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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink…

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner used this famous turn of phrase to describe the torment of his crew’s thirst surrounded by undrinkable sea water.  It might be equally apt when applied to modern day Southern California suffering through a drought of historic proportions while we gaze at the vast expanse of the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean beyond our infinity pools and shaded loggias.  Some literary critics say that the Rime is a cautionary tale that illustrates the tragic consequences that come from violating nature.  Other critics might say that modern day Southern California is too; an oasis in a coastal desert.  We find ourselves in the midst of a drought of historic severity.  Water everywhere, yet none to drink.

We don’t usually discuss macro issues on this blog, but this issue has local implications at both a municipal and personal level.  That being said, before we begin, we want to be clear: we are not providing this information as an argument for or against tiered water rates, water rate litigation, water conservation or the Groundwater Recovery Plant.  We are offering this information as partial context for those debates.  We want people to understand the larger picture, both pro and con, when discussing local water issues in South Orange County.

Water is critical to the growth and development of Southern California, yet Southern California lacks a single native source of water sufficient to meet its needs.  As a result, our water must be imported largely from water diverted from the Colorado River or from lakes fed by the melting snow pack of the Sierra Nevadas to the north.  And while water is literally the lifeblood of Southern California, very few people recognize that we are in the midst of a drought of epic, historic proportions.  We’ve been spoiled by the mighty Colorado.  Did you know that the 20th Century was one of the wettest centuries in the last 1,300 years?  Did you know that last year in California was the driest year in recorded history, and that the current century is on pace to be one of the driest ever?  According to this article, “[d]owntown Los Angeles received a meager 3.60 inches of rain since Jan. 1 [2013], the driest calendar year since 1877. Normally, downtown would be soaked with about 15 inches of precipitation.”  In short, even normal rainfall and water production would be a reduction from what we are used to and a prolonged drought could be catastrophic.

The drought is starting to gain attention.  California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a statewide emergency and called for voluntary reductions in water usage.  Ranchers and farmers are starting to worry.  Even economists are taking note, bracing for the impact on jobs and the economy.

Consider this New York Times article regarding the availability of water from the Colorado River:

The once broad and blue river has in many places dwindled to a murky brown trickle. Reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, the canyon walls around them ringed with white mineral deposits where water once lapped. Seeking to stretch their allotments of the river, regional water agencies are recycling sewage effluent, offering rebates to tear up grass lawns and subsidizing less thirsty appliances from dishwashers to shower heads.

The Times article focuses on Lake Mead, and how engineers are working to save one of the intake pipes that is danger of running dry as the lake water level drops.

“If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” said John Entsminger, the senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Further drops offer even more profound consequences:

Lake Mead currently stands about 1,106 feet above sea level, and is expected to drop 20 feet in 2014. A continued decline would introduce a new set of problems: At 1,075 feet, rationing begins; at 1,050 feet, a more drastic rationing regime kicks in, and the uppermost water intake for Las Vegas shuts down. At 1,025 feet, rationing grows more draconian; at 1,000 feet, a second Las Vegas intake runs dry.  Lake Powell is another story. There, a 100-foot drop would shut down generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes.

California’s political muscle has put it in a good position, relative to its neighbors.  For example, pursuant to the complex regulations governing water rights among the states, Arizona would lose nearly half its Colorado River water allocation before California had to give up anything.  Yet, in spite of shrinking water resources, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District anticipates a growth in its customer base from 19 million residents to 25 million residents over the next fifty years.

Statewide, snow pack conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains (representing the second of California’s two primary sources for water) is currently at 17% of normal for this date.  The southern region is in the best shape at 22% of normal conditions.

Source: California Department of Water Resources (screen shot captured January 20, 2014)

Source: California Department of Water Resources.

The Governor’s drought declaration was specifically a reference to this minimal snow pack, which provides most of Northern California’s water supply.  But Southern California water agencies also obtain water from the Sierras, and due to the drought conditions, the California Department of Resources is projecting to allocate only 5% of the total amount of water that Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District has requested from the State to serve its customers in the upcoming year.

The Metropolitan Water District has a long range plan to ensure continuity of supply for the State’s water users. The MWD’s Integrated Resources Plan was approved by the MWD Board in 2010 and represents the MWD’s “strategic plan for water reliability through the year 2035, collaboratively developed with input from water districts, local governments, stakeholder groups and the public.”

The IRP is a multi-dimensional approach, emphasizing the need for:

  • achieving greater capacity in the Colorado aqueduct,
  • resolving legal and regulatory issues surrounding San Joaquin Delta water through the California aqueduct,
  • encouraging 20% conservation by 2020,
  • building partnerships in pursuit of new local water supplies,
  • developing improved water technologies, including recycling, desalination and groundwater recovery, and
  • planning for emergency storage and buffering.

The full plan is here (warning: large PDF) and a shorter executive summary is here (PDF).  Try to read the whole report, or at least the executive summary.  One gets a sense of how important and fragile our water supply is in Southern California.

