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O.C. District May Buy Water From San Bernardino

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials are poised today to take the first step toward diversifying Orange County’s water supply by purchasing millions of gallons of water from San Bernardino County at a discount price that could eventually trickle down to consumers in the form of lower bills.

The deal would mark the first time in nearly two decades that the county would be importing water from a source other than the Metropolitan Water District, the mighty agency that supplies much of Southern California.

Finding additional sources of water is important, Orange County Water District officials said, because MWD is under pressure from federal officials and environmentalists to reduce the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta. Officials fear a cut in production could affect the quantity and cost of water Orange County receives.

“It makes sense to have a mix in the sources of our water,” said William Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District. “This is a deal where both sides benefit.”

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San Bernardino water agencies often have an overabundance of water in their aquifers. Under the proposal, they would dump some of the excess into the Santa Ana River. The water eventually would travel through the Prado Dam and into Orange County’s ground water basin, replenishing drinking water that is being pumped from local wells.

The San Bernardino water costs about $150 per acre-foot, compared with $250 per acre-foot for MWD’s water. The Orange County Water District’s board of directors tonight will consider a one-year deal to take as much as 10,000 acre-feet of San Bernardino water, at a cost of about $1.5 million.

By comparison, the district usually purchases 50,000 to 70,000 acre-feet of water from MWD.

Most homes and businesses in coastal areas as well as northern and central Orange County get 50% to 70% of their water from local wells, importing the rest. South County, however, has far less ground water and is much more reliant on the more costly imported water.

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The San Bernardino deal comes as officials predict a 37% increase in demand for imported water over the next 20 years due to population growth and new development.

Mills said he hopes this year’s agreement will be the beginning of a long-term partnership between the two counties. In fact, Orange County officials have proposed a far larger deal that would provide the local ground water basin with $15 million worth of water over five years.

The agreement being considered wouldn’t necessarily lower the water bills paid by residents and businesses. But officials said rates might dip--or at least stay stable--if more discount-priced water can be imported into the county.

The cost of MWD water has gradually risen over the last decade, but the agency expects prices to stay flat for at least the next few years.

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