Not Waiting for a Rainy Day to End Drought : Resources: A $37-million project will use treated sewage water to replenish underground supplies and for recreational areas.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local water district officials say they have a plan to "drought-proof" the San Gabriel Valley.

Motivated by the pain and cost of mandatory water rationing because of the drought, water officials have launched an ambitious $37-million plan to use reclaimed water to boost the region's underground supplies and to directly supply large-volume users such as golf courses, schools and parks.

The reclaimed water--San Gabriel Valley sewage water that is now treated at an existing plant at Whittier Narrows--will be pumped for distribution through a new six-mile-long pipeline that will go as far north as Irwindale.

The project, to be funded with a bond sale, is designed to supply the water needs of 100,000 average-sized families from Monterey Park to San Dimas.

To finance the first phase of the project, the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District has voted to impose a temporary $10 water tax on property owners, raising $2 million the first year.

In spite of the charges, which may be levied for several years, water officials say customers will more than recoup the expense in the long run because reclaimed water is cheaper today--and will be even more so in the future--than imported supplies piped from Northern California or the Colorado River.

"This is a dependable water supply that is virtually drought-proof," said Robert G. Berlien, general manager of the Upper District, which is overseeing the reclaimed water project.

The water would be pumped from the San Jose Creek treatment plant, which is run by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, through a 60-inch pipe that will lead upstream along the San Gabriel River.

After completing design and environmental studies, water officials hope to begin construction of the pumping station within two years and to have the pipeline operating in three.

The Upper District will finance 80% of the project. The San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which is paying the rest, may be able to do so without levying a tax, Berlien said.

In spite of some opposition to the $10 water tax, the water plan was approved by a 3-2 vote of the Upper District board.

Board member Royall K. Brown cast one of the dissenting votes, saying he doesn't think the district will need that much money.

"For reclaimed water this year, we'll be lucky to spend $5 per customer," Brown said.

However, environmentalists and water company officials alike are generally supportive of reclaimed water plans.

"The need to develop new reliable sources of water has become urgent," said Anthony Fellow, president of the Upper District board.

Water officials say studies have shown that the reclaimed water, although not considered by health officials to be drinkable, causes no health problems when used on recreational areas such as athletic fields or when further purified by percolating into the ground.

The water will be returned to the underground aquifer via the "spreading grounds" around the Santa Fe Dam by the Foothill Freeway (210).

The underground supply is now replenished with water that is piped into the spreading grounds from Northern California and the Colorado River. The price for this imported water has nearly doubled since 1985 to $222 per acre foot--the amount that supplies the annual needs of two average families. The acre-foot price of imported water is expected to double again in the next 10 years.

In the past, the cost of building pumping stations and pipelines has made the use of reclaimed water more expensive than buying imported water.

The drought, Southern California's growing population and the rising costs of imported water have combined to make reclaimed water more cost-effective, Berlien said.

With today's prices for imported water, the project "is at least a break-even proposition" and "will be even more economical in the future," he said.

Stan Yarbrough, manager of the Valley County Water District in Baldwin Park, said his company, with 11,000 customers, could see a savings of 10% to 20% that eventually would be passed on to consumers. "It should hold water rates down," he said.

Besides that, Berlien said, "when the next big drought comes we won't be going around telling customers they have to reduce their water usage by 40%."

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