Drought solutions need to embrace conservation, efficiency, storage and new sources
By Rick Erkeneff, South Coast Water District director and Chairman of the Surfrider Foundation South Orange County Chapter
Recently, Dana Point Councilman and Orange County Historical Commission member Carlos N. Olvera authored a column “Water Water Everywhere.” His topic is certainly relevant to our continuing drought and grim water shortages. However, to better understand where we have been and the daunting water challenges we all face, a more accurate account than the one provided in his opinion is needed.
Perhaps the most fundamental and misleading error was Mr. Olvera’s statement that San Juan Creek “flows through” the Santa Ana River watershed.
In reality, the San Juan basin and the Santa Ana River basin are two entirely separate and distinct watersheds that are not physically connected to each other in any way. This geographic partition creates vastly different regional opportunities for securing a consistent and affordable water supply and managing flood control. Understanding those differences is the key to grasping the severity of our water issues here in south Orange County.
The robust dam projects in the Santa Ana River basin, originally designed to provide flood control, have evolved over the years to be essential components of Orange County Water District’s water supply. For example, OCWD saves close to $20 million each year by accumulating storm water behind Prado Dam.
Catching that water, instead of allowing it to simply flow out to the ocean, results in hundreds of millions of gallons being recharged back into the Santa Ana River basin every year. But the benefits to water consumers do not stop there.
This recharged groundwater pool is then substantially enhanced by the world’s largest water purification system for potable—that is, drinkable—water re-use, the Groundwater Replenishment System. The GWRS injects treated wastewater up the Santa Ana River watershed into the groundwater basin, causing it to surge through the natural underground aquifer.
The resulting flow of treated wastewater and groundwater is further sanitized to produce up to 70 million gallons of high-quality water every day through a process known as indirect potable re-use.
By comparison, the San Juan basin is considerably smaller and does not hold nearly the groundwater volume as the Santa Ana River basin. Moreover, there are no dams, percolation ponds or indirect recharge efforts in the San Juan basin.
The South Coast Water District operates a Groundwater Recovery Facility that taps into the San Juan basin accounting for approximately 15 percent of the district’s water supply. The city of San Juan Capistrano fares better, producing nearly 50 percent of its water supply from its GRF operations.
Both of these water supplies are subject to strict regulations that limit amounts of water that can be extracted. To cover the balance of supply, both agencies must purchase imported water. As the drought continues in the western states, water supplies are stretched thin and over allocated.
As a solution to lessen its reliance on these outside sources, SCWD is currently pursuing desalination options at Doheny State Beach. However, while desalination may prove to be a viable and attractive option for SCWD and the south Orange County region, production is years away.
In California and the western United States, severe drought conditions persist with no end in sight. As we enter into our hot and dry summer months, we must conserve as much as we can above the mandatory 20 percent reduction in water use SCWD imposed after Gov. Brown’s January 2014 drought proclamation.
Southern California is currently drawing down its regional surface storage supplies, and if the drought persists, our situation could quickly transform to the dire situation in Northern California, where in some towns, water supply is measured in days, not months or years. Short-term solutions are conservation and efficiency. Long-term solutions are creating additional storage and sourcing “new” water.
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