No rain, but ‘the sky is not fall­ing’ in drought

Bet­ter wa­ter man­age­ment may re­sult from cri­sis

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Thomas Cur­wen

The Santa Ana River is a ro­bust and beau­ti­ful sight these days. Five miles west of the Prado Dam in Yorba Linda, the wa­ter has cut an ar­row chan­nel in a sandy bed and cour­ses briskly over sub­merged rocks and tree limbs.

The wa­ter is a com­pli­cated cock­tail that comes from many sources. As it flows 96 miles from its head­wa­ters to the ocean, it pro­vides a glimpse of the fu­ture: apic­ture ofwa­ter man­age­ment set into place nearly 50 years ago that can be seen as a model for Cal­i­for­nia’s long ef­fort to keep the state from with­er­ing away.

The rush­ing bur­ble, quick­en­ing through nar­row shal­lows, min­gles with bird song and the sound of pass­ing cars whose driv­ers, if they have paid at­ten­tion to re­ports of Cal­i­for­nia’s demise, must be as­ton­ished by the sight of the wa­ter be­low.

Na­tional head­lines ask: “The End of Cal­i­for­nia?” News sto­ries track the di­min­ish­ing snow­pack and dis­ap­pear­ing reser­voirs, and a small fish in the Delta is scape­goated, al­mond grow­ers and con­sumers are shamed and the mythol­ogy of Western re­solve is ques­tioned.

The cri­sis has led many to won­der whether the state has lost its his­toric re­silience.

But the drama hides re­al­ity and for those who have stud­ied Cal­i­for­nia’s long re­la­tion­ship with its wa­ter, the drought is se­ri­ous but hardly a dis­as­ter.

“The sky is not fall­ing,” said Jef­frey Mount, se­nior fel­low with the Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia.

“We shouldn’t be com­pla­cent, butwe don’t need to be pan­ick­ing,” said Jay Lund, di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Wa­ter­shed Sciences at UC Davis. “Look at Mediter­ranean cli­mates around the world — look at how many peo­ple they sup­port, the econ­omy they sup­port, the agriculture they sup­port — and you’ll see that Cal­i­for­nia does bet­ter than any­one else.

“If peo­ple are just now un­der­stand­ing that Cal­i­for­nia can be adry place,” Lund said, “then we must have been do­ing some­thing right in terms of ur­ban wa­ter de­liv­ery.”

The legacy of this drought, Cal­i­for­ni­ans deeply in­volved in wa­ter is­sues say, is that the state will ad­just, as it al­ways has fol­low­ing a dry pe­riod, and this time the ad­just­ment will mean man­ag­ing wa­ter across the state much like the Santa Ana River is man­aged.

Many sources

Less river than repos­i­tory, the Santa Ana is a nat­u­ral de­pres­sion carved in the flood plain, a col­lec­tion site for treated waste wa­ter, pre­cip­i­ta­tion and ur­ban runoff.

If wa­ter had DNA, the ge­netic ma­te­rial of this rivulet could be traced as far as Wyoming and as close as the San Bernardino Moun­tains. It has flowed through the trailer parks of Beau­mont and Ban­ning, the ware­houses of Ran­cho Cu­ca­monga, the golf cour­ses of the Moreno Val­ley and the strip malls of River­side. The high-rises of Fash­ion Is­land lie along its course.

By the time it reaches the Pacific Ocean, it will have been mon­i­tored, treated, mea­sured and priced by three flood-con­trol dis­tricts, 18 waste wa­ter dis­tricts and 40 re­tail­ers re­spon­si­ble for dis­tribut­ing it to the nearly 6 mil­lion res­i­dents of this vast wa­ter­shed.

In Or­ange and Ana­heim, the river will broaden and slow into a se­ries of set­tling ponds to dis­ap­pear into the aquifer and later be ex­tracted for other uses. At this stage of its jour­ney, the wa­ter be­longs to the Or­ange County Wa­ter District, but its en­tire progress has been watched by the larger en­tity — the Santa Ana River Wa­ter­shed Project Au­thor­ity, bet­ter known as SAWPA.

