At a time when every drop of water delivered to parched Southern California is being wrung from a miserly supply, Orange County sits atop a big, bargain-priced reserve that quenches the thirst of 2 million people, no matter how dry it gets.
A vast underground pool--pampered and guarded by water managers for more than half a century--provides northern and western Orange County with a cheap, dependable source, despite the longest drought in California history.
The county's treasure, worth millions of dollars a year, is the envy of many water-poor neighbors in Southern California, where most ground water is too salty, too polluted by chemicals or too rigidly controlled by court order to offer much drought aid.
While North County cities draw up to 80% of their supply from the ground, the rest of the region, including South County, gets zero to half of its supply from local water. That means that the rest of the region is more reliant on deliveries from drought-plagued Northern California and the Colorado River--which have been slashed by 20% this month and will be cut by 30% beginning next month.
"The word is out that we're in better shape than the rest," said William R. Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District. "I was in Sacramento the other day, and (other water managers) were joking that they want us to start pumping water back up north."
Some of the county's fortune stems from the luck of geography. The earth beneath North County holds billions of gallons of high-quality water at an easily reachable depth. About 300 major wells are dotted throughout the county's subdivisions, pumping water from 1,000 feet down that is delivered to the faucets of homes and businesses in a broad area from Yorba Linda to Seal Beach to Irvine.
But much of the district's success is by design, not luck. The county has spent hundreds of millions of dollars--$73 million this fiscal year alone--to make itself as resistant to drought as possible, with an elaborate and sophisticated program of nurturing the basin.
"I wouldn't call it a luxury--it was a system we developed and paid for in blood," said Lee Harry, water manager for Santa Ana, which gets 70% of its water from the ground. "Each agency and city has spent millions of dollars to replenish the basin in anticipation of a drought such as this. We treat it like a prudent reserve, not a luxury."
The ground water is not only reliable during a drought but offered at comparatively bargain rates. Water imported hundreds of miles costs Southern California $230 per acre-foot, a price expected to double by the end of the decade. The same amount of ground water costs Orange County about $100. An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water needed to serve two small families for a year.
Despite the comfortable cushion and modest prices offered by the underground supply, the county's water managers sternly warn that this is no time for complacency. No one knows when California's rain and snow will return to normal, and meanwhile the county population keeps growing.
As an added threat, chemicals and farm runoff have polluted about 60 of the county's wells and could spread further, despite an ambitious program to keep them in check.
The county's ground supply is far from inexhaustible or invulnerable, so its managers are watching carefully to ensure that people don't get greedy during the drought.
Until recently, the 2 million residents of North County drew about two-thirds of their water from the ground. That has risen to the 80% figure now that five years of drought have dried up other sources.
As the pumping increased, the county's water table has dropped steadily for five years and has reached its lowest level since 1977. The underground basin contains about 65 billion gallons less than its ideal level, said Mills, manager of the county water district, and it is creeping lower as the drought persists and wells keep pumping faster than ever.
Back in 1956, the county learned a lesson the hard way about what happens when the level drops too low.
More water was drawn that year than in any year in history, and seawater began to creep inland along the coast, threatening wells. The Orange County Water District built rows of new wells--not to pump water out but to pump it in--which formed a barrier that has stopped the salty flow since.
Although creeping seawater is not a big threat anymore, city officials fear that if the water table keeps dipping, by this summer many city wells will not be able to draw deep enough.
Mills said up to a third of the county's 300 major wells will not function properly if the amount of water pumped from the ground is doubled, dropping the water table by another 60 feet.
To keep that from happening, the district's directors warned the cities and agencies that use ground water that they must show that residents are conserving 20% or their pumping will be limited.
"We don't think we're fat cats in any way," said Harry, Santa Ana's water manager. "In fact, we might not have as much ground water to rely on next year. So we think it's prudent to try to conserve, and we have made it mandatory for our residents to reduce consumption."
The Orange County Water District, keeper of this valuable resource, is renowned for its pioneering management of ground water. It is constantly building massive projects and using expensive technology, including state-of-the-art desalters, chemical-cleanup plants and a network of ponds and berms that capture the flow of the Santa Ana River.
"Orange County is always on the leading edge in Southern California," said Don Adams, resource manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies imported water to six counties.
"Other ground-water basins are well managed too, but often Orange County is the first with innovation. They do a particularly good job, and they are more active in ground-water cleanup."
The district's ultimate goal--perhaps within a few years--is to wean North County off the state's imported water, using it only when abundant. That is an ambitious aim for a populous county with rain so sparse that it is one step from being a desert.
Some areas, especially South County from El Toro to San Clemente and San Diego County, have little or no usable local ground water. The water beneath them is too salty from seawater, so they buy nearly all of their water from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports it from Northern California and the Colorado River via two long canals.
Also, much of the water underneath the San Gabriel Valley and the Chino area is unusable, contaminated by everything from industrial solvents to cow manure.
Many other cities--including Pasadena and central Los Angeles County cities from Los Angeles to Long Beach--have plentiful, high-quality underground water. But they are restricted by old court rulings that restrict how much each city can pump.
Those limits were set 40 years ago, when farmers sued cities and cities sued neighboring cities, all over who owned the water. Judges ended the feuds by parceling out water rights, so Los Angeles County water managers would now need a court order to increase their pumping.
