Water in Our Future: Three Worthy Projects : Bold approaches based on conservation and reclamation

With the just-ended six-year drought still a fresh and painful memory in this region, there can't be serious discussion of how to improve the local infrastructure without talking about improving water systems.

Urban water systems have historically been built and maintained through local government bonds and general revenues. Southern California has a tradition of ambitious water projects, the massive Owens Valley Aqueduct notable among them. In 1913 the first water from that aqueduct arrived in Los Angeles. As the sluice gates opened, water engineer William Mulholland announced, "There it is--take it!"

But an ours-for-the-taking attitude has become an anachronism as the demand for water has increased across the state and government funds have dwindled. The trick now is to better manage the water we have and to encourage conservation and reclamation. Three priority areas are aquifers, storm drains and the often-dry Los Angeles River.

1. The Metropolitan Water District and officials in the San Gabriel Valley have been studying the possibility of cleaning up a major, polluted aquifer in order to bank more water during wet years. This ground-water basin, about 15 miles from downtown, is one of the most polluted aquifers in the nation and long a Superfund cleanup site. But little cleanup has yet occurred. MWD and San Gabriel officials propose to use the basin as a natural water storage facility, "importing" water into the basin during wet periods and "exporting " it during dry periods when other sources run low. The water that the MWD would pump into the basin would mix with contaminated water; contaminants would be removed when the water was extracted. The project could use available Superfund money along with MWD and other funds.

2. The Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay is beginning a multi-year campaign with a very simple--and very sensible--message: Don't use the streets or gutters as trash cans. During storms, rainwater floods these gutters and washes mountains of trash onto the beaches; when drains clog with the debris, extensive street flooding can result, as it did this winter. Funded through federal, state and local agencies, the so-called "gutter patrol" will stencil "This drains to ocean" messages on some of the county's 250,000 catch basins and distribute other public service messages. The "patrol" has money for the first year; later funding is uncertain. The need is relatively small, $115,000 to $250,000 per year, but the payoff could be big--cleaner oceans and beaches, better flood prevention, reduced street cleaning costs and increased water reclamation.

3. The Los Angeles River is a regional water reclamation opportunity too long ignored. The 50-mile-long concrete flood control channel, stretching from the San Gabriel Mountains to Long Beach Harbor, was first paved in the 1930s.

Each rainy season, the channel dumps valuable water into the sea. Rather than building up the banks to prevent flooding in a worst-case scenario, as Congress and Los Angeles County propose, why not instead explore ways to capture more run-off? Federal and state funds could help plan for river-area redevelopment to conserve water, replenish ground water and expand recreational facilities.

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