Es­tab­lished in the late 1960s, the wa­ter au­thor­ity was cre­ated to en­sure co­op­er­a­tion among com­pet­ing wa­ter dis­tricts and their con­stituents. Over the years, the agency has evolved to pro­vide stew­ard­ship over the re­gion’s wa­ter sup­plies from Big Bear Lake to New­port Beach.

“SAWPA’s unique,” said Steven Moore, a mem­ber of the State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board. “The in­vest­ments it has made over the decades have cre­ated a sys­tem more re­silient than other parts of the state. They have es­sen­tially cre­ated an in­sur­ance pol­icy for drought.”

Previous droughts

Wa­ter man­age­ment in Cal­i­for­nia has al­ways had to con­tend with a frac­tured land­scape, long di­vided by his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy, and years of clear and cloud­less skies have only height­ened an­tag­o­nisms and spurred in­no­va­tion.

But noth­ing fo­cuses po­lit­i­cal will bet­ter than a dis­as­ter. Drought in the 1930s cre­ated the Cen­tral Val­ley Project. Drought in the 1950s led to the State Wa­ter Project. Drought in the 1970s spurred ef­forts at ur­ban con­ser­va­tion and the state’s Drought Emer­gency Wa­ter Bank came out of drought in the 1980s.

The calamity that cre­ated the Santa Ana River Wa­ter­shed Project Au­thor­ity took place in a court­room over the course of six years.

In 1963, the Or­ange County Wa­ter District, hav­ing mea­sured a di­min­ished flow of wa­ter in the Santa Ana River, filed a law­suit against other dis­tricts up­stream that had in­creased their di­ver­sions.

About 4,000 par­ties were named, and af­ter the set­tle­ment in 1969, the four ma­jor wa­ter dis­tricts in Or­ange, River­side and San Bernardino coun­ties de­cided to cre­ate an agency to set­tle their dis­putes. It­would be less ex­pen­sive than go­ing back to court.

The wa­ter au­thor­ity to­day oc­cu­pies a two-story of­fice build­ing in River­side. The mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to gen­eral man­ager Ce­leste Cantú, is to help man­age the hy­drol­ogy of a re­gion with more than 2,650 square miles.

The wa­ter world is de­fined by ter­ri­to­rial bu­reau­cra­cies— each wa­ter district for its own — but the wa­ter au­thor­ity makes the case for amore holis­tic ap­proach.

A basin, or a wa­ter­shed, is far larger than most wa­ter dis­tricts. To im­prove con­ser­va­tion and use wa­ter ef­fec­tively across an en­tire basin, dis­tricts must work to­gether.

“If you are a re­ally tiny district, you can’t have the fi­nan­cial where­withal or the geo­graphic where­withal” to man­age en­tire wa­ter­sheds in a way that cap­tures and uses and reuses the wa­ter cre­atively and ef­fi­ciently, Mount said.

That’s the ad­van­tage SAWPA en­joys. It tracks wa­ter use across the wa­ter­shed, from source to sink.

“If ev­ery drop counts, then you have to count ev­ery drop, and the state has been stun­ningly sloppy about how it mea­sures wa­ter,” Mount said. “One el­e­ment of con­ser­va­tion is good ac­count­ing.”

By count­ing ev­ery drop, the agency tracks how wa­ter is used through­out the wa­ter­shed, and by track­ing its use, the agency can en­sure that the wa­ter is clean and safe to be used mul­ti­ple times.

With its large reach, the agency can pull in funds from bonds, loan pro­grams and the mem­ber dis­tricts, al­low­ing them to de­velop an ar­ray of wa­ter sources they couldn’t ap­proach in­di­vid­u­ally.

In ad­di­tion, the wa­ter au­thor­ity has helped de­velop new for­est man­age­ment poli­cies in the San Bernardino Moun­tains to pro­tect streams and drainage. It has helped fund de­sali­na­tion fa­cil­i­ties in River­side County that re­move nat­u­ral ac­cu­mu­la­tions of salt. It has helped pur­chase land for the creation of spread­ing ponds in Or­ange County to re­vive the aquifer, and it has ini­ti­ated stud­ies of the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of its wa­ter, look­ing for trace im­pu­ri­ties through­out the wa­ter­shed.

“SAWPA is the best ex­am­ple of how to or­ga­nize wa­ter man­age­ment at the basin scale,” Mount said.

