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Holding Off Troubled Waters : Officials Are Confident They Can Keep County Supplied : TIMOTHY QUINN

It can come as a shock to visitors and natives alike, but despite its abundant greenery, Southern California is a semi-arid desert, largely dependent on imported water for its phenomenal economic growth. Today, even as a statewide drought ends its second year and the Southland’s allocation from the Colorado River shrinks, the population continues to soar and business development proceeds at a blistering pace.

Southern California, thanks to the efforts of aggressive water agencies that have reached far afield to find supplies, has been able to create a massive and healthy economy by importing water. Currently, Southern California brings in 66% of the water needed to support it, and this dependence on imported water will continue to rise, water experts say.

Times staff writer John O’Dell conducted separate interviews with three of the top water officials in the Southland to explore the relationship between the water supply and continued development in the county. Those interviewed were Timothy Quinn, chief economist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is responsible for finding and importing water; Stanley E. Sprague, general manager of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which sells that imported water locally--mainly in south Orange County, which does not have a domestic water local supply to draw on, and William Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District, which manages the huge underground water basin that provides much of the north and central parts of the county with their water.

Q. The district’s operating philosophy is encapsuled in the 1951 Laguna Declaration, which said, in brief: Let the people come, we will find the water.

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As they come, we are more dependent than ever on imported water. How reliable are our supplies?

A. Southern California has had a crisis every couple of years over the last quarter-century. By the mid-1990s, we’re looking at our Colorado River supplies being cut roughly in half. And in Northern California we have a contract with the state that calls for over 2 million acre-feet to be diverted to Southern California, but they’re barely able to provide us with half of that, largely because the Sacramento delta is in such a mess. In Southern California, unlike a lot of parts of California, we supply a substantial amount of our own water resources. In Orange County, for example, are some of the best-managed, most productive ground-water basins in the world. And there is an increasing amount of waste-water reclamation going on, and we’ll be relying more on that in the future.

But contamination of ground water is a growing problem. It’s hard to find a ground-water basin in our service area that doesn’t have at least some things that you would rather were not there. Los Angeles, which since 1913 has imported water from the Owens Valley, and now from the Mono Basin, is in litigation trying to protect its ability to import. So virtually all of the major supply sources that Southern California has are threatened to one degree or another. And Metropolitan is probably going to sell 2 million acre-feet of water this year. That is a volume that, a few years ago, we didn’t expect to see until after the turn of the century. The population in our service area just last year increased by about 400,000 people. That means we’ve got to go out and find additional water for that one year alone that is comparable to the amount of water that’s used in a city the size of St. Louis or Cincinnati or Miami.

Q. What is your service area?

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A. Metropolitan serves the six coastal counties of Southern California, from Ventura down to the Mexican border. It is about 5,200 square miles and more than 14 million people. We’re projecting that as many as 18 million will live in the service area by the year 2010. Orange County itself is right now about 2.2 million in population and is going to be approaching 3 million in population by the turn of the century. Almost all of that growth is in the south part of the county, from Irvine south. That’s where virtually all of your growth is going, and they have virtually no local water resources there, so we’re looking at all of that to increase demands on imported water.

Q. Let’s discuss the economics of water as it affects business growth.

A Well obviously if you don’t have water you can’t have people. And if you don’t have people you don’t have an economy.

Q. You and other water specialists say it is highly unlikely, but what would the cost be if we had to cut back on water to industry?

A. On a regional basis, if we actually got to the point where we’re having to short Southern California industry, you would have a direct impact on employment and income. If you have a 15% to 30% cutback in water supplies available to industry, then by the year 2000 it would be costing our economy upwards of $30 billion in income lost to people in as many as about half a million jobs.

Q. This is in the six-county service area?

A Yes. You’re talking, potentially, of adding a number of percentage points onto the regional economy unemployment rate. Water is not wasted by California industry now, so if they don’t have it in the future, then they’re going to have to make adjustments in their production decisions and in their employment decisions. There’s no two ways about it.

