Water conservation jobs spike during California drought

Young adults work for the Los Angeles Conservation Corps installing water-saving drip irrigation for the West Valley Municipal Center.

LOS ANGELES – At the West Valley Municipal Center here in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Reseda, the green grass that once covered half an acre in front of the municipal building and public library is gone. It’s a common sight in a state that’s in a drought emergency and suffers from such a dearth of water that residents face stiff fines for wasting a drop.

Less common, however, is finding a sliver of a silver lining in this dreary landscape.

But 20-year-old Guadalupe Ruiz has because she has the drought to thank for her job: 28 hours a week at the minimum wage of $9 an hour.

“It’s been really difficult,” Ruiz said of struggling to get by without a regular job. “For months, I’ve been looking.”

But now Ruiz is one of 50 young adults who have been hired by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps to transform the grounds of the West Valley center into a drought-resistant landscaped garden. The $200,000 project is reducing the area that needs to be irrigated by 40 percent. Drip lines installed in the place of sprinkler irrigation will expend 14 percent of the water previously used. Concrete walkways are replaced with permeable and cheaper decomposed granite.

“If we didn’t have the drought, there wouldn’t be any reason to save water,” said Brandon Hintz, conservation program manager.

And there wouldn’t be any need for Ruiz or Bryan Solis, 22, who goes to night school for electrical training.

A recent University of California Davis study estimated that more than 18,000 Californians lost their jobs because of the drought, largely in agriculture. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced $18 million grants to help California find jobs for workers hard hit by the drought.

But there is flip side to the grim consequences of the drought. This historic natural disaster has also created jobs.

“There tends to be an emphasis on the jobs that are lost but not the jobs that are gained,” said Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water-policy research group in Oakland, California. “In addition to landscape installation, there are new irrigation technologies. There are also benefits for some of the manufacturers and retail stores that sell these products.”

There’s only one problem. No one tracks the gains as religiously as the losses, something Cooley said needs to be done to train workers in businesses born out of the drought.

The Pacific Institute released a study in 2013 that identified 136 different kinds of jobs that implement sustainable water strategies to conserve water, from plumbers and landscapers to engineers and irrigation specialists.

Thirty-seven of these job types are projected to each add more than 100,000 jobs nationwide by 2020. It found that 28 of these 37 job sectors generally require on-the-job training, some technical training or associate’s degrees but no bachelor’s or advanced degrees.

And despite the drought, there is a trickle of good economic news. The credit rating agency Moody’s said last week that the drought’s impact on California’s economy won’t be significant in the short term.

“We do not expect the drought to weigh heavily on California’s credit position unless the drought lasts significantly longer than our 12-18 month forecast period,” the report said.

And despite the fact that California produces almost half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed across the U.S., it’s a “very modest portion” of the state’s gross product and employment, Moody’s reported.

“Oh, yes. There are lot of jobs being created,” said Shon Hiatt, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

Hiatt rattles off a list of innovative companies that have come up with ways to save water and making big money in the process.

Based in San Francisco, The Climate Corporation was founded by two former Google employees in 2006. It underwrites weather insurance for farmers and its Climate Basic and Climate Pro advisory tools use data science to help farmers minimize water use. Monsanto bought the startup, formerly called Weatherbill, for about $1.1 billion in 2013.

There are now four funds traded on the stock exchange that invest only in companies that deal with water.

“Most of them are startups,” Hiatt said. “But that’s a signal that these startups are now being noticed by big players … Wall Street is taking notice of it.”

Another Bay area startup, mOasis Inc. in Union City, California, manufactures BountiGel, a non-toxic soil additive that absorbs excess water, stores it in the soil and releases it when needed.

Progressive Grower Technologies Inc., in Mt. Angel, Oregon, has designed electronically-charged mists for vineyards that reduce water use by 80 percent.

“Their sales tripled this year from four years ago,” Hiatt said. “A lot of these companies are small, under the radar. There’s no trade association they belong to.”

Hiatt projects continued growth in the business of fighting the drought.

“The World Bank estimated that half the world will face water scarcity by 2030,” he said. “By 2050, when the world’s population increases from 7 billion to 9 billion, agriculture will utilize 30 percent to 40 percent more water. We’re going to have to come up with innovative technology.”

Currently 70 percent of the world’s freshwater goes to agriculture, 20 percent to industry and 10 to direct human consumption.

“We’re adapting to the reality of scarcity,” Hiatt said.

Working on drought landscaping projects such as the one here in Reseda, in a way not only creates jobs but educates the young to the new world reality of water shortages.

“I actually took a training class on how to conserve water,” Solis said.




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