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Rick Erkeneff. Photo: Andrea Swayne
Rick Erkeneff. Photo: Andrea Swayne

By Rick Erkeneff

Fifty years from now, many of us will look back and realize these dry times were in fact the beginning of a mega drought. Scientists are suggesting that the Western U.S. is heading toward a drought of 20 years or longer and possibly one that lasts 100 to 200 years. In recorded history, California’s 2013 was our driest year, 2014 was our hottest and 2015 has the lowest snow pack, at only 6 percent of “normal.” Some climate scientists suggest the “new normal” of hot and dry may in fact be an “old normal” … more on that later.

When I was elected to the South Coast Water District in 2012, water conservation and efficiency were my two main messages along with the expansion of recycled water supply and an environmentally sensitive desalination effort at Doheny Beach as long-term, local reliability solutions. All are more relevant today than ever before in our region’s history. In the short term of three to five years, how we use our supply and what we conserve will help with the transition to our new normal.

Today, south Orange County cities are being required by Governor Jerry Brown to reduce our consumption by 25 percent as compared to 2013 usage. Newport Beach is being required to reduce by 35 percent. These percentages may seem draconian, but looking at our water supply projections for the next few years and beyond, these reduction percentages most likely will be required again in addition to what we are required to do now. A reduction of 40 percent or more will be tough to achieve but it could be what we must do to continue water flowing into our homes, businesses and resorts but NOT to our thirsty gardens.

In regard to local supply options in south Orange County, SCWD’s Stonehill Groundwater Recovery Facility currently is not producing any water because our monitoring wells are showing signs of seawater intrusion and over pumping that could cause long-term damage to the entire basin. The city of San Juan Capistrano has shifted some of their pumping and will be considering reduced pumping. This is a direct result of the last four years of below-average local rainfall and the last seven of eight years of below “normal” rainfall. As for the desalination effort at Doheny, the SCWD board continues to support the project by investing in next steps, but to date the district does not have full buy-in from San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Moulton Niguel Water District. With a price tag in the millions of dollars and a fast-track time frame of approximately six to eight years before the Doheny desal could come online, we are now 100 percent dependent on imported water. The good news is that living in our coastal community we will have the ability to have a regional desalination solution that will allow us to become largely independent of the diminishing imported water supply.

Now, to address the mega drought and the new “old normal”… Recently, a New York Times article highlighted a group of climate scientists that has stitched together the last 2,000 years of precipitation through the study of “A remarkable network of centuries-long tree ring chronologies.” One scientist suggests that we are “nudging up” to the beginning stages of a mega drought throughout the West. To exacerbate the problem of drought, their findings show the last 150 years to be abnormally wet in comparison to the whole timeline. Now add a soaring population to the equation, whereby from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, California’s population grew by nearly 50 percent. These decades of imported mindsets, in regard to water usage, especially landscaping and gardens, exposes a large subset of our residents believing that ornamental grass and tropical plants are acceptable in our near-desert environment.

Please take advantage of cash rebates that are flowing to ratepayers for turf removal, irrigation and in-home efficiency. Find them at As always, I encourage your feedback and dialog. Please contact me at

Rick Erkeneff is a director and vice president of the South Coast Water District Board and chairman of the Surfrider Foundation South Orange County Chapter.


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