Although the drought in the West is being called historic, utilities and engineering firms are developing solutions to ensure water supplies continue to meet demand in the future, even as populations swell and climate change intensifies.

That was one of the recurring themes at ENR's first Western Water Summit, held in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Nov. 13.

According to Roger Pulwarty, director of the national integrated drought information system and senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colo., said temperatures are expected to rise during the 21st century, and droughts will intensify in some areas of the West.

But Pulwarty was optimistic about the engineering and scientific community's ability to address the challenges brought by drought conditions. "Give us a complex problem, and sooner or later, we will solve it," he said. But, he warned, droughts may look similar to phenomena experienced in the past, but, in fact, the combination of a warming earth and natural variations in weather are creating new scenarios, which will insert an "element of surprise" into planning.

Other conference speakers were upbeat. Peter Binney, vice president of sustainable infrastructure at Merrick & Co., Denver, said, "It's starting to be well established that traditional approaches to water management are becoming passé." That said, he added, "I'm very excited about the future. We are going to solve this problem."

Dennis Diemer, general manager of the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency, described a project to bring surface water from the Sacramento River to the California cities of Woodland and Davis, which are currently 100% dependent on groundwater. Diemer stressed the need for water districts to seek more diversity in their supply solutions.

Julie LaBonte, vice president and director of program management for the Americas at MWH Global Inc. and a former official with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said more utilities are seeking to obtain their own local sources of water supplies. "Cities and utilities feel [a sense of urgency] that they have to take into their own hands" the securing of "at least a portion of their water supply," Labonte said. San Diego, for example, is launching a potable reuse program, she said.

Doug Owen, executive vice president and chief technology officer for the water division at Arcadis, said some traditional barriers to wider adoption of desalination—high energy consumption and costs—seem to be dissipating. In California, some 15 desalination plants are either being built or proposed, Owen said.