users in the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power system, a 20-percent-plus savings in water use is substantial.

Another of the DWP's biggest commercial users, the Anheuser-Busch Co. brewery in Van Nuys, has cut water use by about 6 percent over the past five years, according to a statement from senior plant manager Gary Lee. More recently, it has set up a committee to come up with more ways to conserve water.

At Glendora-based California Portland Cement Co., the focus has been on recycling water. Spokeswoman Susan Patane said the company is now building an aggregate facility in Colton that will contain a so-called "clarifying system" to capture water used in the concrete-making process for recycling.

She added that the company has already reduced water usage over the last several years with such techniques as mixing in mineral additives to the water contained in water trucks that are used to suppress dust. The additives help the water cling to dirt, meaning less water has to be used.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power officials have just launched a water conservation program aimed at building owners, giving them $3,000 rebates for installing new controllers for cooling water towers that recycle more of the water. The agency is also handing out $400 rebates for installing waterless or low-flush urinals.

"We find that rebate pricing is the best way to get a response out of business," said Jeff Peltola, director of budget rates and efficiency for the agency.

So far, he said, interest has been high, though it's too soon to tell how many building owners would follow through.

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