Orange County’s imported water supply is “very vulnerable” to disruption by catastrophic failure, with important water-delivery structures in disrepair and insufficient planning for emergencies, according to a new report by the Orange County Grand Jury.
Much of the planned water supply exists on paper only, says the report, “Paper Water: Does Orange County Have a Reliable Future?”
“The gap between allocated ‘paper water’ and available ‘real water’ can be dramatic,” the report reads. “This term may succinctly define Orange County’s water future as judicial rulings systematically continue to remove available supplies from the reach of Orange County’s consumers.”
Grand Jury foreman James Perez said he hopes the report will help encourage conservation.
“We’re not at the crisis yet, but we’re getting there,” Perez said. “If conservation is coming through, it’s amazing what can happen if everybody gets behind it.”
The report paints a grim picture of imported water delivery systems. It says there is a 67 percent chance of “drastic levee failures” sometime in the next 25 years. If the failure were earthquake-related, it could result in the seawater inundation of the California Bay Delta, the source of much of Southern California’s imported supplies. That, in turn, could cut off supplies from the delta to Southern California for “two to four years, or longer.”
Colorado River supplies also are in doubt, along with other imported-water sources. “Every source of water coming into Southern California from afar. . .is increasingly unreliable,” the report says.
The report contends that land planners also do not coordinate well with water planners to map out reliable supplies, and that most Orange County residents are blithely unaware of the danger they face.
“The public’s consideration for water supply typically starts and stops at the faucet handle as they expect, with every turn, dependable delivery of high-quality, safe, clean water,” the report reads.
Southern Orange County is especially vulnerable, says the report, because it is 95 percent dependent upon imported water sources; central and northern Orange County supply part of their water from the county’s underground aquifer, which the Grand Jury says is managed well.
South county’s imported water, the report says, is “sent 35 miles to south County via two, aging pipelines, traversing active seismic faults.”
Emergency water planning covers about 10 percent of what is needed, it says, the rest dependent on construction of planned pumps, pipelines, reservoirs and treatment systems, along with purification systems for seawater and brackish water in south county.
Karl Seckel, the assistant manager and water engineer at the Municipal Water District of Orange County who was consulted by the Grand Jury, along with other local experts, said he believed water planning is better than characterized in the report. The Grand Jury might have based some of its conclusions on outdated planning reports, he said, although Perez, the Grand Jury foreman, said it was based on current information.
“They understated where we’re at today,” he said. Planning now would ensure supply for Orange County for 5 to 7 days if Metropolitan water became suddenly unavailable; the agencies are working together, he said, to reach a goal set by Metropolitan of seven days, but they hope to do even better than that.
“I think the rest of it is pretty good,” he said of the report, although it “might be a little negative.”
The report called on the county’s “autonomous, fragmented” water agencies — members of the Municipal Water District of Orange County — to resolve their differences and unify, either by modifying existing agreements or by creating a new county-wide water authority.
The report also says every Orange County city or water district should approve new plans for water-saving measures based on up-to-date projections of potential constraints on supply, engage in more public outreach, and work together to plan for droughts, disasters and catastrophic disruptions.
Among the judicial rulings referred to in the report is a court-ordered reduction in pumping from the California Bay Delta to protect a threatened fish, the delta smelt; that as well as continuing drought conditions and reducted water from the Colorado River prompted the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles in April to approve a cut in supply to downstream agencies.
Many Orange County cities and water agencies are responding to the long-anticipated supply cut by passing tighter rules on water use, such as restricting times of day for outdoor watering.
The Grand Jury’s assessment of potential trouble with imported water supplies matches that of the Metropolitan Water District, said Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir.
“I think you’ll hear the same concerns, not only in Orange County, but throughout Southern California,” Muir said.
(Photo of water basins at the Robert Diemer Water Filtration Plant in Yorba Linda by Rod Veal, Orange County Register. Register graphic, based on figure in Grand Jury report, by Brian Moore.)