Q. But with diminished supplies and the problems you cited earlier, is it possible to provide water to every area of Southern California, regardless of the level of demand?

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A. The short answer is yes, it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it is possible, and we’re involved in a great many things to restore the reliability of long-term water supplies to Southern California.

Q. How?

A. By making sure you have access to enough water or enough water rights that you are certain that even in hard times you will be able to meet demands.

Q. And where are you going to find these water rights?

A Well, there are a lot of different ways to skin the cat. We’re still pursuing things that we have pursued for a long time, such as improvements in the Sacramento delta. We also support the building of holding facilities in the north. The basic idea is to take the water when there’s a lot of it during the wet years and put it away some place so that we’ve got it available to us later on. Those kinds of things are happening and we’re pursuing them, largely through the state. And we’ve got a great many other things that we’re developing. Literally dozens of projects, minor and major, that are in one stage of development or another to increase the reliable supplies to Southern California.

Q. Didn’t Metropolitan recently issue a notice to agricultural and industrial users about a possible water cutback?

A. Not industrial users. One of the programs that we have to help us cope with water shortages is called the interruptible program. We sell water at reduced rates to some of our customers, agricultural users and those, like the Orange County Water District, who are using it for ground-water replenishment purposes. The understanding is that, if we hit hard times, we may call in those chips, and they would have to not take that water from us and turn to other sources of supply. The agricultural interruptible program requires one year’s notice, so in May we put one out. But it did not say we were definitely going to call in your water, because the odds are that we’ll have plenty of water next year. That’s the way Mother Nature is. What that notice essentially did was to give us the option to call in the interruptible water if next year is really bad.

Q. Is there a formalized water users hierarchy? If there just simply isn’t enough to go around, who’s got first call on water?

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A. The first thing that happens happened this year. You go out and call for voluntary conservation. This year that’s all we did because our real objective here is to try and get people to lay off their water demands so we can keep more in the reservoirs. Above and beyond that, like in 1976-77--the last time we had a serious drought in the state--one of the policies Metropolitan adopted was a pricing structure so that member agencies paid a surcharge of essentially 100% for water that exceeded the reduced supply that we suggested. People looked at that surcharge, and it was a good incentive to keep their water use down. So that would come into play at some point if we have future problems. And we have large amounts of water in the interruptible program that can be shut off with no harm to the Southern California economy. There are some other aspects of the interruptible program that we can invoke that don’t imply direct economic cost.

Q. And when do we get into things that do hit the economy?

A I don’t want to make it sound like shortages don’t cost us anything. If it is bad enough, you start getting to where you have to cut water to the agricultural interruptible program. But that water use isn’t a joke, and they can’t just cut water back willy-nilly without feeling a lot of pain. Those users include a lot of nurseries in Orange County. After that, you’re really cutting into the muscle of the California economy by cutting water to industry. That kind of situation is conceivable, but keep in mind that right now we have a full Colorado River aqueduct and that we have spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to diversify our water and manage it well. This has put us in relatively good shape when we hit hard times like this. So we have a lot of cards we can play before things get real bad, although looking down the road to the population and water demands of 2010 and beyond, well, without an increase in reliable water supplies, we could be facing some serious problems.

Q. Does industry consume more than its fair share of water?

A Water use in industry around here is markedly lower than it was before. And as you go out and learn about how they’re using water and what they could do to use less, you become convinced that their water use is pretty tight. And water is used in industry in ways that most people just never dreamed of.

Q. For instance?

A. Oh, in Orange County for example you’ve got canneries and potato chip manufacturers that use water to clean their product. They use water as a transportation medium to push it through their plant and get it from one point to another. It’s used in places like Knott’s Berry Farm to move people around and for sanitary purposes, obviously. One water user in Orange County that uses a large amount of water, by industry standards, is the McGaw Laboratories down in Irvine, which makes intravenous solutions. But firms like that, and firms in high-tech electronics and the aerospace industry, are not intensive water users in the sense that they use enormous volumes of water relative to the dollar output of the firm.

