By John Schatz, General Manager, Santa Margarita Water District, and Lucy Dunn, President and CEO, Orange County Business Council
March 27, 2012 - With the twist of a faucet handle, a little stream from the Sacramento area completes a journey of hundreds of miles, from lakes and rivers through tunnels and pipes, to Orange County where affordable and high-quality water sustains our businesses, economy and communities. This is our most valuable “import.” Did you know that Orange County gets its water from a Northern California area known as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and from the Colorado River?
Imported water is “liquid gold” and helped make Orange County the nation’s sixth most populous county, headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies and a popular destination spot for tourists from around the world.
While they probably don’t realize it, 155,000 residents served by the county’s second largest water district, Santa Margarita Water District or SMWD, rely almost exclusively on this “import” because the District has no major local supply source.
Recurring drought cycles and potential natural disasters like earthquakes threaten the future deliveries of imported water—and the future of this county. We must prepare for the day when imported water may be substantially reduced or no longer available, if we wish to protect Orange County businesses, communities and the economy.
The bad news: because of dry conditions, California officials recently notified local water agencies that they will only receive 50% of their legally-entitled deliveries from the State Water Project—a complex network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumps that store and deliver water throughout California. The impact is significant because the State Water Project is the nation’s largest state-built water conveyance system, supplying water to two out of every three Californians. Even in wet years, the State Water Project delivered far less than what is allowed because of environmental conditions and regulatory restrictions.
Long-term, future water supplies are not reliable. Leading experts say an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude or greater would wipe out a significant portion of the State Water Project, potentially causing its 100-year-old levees in the Delta to collapse, allowing water from the San Francisco Bay to rush into the Delta and turn freshwater into saltwater.
With losses estimated at $40 billion statewide, the results would be devastating to California’s economy and its water supplies, leaving SMWD and other water providers with severe shortages and limited options to meet demands. The state is working on a solution to this Delta crisis, advancing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan which will restore habitat and restore water supply reliability with the construction of a new water delivery system. However, that fix will take at least a decade to complete and we need to look regionally for solutions to ensure our water future.
Community leaders throughout the county are preparing for potential disruptions in water imports by encouraging conservation, recycling and innovative local supply solutions. Its customers are using 25 percent less water today than they did 10 years ago. SMWD, for example, operates one of the largest recycled water reservoirs in Orange County--the Upper Oso Reservoir.
Further, SMWD partnered with four other water agencies on the $54 million Upper Chiquita Reservoir, creating the largest domestic water reservoir built in south Orange County in 45 years. This reservoir will provide drinking water to some 500,000 South County residents for up to one week in an emergency.
We rely on local water agencies to be leaders in this region, pressing for bold action to eliminate threats to our water resources. For example, SMWD is conducting an extensive environmental review to determine the feasibility of the Cadiz Project, a potential new source of water and storage from a large, renewable aquifer in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. The proposed project is designed to conserve and utilize water from nearby watersheds otherwise being lost to evaporation.
Rather than a “silver bullet” solution, the answer to water reliability results from a volley of well-aimed arrows: aggressive conservation, groundwater replenishment systems, recycling, water quality improvements, desalination, and new storage facilities (like SMWD’s reservoir)—all tactics tried, true and innovative—to supply a growing population with water while preserving a vibrant environment.
For Orange County to have a dependable, sustainable and dynamic economy, we need a diversified portfolio of water resources, not merely reliance on precious “imports.” Orange County’s innovative local solutions have always lead the way so affordable and high-quality water continues to flow and ensure a strong future for business and residents alike.