Drought proofing Ventura County
The complicated game of allocating one of nature’s most precious resources
By Kit Stolz 04/19/2012
Every April the state of California surveys the Sierra Nevada snowpack to find out how much water it can afford to release from storage reservoirs. This year, the experts found that the state could expect just 55 percent of its normal water from this winter’s snows.
“An unusually wet March improved conditions, but did not make up for previous dry months,” said Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources. “The take-home message is that we’ve had a dry winter, and although good reservoir storage will lessen impacts this summer, we need to be prepared for a potentially dry 2013.”
This means that the state will likely deliver just half of the water requested by the water districts, which serve about 25 million home users, as well as hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Officials at Ventura County’s water wholesaler, Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 600,000 people in the southern part of the county, stretching from Simi Valley to Oxnard, will have to prepare for the possibility of drought.
The Casitas Municipal Water District supplies water to nearly 70,000 people in Western Ventura County, including Ojai and Ventura. The majority of Ventura County relies on the wholesaler, Calleguas Water District, while Ojai and Ventura are reliant on local supply.
Dryness, of course, is nothing new to Southern Californians, who are accustomed to summers of no rain that can stretch for six months or longer. But Ventura County residents might be surprised to learn how much effort their chief water supplier, Calleguas, has put into preparing for drought and disaster. And they might be further surprised to learn that the first effort — which did not succeed — cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars, and the second effort — still under construction — will cost hundreds of millions.
The Las Posas Aquifer — the water bank that failed
Hidden under much of the county, stretching from Simi Valley in the east past Moorpark to the west, is a large body of water — the Las Posas Lower Aquifer. A Calleguas survey in l989 said that this aquifer, about 4.5 miles wide and 18 miles long, could store as much as 300,000 acre-feet of water, more than enough water for a million people for a year. Further, this aquifer was believed to be isolated from saltier water tables closer to the earth’s surface by what was described by Calleguas as “an impervious clay barrier.”
Under the leadership of former general manager Don Kendall, Calleguas put together a deal with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), wholesaler of state water to 19 million Southern Californians, to bank as much as 210,000 acre-feet of water, in case of drought or emergencies.
For Southern California, water storage is crucial. Most of our water comes from mountain snowpack. Four rivers in the northern third of the state feed like arteries into the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, from which water is pumped out and sent south through the State Water Project aqueduct paralleling Interstate 5.
But there’s a catch, or two, or three. For one, the almost unimaginably huge State Water Project turbines in the Bay Delta, which are so powerful they can reverse the seaward flow of water, have the nasty habit of chewing up and spitting out several endangered species of fish.
The most famous — or infamous — of these fish are the tiny Delta Smelt, which live almost invisibly in the muddy waters, and of which perhaps 2,000 remain. In response to a series of lawsuits on behalf of a total of eight endangered fish species by environmentalists, Oliver Wanger, a federal court judge appointed to the bench in l991 by George H.W. Bush, reduced water deliveries southward in 2007 by as much as one-third.
Beyond this “regulatory drought,” Calleguas and Metropolitan also know from numerous studies by the state and federal geologists that if the Bay Delta were hit by a big earthquake, agricultural levees put up decades ago could collapse. This could bring the hydrological equivalent of a massive heart attack to the state water system and its 25 million customers. A 2007 study by the Department of Water Resources estimated that such a collapse could endanger state water supplies for as long as two or three years, and cost upward of $2 billion to fix. A more recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2010, found that the Delta collapse would only endanger the system for three to six months.
“For Calleguas, if we went for three to six months [without state water] we would be OK,” said Susan Mulligan, general manager of Calleguas. “But not if it went for longer. We have to prepare.”
Photo by Matthew Hill Photography ©2012
Susan Mulligan took over as general manager for the Calleguas Water District in October, 2010, after Don Kendall resigned in May 2010.
This prospect of disaster made the $50 million deal that Calleguas and the Metropolitan struck in the l990s, each pledging $25 million toward the Las Posas Aquifer Storage Recovery (ASR) project, seem like a bargain. For Metropolitan, with an annual budget this year of $1.66 billion, $25 million to bank half the additional water the agency estimates it will need in case of a long-term drought or emergency in Southern California was small change.