Q. Are we seeing lots of recycling schemes in industry?

A Oil refineries for example, reuse water something like 19 times.

Q. What is in the cards for the south county, the site of much of the county’s future growth and none of its domestic water supply?

A. In Orange County, for the treated water that’s required in the southern part of the region, we’re looking toward reaching the limits of our existing treatment plant capabilities toward the end of the century, so we’re looking very seriously at a major treatment plant that would take water directly from Lake Mathews, which is where the Colorado River water comes into our system. This new facility would cost about $300 million but would enable us to cover our demands not only in Orange County but generally what we call our central pool that includes Los Angeles County as well. It would allow us to meet the demands of another 800,000 or so people in Orange County.

The agricultural interruptible program requires one year’s notice, so in May we put one out. But it did not say we were definitely going to call in your water, because the odds are that we’ll have plenty of water next year. That’s the way Mother Nature is. What that notice essentially did was to give us the option to call in the interruptible water if next year is really bad.

Q. Is there a formalized water users hierarchy? If there just simply isn’t enough to go around, who’s got first call on water?

A. The first thing that happens happened this year. You go out and call for voluntary conservation. This year that’s all we did because our real objective here is to try and get people to lay off their water demands so we can keep more in the reservoirs. Above and beyond that, like in 1976-77--the last time we had a serious drought in the state--one of the policies Metropolitan adopted was a pricing structure so that member agencies paid a surcharge of essentially 100% for water that exceeded the reduced supply that we suggested. People looked at that surcharge, and it was a good incentive to keep their water use down. So that would come into play at some point if we have future problems. And we have large amounts of water in the interruptible program that can be shut off with no harm to the Southern California economy. There are some other aspects of the interruptible program that we can invoke that don’t imply direct economic cost.

Q. And when do we get into things that do hit the economy?

A I don’t want to make it sound like shortages don’t cost us anything. If it is bad enough, you start getting to where you have to cut water to the agricultubal interruptible program. But that water use isn’t a joke, and they can’t just cut water back willy-nilly without feeling a lot of pain. Those users include a lot of nurseries in Orange County. After that, you’re really cutting into the muscle of the California economy by cutting water to industry. That kind of situation is conceivable, but keep in mind that right now we have a full Colorado River aqueduct and that we have spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to diversify our water and manage it well. This has put us in relatively good shape when we hit hard times like this. So we have a lot of cards we can play before things get real bad, although looking down the road to the population and water demands of 2010 and beyond, well, without an increase in reliable water supplies, we could be facing some serious problems.

Q. Does industry consume more than its fair share of water?

A Water use in industry around here is markedly lower than it was before. And as you go out and learn about how they’re using water and what they could do to use less, you become convinced that their water use is pretty tight. And water is used in industry in ways that most people just never dreamed of.

Q. For instance?

A. Oh, in Orange County for example you’ve got canneries and potato chip manufacturers that use water to clean their product. They use water as a transportation medium to push it through their plant and get it from one point to another. It’s used in places like Knott’s Berry Farm to move people around and for sanitary purposes, obviously. One water user in Orange County that uses a large amount of water, by industry standards, is the McGaw Laboratories down in Irvine, which makes intravenous solutions. But firms like that, and firms in high-tech electronics and the aerospace industry, are not intensive water users in the sense that they use enormous volumes of water relative to the dollar output of the firm.

Q. Are we seeing lots of recycling schemes in industry?

A Oil refineries for example, reuse water something like 19 times.

Q. What is in the cards for the south county, the site of much of the county’s future growth and none of its domestic water supply?

A. In Orange County, for the treated water that’s required in the southern part of the region, we’re looking toward reaching the limits of our existing treatment plant capabilities toward the end of the century, so we’re looking very seriously at a major treatment plant that would take water directly from Lake Mathews, which is where the Colorado River water comes into our system. This new facility would cost about $300 million but would enable us to cover our demands not only in Orange County but generally what we call our central pool that includes Los Angeles County as well. It would allow us to meet the demands of another 800,000 or so people in Orange County.


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