San Bernardino Water Officials Perplexed by Underground Springs

Times Staff Writer

The south side of this community was once dotted with lakes and ponds where couples paddled canoes, divers leaped from wooden towers and children fed ducks on the grassy banks of lagoons.

Urbita Springs, as the area was called, dried up during a 20-year drought in the 1940s and 1950s, and offices, homes and factories covered the ground on a wave of building permits.

In 1980, the water returned. A succession of unusually wet winters and intentional replenishing of the water supply overloaded the underground basin, driving the water to the surface again.

Earthquake Threat

Today, artesian springs periodically gush through basement floors of office buildings, a post office and the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District headquarters. A movie theater has a pond in it below the screen. At times, up to two feet of water builds up in the elevator shaft at City Hall. Where open fields remain, cattails and bamboo grow.

Outgoing San Bernardino Mayor W. R. (Bob) Holcomb estimated that public agencies and private businesses in the city are spending at least $50,000 a month to pump water out of basements.

An even greater hazard, according to a U.S. Geological Survey draft report in 1984, is what could happen to these buildings in the event of an earthquake. Even a moderate earthquake, the report said, could turn the wet soil into something resembling quicksand. The phenomenon, called liquefaction, could destroy roads and topple buildings in a 15,000-acre area where about 50,000 people live and work.

"We've been playing Russian roulette," said Randy Van Gelder, manager of administration at the water district, which monitors conditions in the Bunker Hill Basin. "So far we've been lucky."

One solution is to reduce the ground water level by pumping water out. But negotiations to do so over the last four years have bogged down among the more than 30 bitterly divided agencies and individuals claiming rights to water in the basin.

Many of the agencies fear that they may lose their water rights under a master plan to get rid of the water. Some, such as the city of Riverside, which gets 80% of its supply from the Bunker Hill Basin, worry that lowering the ground water level will force them to pump water from deeper in the earth, boosting their costs. Others fear that they may be precluding potentially profitable future sales of the water to water-starved districts elsewhere.

At stake is the estimated 240,000 acre-feet of water that must be removed to alleviate the flooding. That amount of water has a market value of about $14.4 million, according to Larry Rowe, chairman of the 17-member High Groundwater Task Force, formed in 1983 to find an equitable solution. (An acre-foot is 325,900 gallons.)

"You have 17 good men sitting around a table trying to solve a common problem," Rowe said, "and at the same time be true to their obligations to the agencies they represent."

Adding to the complexity of the situation, he said, is that "the water community is normally geared for drought--not for an embarrassment of riches."

Beyond the water rights issues are equally troubling technical problems, such as figuring out how to pump significant amounts of water out of the basin without causing the soil to subside--something that could send some buildings crashing to the ground.

Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), frustrated with the inability of local agencies to agree on a plan of action, has introduced a bill in the Legislature aimed at developing a water management plan for the area. The bill is scheduled for hearing before the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee on Tuesday.

"They keep squabbling over how the reduction should take place and who should manage it," said Ayala's administrative assistant, Michael Valles. "But the health and safety of the people of San Bernardino have to be brought back into focus."

Meanwhile, "We don't have alligators yet," said Louis Fletcher, the water district's general manager.

A few blocks away is perhaps the only walk-in movie theater with a pond in it. Moviegoers at San Bernardino's Inland Theater, which has roped off the first eight rows of seats because the water level rises and falls unpredictably, have to put up with the hum of a water pump below the screen.

"You don't fool around with Mother Nature," joked theater manager, Arnold Sprague. He added that, "We don't get too many requests for refunds."

San Bernardino's water problems stem from the unusual geological characteristics of the water basin and court judgments stipulating the amount of water that users may take from it, task force officials said.

Normally, stream flow from the nearby San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains feeds into the basin and backs up behind natural underground barriers of the San Jacinto fault and clay beds. After a series of exceptionally wet winters, the ground water level is pressurized in the basin and forced to the surface.

But the 20-year drought, which was accompanied by increased pumping in the basin to meet demands of a swelling population in the 1960s, caused the ground water level to drop to 100 feet below the surface.

Alarmed by the water shortage, the largest users of water from the basin--San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties--launched a flurry of lawsuits aimed at protecting their water rights.

Meanwhile, construction boomed on what had been soupy, sandy soil.

The legal disputes were settled in 1969 in Superior Court judgments that determined, among other things, how much water could be safely drawn from the basin. Under these judgments, the city of Riverside was entitled to about 50,000 acre-feet a year and selected valley water district members to about 170,000 acre-feet a year.

The year of the judgments was also a year of heavy rains, which sent the water table in the basin rising for the first time in years.

By 1983, local water officials determined that 240,000 acre-feet of water needed to be pumped out of the basin as soon as possible to alleviate the flooding.

Instead of taking immediate action to reduce the water level, however, agencies with authority to draw and use water from the basin got stuck in a mire of new legal questions. How would emergency pumping affect their standing under the 1969 court judgments? Who should pay the cost of pumping water to solve San Bernardino's flooding and liquefaction problem? Should the water be put to beneficial use or sent to the ocean?

Court Judgments Modified

The task force made headway in early 1984 when it helped hammer out a modification of the 1969 judgments agreeable to all. The change, approved in Riverside Superior Court, allows San Bernardino to produce water from the basin for delivery to the Orange County Water District, which has agreed to reimburse pumping costs, water officials said.

It also provides for Riverside to pump unlimited amounts of water from the basin for a six-month period that ends June 30, without having to draw on its allotment of 50,000 acre-feet a year. Water that Riverside pumps but cannot use under the plan is being dumped into the Santa Ana River and picked up downstream--at minimal cost--by the Orange County Water District.

Although that represents some progress, it has not eliminated the flooded basements across San Bernardino.

Fletcher said the plan amounts to "trying to empty the ocean with a teacup--but it's a start."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World