For Calleguas, with an annual budget of about $100 million this year, this was a bigger gamble, but one with a bigger upside, too.
“Serving as a hedge against future water shortages, the Las Posas Basin Aquifer Storage Recovery (ASR) project will ensure the reliability of Calleguas’ drinking water supply for generations to come,” the district declared in a fact sheet distributed in l996.
The inevitable bill came due in 2007, and when Metropolitan declared a drought, it asked customers to conserve water and asked Calleguas to give back the hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of state water it had been banking for the MWD in the Las Posas ASR. But when the pumps began to pull the water out, the aquifer levels fell far more rapidly than expected. According to an analysis of the project last year for Calleguas by Steven Bachman, a hydrologist, “Between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2010, water levels decreased by 80 feet at the [storage basin] wells.” The lower aquifer did not have the storage capacity expected, or what was promised to the MWD. Mulligan, in an interview, said that the aquifer turned out to be able to store only about 50,000 acre-feet, enough for Calleguas and the county, but not enough for the MWD and Southern California.
As invisible to the public as ever, the underground bank nonetheless had failed to perform, and — as part of the deal — Calleguas owed millions of dollars in penalties for the massive amount of water it had promised to return to Metropolitan during times of drought, but could not.
After 18 years as general manager for Calleguas, Don Kendall abruptly resigned in May of 2010. Neither he nor the Calleguas board of directors will discuss with the press the reasons why he left. Nor will any other water official speculate on the record as to why he stalked off a job that paid him a quarter-million dollars a year.
Off the record, a Metropolitan insider said that Kendall’s resignation was “not unrelated” to the collapse of the Las Posas ASR deal, which cost Calleguas $53 million, according to Bachman’s report. Mulligan explained that Calleguas paid $28.1 million to recompensate MWD for its investment in the project, and $25.7 million to buy back the state water that the MWD had put into the aquifer. In return, MWD agreed to waive the penalty fees for the project’s failure, which could have been as high as $75 million.
Instead of water banking, water desalting
Although the Calleguas-Metropolitan plan to bank state water for customers throughout Southern California fell apart, for Ventura County the news is a little better.
According to Gerhardt Hubner, deputy director of the county’s watershed protection district, as well as a representative on the board of the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management District that oversees the county’s groundwater supplies, the county now can count on the aquifer’s supplies for its own customers.
“Basically, Calleguas bought the MWD out of the project,” he said. “We now have much more local control of the water.”
To make better use of its local water supplies, Calleguas is spearheading an ambitious plan to replace about 40 percent of the 97,000 acre-feet the agency still buys yearly from Metropolitan. If successful, the long-term plan — which will not be complete until Simi Valley comes on line, which is estimated for 2021 — will stabilize the rising cost of water to ratepayers over time, and increase the reliability of supply. Because many local aquifers have accumulated salts from decades of state water use, this means installing reverse-osmosis “desalting” plants from Oxnard to Simi Valley.
The plan will enable local water districts, such as Moorpark, the city of Camarillo and several others, to clean local aquifer water. The salty wastewater from these plants, which Mulligan said is about one-tenth as salty as ocean water, will be transported to the ocean via a partially built “brineline” that will send the excess all the way from Simi Valley out to sea off Port Hueneme, at a cost of about $200 million dollars.
The reverse-osmosis desalting technology has been proven, said Rich Nagle, general manager of the West Basin water district centered in Carson, south of Los Angeles, which serves about 900,000 users.
“In the early l990s our board, which was concerned about the reliability of our water supply, did a survey of our local groundwater, which primarily originates from wastewater treatment plants, and said, ‘Wow! Why don’t we tap into that?’ We made a pioneering decision to reclaim that groundwater, treat it and recycle it. Today, we supply five different classes of recycled water, about 30,000 acre-feet a year, and we’re expanding our desalination facilities.”
The shallow aquifers of the county tend to have high levels of salts such as chloride and boron.
“Anyplace you keep irrigating with imported water, the plants take up the water and evaporate it, and little by little, salts build up,” explained Mulligan, of Calleguas. “And to make matters worse, in our area we have marine sediments in the soil, from when the land was under the ocean.”