But Orange County's northern cities did not fight about their water in court. They formed the district way back in the 1930s so they all would share equal rights. As a result, all it takes to draw more water out of the county's ground is approval by the district's board of directors, which meets monthly.
"The Orange County Water District has more flexibility, which is important during a drought," said Rich Atwater, general manager of the Central Basin Municipal Water District. His district, which manages ground water for 1.9 million Los Angeles County residents, is one of those limited by a court decision.
While county residents are the most direct beneficiaries of the area's ample ground supply, the rest of Southern California also gets an indirect bonus. Because North County buys only about 20% of its supply from the region's imported water, there is more state water to go around.
"Our ground water basins are incredibly valuable resources in Southern California," said Atwater, who manages the ground-water basin that underlies Los Angeles County from Los Angeles to Long Beach. "They're our emergency storage reserves for when we have a drought or even an earthquake that cuts off our imported water.
"All the water agencies are now evaluating projects, like desalination plants, that they used to think were too expensive," he added. "Frankly, we all should have been doing more than we did in the past."
Even when Orange County is parched from lack of rain, its ground water remains plentiful, fortified by an unusual source. Managers do not rely entirely on nature, which even in good years supplies just an average 12 inches of rain. Instead, the ground water is replenished artificially.
In its 58-year history, the district has added an enormous amount of water to the basin--about 2 trillion gallons, equivalent to the needs of a million families for about 17 years.
The major source of that replenishment is a steady flow of waste water discharged into the Santa Ana River by 20 sewage treatment plants in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Orange County catches about 49 billion gallons a year of the treated waste water as it flows downstream. The effluent, captured in four large basins in Anaheim and Villa Park, sinks slowly into the county's big underground basin. Soil filters out the impurities, so by the time wells pump it out at a 1,000-foot depth, the water meets standards for drinking water.
Managers of Los Angeles County's central basin are in a similar, enviable position because they capture the effluent and storm water in the nearby San Gabriel River.
"We've been fortunate in that we can rely on the Santa Ana River," said Mills of the Orange County Water District. "Even in dry weather it flows, because it consists primarily of treated municipal waste water."
But in a severe drought, all the benefits of geography and high-tech sewage treatment are not enough to safeguard the county's underground supply. That has left officials especially eager to take advantage of every opportunity to replenish the basin.
Just last week, the district scored a major coup by persuading federal officials to store more storm water behind Prado Dam, on the Santa Ana River in Riverside County, just over the Orange County border. The agreement gave the county 3 billion gallons of extra water to sink into the basin from a single 48-hour rainstorm.
To get that water, the district had to persuade federal officials that a small endangered bird that nests behind the dam would not be harmed. It agreed to set aside 122 acres of nearby willow habitat for the bird and create a $450,000 fund for managing it.
Also, the county is turning to recycled water and innovative technology to replenish the basin.
The district's Water Factory 21, the nation's most sophisticated treatment plant, recycles waste water, making it as clean as drinking water before pumping it back into the basin. Sophisticated desalters clean up brackish ground water, and treatment plants remove industrial pollutants and old farm runoff.
This year, several new facilities will begin tackling the county's polluted ground water, while a large plant, called Green Acres, will come on line to treat waste water to be used for irrigating golf courses, parks and other large landscaped areas of Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa.
Similar plants to reclaim waste water are planned in Los Angeles County, including one in El Segundo that is expected to be the largest in the nation.
"Ground water needs to be more fully utilized, especially in a drought," Mills said. "But, at the same time, you have to have a far-reaching plan to protect it. We have a limited supply, and we can never tell how long this drought will last."
ORANGE COUNTY'S UNDERGROUND WATER
A huge pool of valuable water lies underneath northern and western Orange County-stretching from Yorba Linda to Seal Beach to Irvine. Pumped by 300 major wells, the ground water provides as much as 80% of the water consumed by 2 million residents, giving them a supply that is dependable and cheap even during droughts. Managing this reserve takes millions of dollars per year and innovative techniques.
COASTAL INJECTION WELL
Injection wells stop the flow of seawater
Seawater naturally slips inland, especially when the water table lowers. Thirty-six injection wells have been drilled near the coast. Each well pumps reclaimed or fresh water into the basin to stop the seawater from reaching municipal wells.
The underground basin has several layers of water, called aquifers, separated by clay barriers. Most of Orange County's water is pumped from the upper and middle layers, about 1,000 feet deep. The deeper water is costly to reach, and often is poor quality.
1. Flow of river containing treated waste water, runoff and storm water from upstream.
2. Six major reservoirs capture the Santa Ana River's flow to replenish ground water.
3. It sinks into the soil, which filters out pollutants, and be the time it is drawn by wells, it is clean enough to drink.
Over 300 municipal wells serve the Orange County Water District
A typical municipal well pumps water from 1,000 feet deep.
Note: Drawings not to scale
Source: The Orange County Water District
Historic Water Shortage
Because of the 5-year drought, the ground-water basin has reached its lowest point since 1977. Water managers are watching the decline carefully, because if it sinks another 60 feet, many wells may not produce. The ideal level is -200.
Basin considered full in 1969. Source: Orange County Water District