Com­plex sys­tem

For al­most 150 years, Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter pol­icy had been based on cre­at­ing eco­nomic in­cen­tives for in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies to de­velop wa­ter re­sources, and with the help of the fed­eral and state fund­ing, nearly 1,400 dams and 1,000s of miles of aqueduct were built.

Asa re­sult, Cal­i­for­nia has the most com­plex wa­ter re­sources sys­temin the world due to the achieve­ments of such en­gi­neer­ing and po­lit­i­cal ti­tans as Wil­liam Mul­hol­land and Michael O’Shaugh­nessy, whose ef­forts brought wa­ter to Los An­ge­les from the Owens Val­ley and to San Fran­cisco from Yosemite.

But ex­perts agree, fu­ture droughts will not be re­solved by lay­ing down more con­crete or adding more ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture.

“It’s hard to see how we can en­gi­neer our way out of this,” said John Hall, a pro­fes­sor of en­gi­neer­ing at Cal­tech who is study­ing the state’s wa­ter re­sources..

In the ab­sence of in­fra­struc­ture projects, wa­ter plan­ners are look­ing to con­sumers to con­serve and to them­selves to re­think how wa­ter is man­aged.

The state’s ap­proach to wa­ter has long been based on one-time us­age: ex­trac­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion. Once col­lected, once used, wa­ter was then for­got­ten.

“In the 20th cen­tury, wa­ter was con­sid­ered a com­mod­ity like oil,” said Cantú. “It was es­sen­tially mined, ex­tracted and sold, and like oil, it­was as­sumed that once con­sumed, it was no longer use­ful.”

That phi­los­o­phy, Cantú said, of­ten pit­ted one wa­ter district against another, and in a land­scape as crowded as Cal­i­for­nia, that can lead to in­ef­fi­ciency.

Among Cal­i­for­nia’s 58 coun­ties, the state has a dis­pro­por­tion­ately high num­ber ofwa­ter agen­cies.

The State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board es­ti­mates 3,000 wa­ter ser­vice providers, 1,100 waste­water en­ti­ties, 600 ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts, 140 recla­ma­tion dis­tricts, and 60 flood con­trol agen­cies.

“One prob­lem is that the agen­cies com­pete with one another, rather than work to­gether,” said Joe Grind­staff, gen­eral man­ager of the In­land Em­pire Util­i­ties Agency, a wa­ter district that is a mem­ber of SAWPA. “That takes a lot of re­sources.

“My be­lief is that if you look at Cal­i­for­nia in 50 years, in­stead of thou­sands of agen­cies, we might have 50 to100,” Grind­staff said.

As Cantú said, “Cal­i­for­nia doesn’t get through this by work­ing sep­a­rately. We need to col­lab­o­rate and blur bound­aries.”

Take a stroll along the Santa Ana River. Fol­low the trail, funded in part by the wa­ter au­thor­ity, that runs from the mouth of the river in Hunt­ing­ton Beach through San Bernardino County, and you might see a pic­ture of Cal­i­for­nia’s fu­ture.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER FLOW­ING 96 MILES, the Santa Ana River en­ters the ocean. The co­or­di­nated ap­proach to man­ag­ing its wa­ter­shed could be­come a model.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

MARKS SHOW de­clin­ing wa­ter lev­els at Cas­taic Lake, the end of the west branch of the StateWater Project, which was cre­ated af­ter a drought in the 1950s. “We shouldn’t be com­pla­cent, but we don’t need to be pan­ick­ing,” said Jay Lund, di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter forWater­shed Sciences at UC Davis.

Rick Loomis Los An­ge­les Times

JA­SON LAIRD pad­dles down the Santa Ana River in Corona in Septem­ber 2014. Cal­i­for­nia has the most com­plex wa­ter re­sources sys­tem in the world.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

THE SANTA ANA River is swollen af­ter a rain in Ana­heim in 2012. The state’s long-held phi­los­o­phy has of­ten pit­ted wa­ter dis­tricts against one another.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

A BI­OL­O­GIST searches for an en­dan­gered fish. A sin­gle agency tracks us­age through­out the vast wa­ter­shed, a holis­tic ap­proach un­usual in the state.

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