Orange County Branch Newsletter

June 2014

President's Message

Imagine an Endless Water Supply

By Penny Lew, P.E.

I’ll call it an “LA Story” moment as I can’t think of any other way to describe my drive home along the southbound 5 Freeway the other week as the message “SEVERE DROUGHT-HELP SAVE WATER” was displayed so prominently on the highway changeable message sign. I took the message as a nudge to write about the California Drought, a topic I had originally planned for in the April newsletter. Unlike the character played by Steve Martin in the movie, I can’t say I experienced an epiphany after reading the message but I can tell you this- the California Drought and related issues are worth learning about.

In case you have not heard, the water year in California was 50% below average for most areas and the snow levels were below 28% for April. California has had three dry years in a row, and Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January.  If the planet slowly continues to warm up for a long time, we’re going to have to start looking at drought disasters as something to prepare for, plan for and to start building new infrastructure.  Changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways: 1. more rain falls in extreme downpours – so more water is lost to runoff than captured; 2. more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow – so rivers run dry earlier in the year; and  3. soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round.

In the News

After the ACC-OC annual Infrastructure Symposium the other week (co-sponsored by ASCE LA Section this year), I began to wonder about the tough decisions that need to be made by lawmakers and how those decisions affect the lives of many.  One of the presenters at the event was Mr. Joe Del Bosque         the farmer from Firebaugh, CA who received a visit by President Obama this past February after he tweeted the President.   His presentation helped me better understand the issues brought by lack of rainfall and water supply. 

Obama’s visit brought attention to California’s record-setting drought and the President assured us that California’s importance as a major farm producer makes the state’s water problems a national concern.  The Bay Delta irrigates 45% of the fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S. that includes 3M acres of prime agricultural land.   Impacts to employment, health, agriculture, manufacturing, and safety in the various communities within the Central Valley have occurred at various times due to water shortages. About 200,000 people were affected when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in place policies to restrict the water pumped into Central Valley farmland. The policies protected the endangered delta smelt, but made work scarce for migrant farmworkers. Interior Department officials are also being directed to operate federal water projects with “flexibility” to maximize water deliveries, and federal agencies are being directed to conserve more aggressively.

In some farm districts, land owners have no water allocation and others are receiving allocations that are only half of what they should be getting. Many ranchers and farmers have begun pumping well water sooner than usual and are making tough decisions to conserve water and deciding how much of their acreage to go fallow.  They recall that a few years ago when there was plenty of rain, there was no place to store it. Through funding received by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP Program), farmers are currently working with the agency to develop cover crops to help keep soil in place during the drought. 


In case you’re not sure what the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is, it is regional governance in southern California- a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in parts of LA, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties.  It is working to move away from heavy dependence on imported water supply and the state water project diversions created in the early 1990’s by emphasizing conservation, local supplies, storage, and water transfers. Its rates have increased two-fold so local agencies are now looking at reuse (recycling) and conservation. 

Imported supplies are decreasing due to drought, climate change, changes in government policy, and court decisions restricting flows to Southern California. Water delivered from MWD to Orange County was a mix from the Colorado River and State Water Project (SWP); however, no agencies are currently receiving sources from the SWP. To encourage development of local water sources, the MWD provides $250 per acre-foot of potable water produced (325,850 gallons).

What is Being Talked About

Last January, a symposium for the US-Australia Dialogue: “The Coming Water Crises: Solutions and Strategies” was held at UCLA where water concerns were addressed.  The 12-year drought in Australia just ended so their scientists and engineers wanted to share some of what they have learned.   A statement prior to the event said  “Technological advancements in both countries would “lessen some of the problems brought on by prolonged drought but the real challenges will be reconfiguring development and land use  to capture more storm water, attain public acceptance, securing public agreement, and investment in reclaiming wastewater and using it.”   A great deal of discussion, research, and planning is going towards stormwater reclamation, integrating recycled water from waste and rainwater harvesting.  


California public agencies have described the public’s fear over recycling waste water. Also, acceptance of stormwater reuse is a big issue and must be overcome if local water resources are diversified in the long term.  So this is a social and economic issue- not a technical one. Our droughts have not yet lasted long enough to affect change. Indirect potable reclamation is being done on a case-by-case basis, as rules and regulations are developing.  Some reclamation projects in California have failed due to ineffective of or inadequate public outreach.  Also, some innovative solutions can be politically impossible to implement, mostly due to water rights laws and lack of an established legal process for determining rights and obligations for groundwater.   

What We’re Doing in California and Locally

Groundwater Replenishment System

The Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) is currently the World's Largest Water Purification System for Potable Reuse. OCWD and the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) worked together and jointly funded the project for the design and construction of the GWRS. The GWRS takes highly treated wastewater and purifies it using a three-step advanced treatment process that consists of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. This water would have previously been discharged into the Pacific Ocean but has now been processed to produce high-quality water that exceeds all federal and state drinking water standards. This state-of-the-art water purification project has been operational since January 2008 and can produce up to 70 million gallons (265,000 cubic meters) of high-quality water every day to meet the needs of nearly 600,000 residents in north and central Orange County.

Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM)

While large inter-regional water management systems, such as the State Water Project, Central Valley Project, and flood management systems, are important, the majority of California's water resource management investments are made at the local and regional level. IRWM has been critical in helping meet California's water management challenges, including the 2014 drought.

The CA Department of Water Resource’s IRWM began in 2002 when the Regional Water Management Planning Act (SB 1672) was passed by the Legislature. Regional water management groups (RWMGs) were formed as a result of bond acts approved by California voters that provided $1.5 billion to support and advance IRWM. Cities, counties, water districts, community groups, and others across the state have worked with one another to organize and establish the RWMGs.  Orange County is divided into two major regional watershed areas having two RWMGs:  South Orange County Watershed Management Area (SOCWMA) and another group within the Santa Ana Water Project Authority (SAWPA) for Central and North OC.

Groundwater Recovery Facility

Located on two acres of the District's 30-acre property in Capistrano Beach adjacent to San Juan Creek, the South Coast Water District's (SCWD) Groundwater Recovery Facility (GRF) is adding local water into the District's water distribution system.  Approximately 15% of the District's drinking water comes from the San Juan Groundwater Basin, helping the District to reduce its dependence on imported water supplies. 

Currently the SCWD produces over 293,000 million gallons of potable water a year (834,000 gallons a day), making local water approximately 15% of the District's source mix.  The GRF project develops a reliable local water supply to replace decreasing and uncertain supplies of imported water and ensures the availability of local water in case the imported water supply is disrupted due to events such as earthquake and shutdowns.


There is much being done in California regarding treatment and reuse. Here are some other projects worth checking out:  

LADWP Hyperion Treatment Facility                  

Poseidon Desalination (currently under construction)          

SCVWD Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center

The Outlook

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the reality is that with no new water supplies on the horizon, new water sources have become conservation, reclamation, and reuse.  Hopefully, after this drought ends, the discussion will continue and long-time habits, inefficient practices and mind set will have changed in favor of conservation, water reuse and other methods.  We see a host of reasons why we need to continue to explore concepts that we are not currently using. Perhaps one day we all will find recycled water for potable use more acceptable.


Integrated Regional Water Management:         

USDA National Resources Conservation Service:            

Orange County Water District:

South Coast Water District:                           

Related Groups/Committees