Holding Off Troubled Waters : Officials Are Confident They Can Keep County Supplied : WILLIAM MILLS

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 Orange County Water District has a different focus than other water agencies. Could you explain it?


A. We manage a major ground-water basin under the flat parts of Orange County, basically the area north of El Toro. We are responsible for water quality and supply. To help with that, we have 1,200 acres of recharging facilities along the Santa Ana River and Santiago Creek, plus Water Factory 21--the seawater intrusion barrier. Our customers, mainly retail water agencies and agricultural users, pump their water directly from the ground, and we don’t serve any area outside of the ground water-basin. So our service area basically is north and central Orange County--everything north of El Toro.

Q. Where do you get your water?

A. The primary sources are waste water and runoff from storms. We also buy some from Metropolitan for replenishment. The basin’s actual capacity is 10 million acre-feet, but only about 1 million is usable. If we take more than that, we have trouble pumping or we get more seawater intrusion. From all those sources, we put 200,000 to 250,000 acre-feet back into the basin each year.

Q. And is that enough to keep the basin filled?


A Well, we pumped out 270,000 acre-feet last year, so the basin is diminishing. Right now we are working to obtain better conservation of water at the Prado Dam to increase our ability to capture high quality storm runoff from there to dilute the waste water. We want to let the storm runoff sit behind the dam and be released slowly. But the Army Corps of Engineers operates the dam, and their priorities and ours are at odds. Right now, we can’t capture the huge amounts they let through the gates during a big storm.

Q. Recharging facilities are the big basins along the river in Anaheim and Orange, where you store water and let it soak into the ground. But what is the intrusion barrier?

A. There are areas along the coast where seawater can seep in through underground cracks and contaminates the fresh water in basin. So we treat waste water and inject it (into the ground) to form an underground curtain of water that blocks the salt water.

Q. But maintaining water quality in the underground basin goes beyond that, doesn’t it?

A Well, 80% of the flow down the Santa Ana River is treated waste water from upstream in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and they are growing rapidly so there is more and more waste water being generated. We need to make sure we can capture it and ensure its cleanliness. We work with the state, and also we develop projects to clean up existing ground-water pollution or contamination, like nitrate removal projects in the Tustin area. We are also working on a project near the El Toro Marine Station, which has a contamination problem that has been proposed as a Superfund toxic cleanup site.

Q. How do you go about cleaning chemical fertilizers and degreasing fluids and other toxic substances from water that is trapped underground?

A. We have to actually pump the water up out of the ground and treat it chemically or physically or biologically. Right now we treat it or filter it, but we have an applied research department and we have experts in the biodegradation of chemical compounds. We believe we now have the ability to inject certain bacteria into the ground to destroy these chemical agents and have picked a site at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station that has major petrochemical contamination that will be one of our first real world applications.

Q. What is the water situation in your part of Orange County right now?


A The basin currently is better off than during the drought of 1976-77. We have about 100,000 acre-feet more in the basin right now than we did after those two years of drought.

Q. That’s difficult to understand, considering how the population has exploded in the past 12 years. Has the current drought been that much less severe?

A. It has not been as bad, but we also have become much more aggressive in developing our system for recharging the basin and in working with Metropolitan to get surpluses for recharging. But still, the basin is declining in this drought.

Q. And does that signal problems for future growth in the north and central areas of the county?

A. Well, we have no policies or prohibitions against development during a serious drought. We will allow all new development in the district to have a water supply. That’s because there are no legal limits on how much can be taken out by each pumper. I really don’t see any signs of a near-term problem in serving our area because we have substantial ground-water reserves right now. We can survive a few more years of drought, especially if everyone works to conserve as much as possible.