Amazingly, in spite of the challenges (both past and future), the real cost of water to the MWD’s customers has increased at an average rate of just 2% above inflation, and the MWD’s long range plan indicates future rate increases to be at or below that level.  Long range planning has also thus far avoided any widespread or pronounced shortages in the water supply.  The Metropolitan Water District remains one of the most effective and well-managed agencies in the State and consistently delivers reliable, inexpensive water to its constituents.

Of course, none of this addresses California’s inconsistent Constitutional mandates that require water rates to reflect the proportional cost of services received and in favor of water conservation.  But if you forced us to apply the above information to the local issues facing San Juan Capistrano today, we might offer the following: The emergency drought conditions and poor prognosis for future water supply leads us to believe that Southern Californians need to aggressively pursue and invest in alternative water sources, whether through recycling, groundwater recovery or desalination.  That water may very well be more expensive than today’s water, but could very well save us from more costly rationing in the future.  This is the reasoning behind the San Juan Capistrano Groundwater Recovery Plant.  The City has stated that “[d]uring the last drought when neighboring agencies were faced with mandatory 15% cutbacks, San Juan Capistrano customers were asked to reduce water consumption by only eight (8%) percent.”  On the other hand, the history of the Metropolitan Water District is one of cost-efficiency and stability, meaning that local jurisdictions would be prudent to hitch their wagon to the MWD and pursue such risky and potentially costly water projects from within the safety of the Metropolitan umbrella.  In other words, one of the reasons that water agencies jointly develop major infrastructure projects like reservoirs and water treatment facilities is to syndicate the cost and the risk.

2 comments to Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink…

  • MarkofSJC

    I think the information presented here is a great foundation of knowledge. The cost and availability of water will no doubt become more precious with time, and looking back on history it’s really how the west was settled. But even the O.C. Register’s article (Sunday?)showed the myriad of covenants, agreements and legally binding documents related to the “pecking order” of water rights of the Colorado River and any other major water source.

    In the same vein, every government agency ~ all the way down to the city level, is required to work within the law. To artificially set higher rates to “punish” heavier users ~ while logical ~ isn’t legal. While I voted for the original concept of the GWRP, I see three major conflicts in our city’s current course of action. First, while your correct that SJC didn’t have to cut back as much during the last drought, the fallacy is that we can pump from an endless supply. The longer the drought, the lower those water tables sink. And that “pool” of water we’re pumping from isn’t an ocean, but more like a small lake. It will be bad enough when our intake pipes are no longer submerged (as the huge Lake Mead chronicles), but more disastrous will be when we draw down the water table so low as to have seawater infiltrate the entire basin ~ literally poisoning not only our wells, but ALL wells in S. county. Secondly, as recently as yesterday’s annual fiscal review presentation (and the insert in this month’s water bill), the city continues to play very fast and loose with financial data. While the budget provided an exact figure on what we paid for imported water, no matching figure could be found on the bottom line costs of the GWRP, and that’s either fiscal ineptitude or purposely misleading. The flyer sent in this month’s water bill at first glance looks great…until you look closer and realize there’s no source, no back up, and the “All-In” comparison costs don’t show our water rates going below MWD’s…until sometime in the future (and only just barely). Without accurate available data, there’s no way to measure or compare! This brings me to my third and most critical point. The original premise of the GWRP was that of a lifeboat. If our source of water from MWD was severed for days or weeks, the plant was to be brought up to provide “emergency levels” of water until MWD connections were made. But now, we’re using it as a daily source. The major problem with that is the huge amounts of downtime the plant has experienced throughout its eight year history. WHAT HAPPENS IF THE PLANT IS DOWN, JUST WHEN WE NEED IT MOST? This would be the worst of all scenarios, as we’ll have spent millions in investments, literally to be left “high and dry.”

    The challenge facing our city council is to develop a plan that is completely legal, AND works to meet both the short and long term needs of our residents. Echoing a popular comment Johnathan Volker (sp?) made at last night’s council meeting, the city council’s appeal of the lawsuit “Have the people sitting at the wrong place.” This council shouldn’t be appealing the lawsuit, but instead working with Sacramento to change the laws that all cities are currently bound by.

    Regardless of who sits in those five seats at the City Council, they need to pull their heads out of the sand and realize the original promise (still tossed around as a mantra) of “The GWRP supplying 50% coverage in summer and 100% in the winter” has NEVER been met with any consistency in it’s eight year history (per city documents), and will be increasingly impossible to meet in the near future. So let’s start coming up with viable alternatives! And if they can’t lead ~ let’s get someone else in there who can!

  • Don Juan Ortega

    Thank you, Mark. There is so much more to the water issue at both a local and state/regional level that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Indeed, so complex is the regulatory and legal framework that there is a billion dollar industry of lawyers, consultants and lobbyists built around understanding and complying with water rights in the West. We’ll continue to explore the issue, but we wanted to begin with a basic foundation and tie the political issues back to the current drought conditions which are now starting to get coverage. You’ve commented here a couple of times and you’ve always been articulate and fair. That is very much appreciated and much like our water, in precious short supply. I look forward to reading more from you.