For the city of Camarillo, which is at the end of a “salt plume” of groundwater from higher elevations eastward in the county, sending the salts extracted from groundwater to a brineline, amounting to about one-quarter of the total water treated, has another benefit. The city can avoid paying fines of about $65,000 a year to the State Water Quality Control Board for discharging water that exceeds clean water standards, said Lucie McGovern, deputy director of public works for the city.
But these potential savings may be dwarfed by the potential — though as yet unproven — savings that come from treating local groundwater, as opposed to buying imported water from the north. Water managers across the county agree that the primary drive behind the move toward groundwater desalination is a desire to stabilize costs.
Managers don’t always agree on the cost of state water. Some say it’s as high as $1,000 an acre-foot, such as Reddy Pakala in Moorpark, while one MWD insider who did not wish to be identified said it’s as low as $850 per acre-foot. But they do agree that the cost of treated water is competitive with imported water, and they believe that cost and supply will remain stable, unlike the cost and availability of water from the MWD.
“To treat groundwater that is suitable for drinking water purposes, to build the desalter, amortize the costs over 30 years, buy the energy and hire the staff, the costs will add up to about $950 per acre-foot,” said Mulligan. “But those costs in our area will be a lot less than MWD costs in years to come. You’re looking at a rise of maybe 2 percent a year, versus 6 percent or more a year [from the MWD].”
Across the Southland, ratepayers and water managers are expressing shock at the rise in MWD water rates, which leapt 70 percent from 2008 to this year. The rise was driven in large part by soaring costs for infrastructure repairs, which are estimated to cost $275 million this year.
To water experts and environmentalists such as Connor Everts, former director of the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency, water managers all over the Southland need to wake up to the fact that they can’t continue with business as usual.
“All these water agencies must be bleeding money because demand is down while fixed costs are up, and all they do is raise rates,” Everts said. “They don’t realize this is the new normal.”
Is conservation the answer?
In March of this year, the county Board of Supervisors approved a plan to drill four test wells in the Moorpark area, to make sure that a planned $47 million desalter plant for the city will have a good supply of groundwater. The vote was 3-1, with supervisor Linda Parks objecting.
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks
“This first came up a couple of years ago and I voiced my concerns at that time,” Parks said. “I am all for using local water, but I have heard that about 70 percent of our domestic water use is for landscaping. I think, before we treat sewage water that has been put in the ground for potable water, that we should look at conservation and more efficient use of the water we have.”
Water managers agree that conservation can make a difference, but don’t agree that Ventura County groundwater is “sewage water.” Pakala points out that groundwater is being used and treated now, and Mulligan of Calleguas adds that Simi Valley has, for decades, been pumping out high volumes of its existing groundwater to lower water tables and keep basements dry. The salty discharge ends up in the Calleguas creek watershed and in downstream aquifers across the county. Nagle of West Basin said that water purifying technology of today can not only produce clean, safe drinking water, but can also distill water for industrial steam use at a level far cleaner than drinking water.
Everts, who has led a statewide task force opposed to ocean water desalination due to high energy costs, environmental impacts and the vast infrastructure costs of piping water eastward from the coast, takes a more measured view of groundwater desalination. He sees its potential for the county, but has concerns about the effluent discharge, and wants to see more conservation and reclamation first.
“There’s a lot of fact behind the idea that changes in landscaping, combined with gray water use, rainwater harvesting and using storm water, can not only be environmentally beneficial but cost-effective,” he said. “Groundwater basins are fragile, and often need to be replenished. I think, before we spend even larger amounts of money on groundwater desalination, we need to take some of these steps to reduce demand.”
But for Susan Mulligan at Calleguas, the issue of water supply reliability cannot be overlooked, despite the high cost of the brineline and the half-dozen new desalter plants planned for the county this decade, which will cost more than $300 million in total.
“It’s a lot of money,” she admitted. “It will take us 30 or 40 years to pay off the brineline, from the discharge fees. But it improves reliability in our service area, and that’s what it’s all about. We can’t just be depending on imported water anymore.”