City that con­sid­ers it­self ‘ wa­ter in­de­pen­dent’ is fight­ing state- or­dered cut­back of 28%

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Paloma Esquivel

For decades, River­side has worked to be what of­fi­cials con­sider “wa­ter in­de­pen­dent” by con­sol­i­dat­ing ground­wa­ter rights and build­ing wa­ter treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties.

And in re­cent years, the city- owned public util­ity ap­pears to have achieved that goal. It has not im­ported wa­ter from out­side sources for about seven years, and in­stead has re­lied on abun­dant ground­wa­ter, which of­fi­cials say has been undi­min­ished by the drought.

So when state of­fi­cials or­dered the city, along with wa­ter sup­pli­ers up and down the state, to cut back sig­nif­i­cantly on wa­ter use, of­fi­cials balked.

“We are 100% in­de­pen­dent in terms of our wa­ter sup­ply,” Mayor Rusty Bai­ley said. “We be­lieve we should be treated dif­fer­ently than ev­ery­body else. It’s not a one- size- fits- all sit­u­a­tion.”

The city sued the state this month af­ter it learned it would be re­jected for in­clu­sion in a spe­cial re­duc­tion tier that al­lows sup­pli­ers to re­duce wa­ter use by just 4% if they do not im­port wa­ter and have at least a four- year sup­ply.

State of­fi­cials re­served the 4% tier ( sig­nifi- cantly lower than the 28% by which River­side Public Util­i­ties was or­dered to re­duce) for sup­pli­ers that use sur­face wa­ter, not ground­wa­ter. That elim­i­nated River­side and sev­eral other sup­pli­ers that had said they would be able to meet re­quire­ments if ground­wa­ter was in­cluded.

“Ground­wa­ter for many ar­eas is the sav­ings ac­count avail­able dur­ing times of drought, and the lim­ited 4% re­duc­tion tier is not avail­able for com­mu­ni­ties who are re­ly­ing on that sav­ings ac­count to weather the drought,” Michael Lauf­fer, at­tor­ney for the state wa­ter board, said in a state­ment.

Only five dis­tricts, all in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, have been ap­proved for the 4% tier. A rul­ing on the city of Blythe’s ap­pli­ca­tion is still pend­ing, ac­cord­ing to a state wa­ter board spokesman.

So far, River­side is the only util­ity to pur­sue le­gal re­lief over the is­sue, but it is not alone in think­ing it should have been in­cluded.

Sev­eral dis­tricts, in fact, told the state wa­ter board ear­lier this year that if ground­wa­ter was in­cluded they too could

meet the re­quire­ments for the lower tier. But of­fi­cials at some of those agen­cies said push­ing back like River­side could send mixed mes­sages to cus­tomers about the im­por­tance of con­ser­va­tion.

“It’s a con­flicted mes­sage that you’re f ight­ing to get into the 4% tier. If you’re suc­cess­ful, then what hap­pens to your con­ser­va­tion ef­forts?” said Todd Corbin, gen­eral man­ager of the Ju­rupa Com­mu­nity Ser­vices Dis­trict, which pro­vides wa­ter to about 29,000 cus­tomers a few miles west of River­side.

Of­fi­cials there have talked to River­side of­fi­cials about join­ing the le­gal ac­tion, though no de­ci­sions have been made, he said. Like River­side, the dis­trict has been or­dered to re­duce wa­ter use by 28%.

In Big Bear Lake, Reg­gie Lam­son, gen­eral man­ager of the Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power, said his agency also doesn’t im­port wa­ter and re­lies on a well- man­aged ground­wa­ter source. But he said he ac­cepted a state of­fi­cials’ re­sponse when he was told that “they didn’t have time to go … check out each basin indi- vid­u­ally and say, ‘ Oh, yeah. They’re an ex­cep­tion.’”

“The drought is se­ri­ous, so OK, we’ll try to help out,” he said.

In Lake Ar­row­head, of­fi­cials also ap­plied for and were re­jected from the tier be­cause while the vast ma­jor­ity of that com­mu­nity’s wa­ter comes from the lake, about 10% is ground­wa­ter. Of­fi­cials there were also ap­proached by River­side about join­ing in the suit but de­cided against it be­cause they felt the 16% re­duc­tion tier they were given is man­age­able, said Cather­ine Cerri, f inance man­ager for the Lake Ar­row­head Com­mu­nity Ser­vices Dis­trict.

“It’s def­i­nitely some­thing we can achieve,” she said.

Richard At­wa­ter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Wa­ter Com­mit­tee, said it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that wa­ter lev­els in ground­wa­ter basins in the state have been fall­ing dur­ing the drought.

“We all need to con­serve wa­ter, whether you’re pump­ing lo­cal wells or not,” he said. “Even in our re­ally well- man­aged, ad­ju­di­cated basins, I think con­ser­va­tion is im­por­tant.... Ev­ery­body’s in­ter­con­nected.”

River­side of­fi­cials say their con­tin­ued ef­forts for more than a cen­tury to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent wa­ter sup­ply should be re­warded. In 2008, the city opened a $ 25- mil­lion wa­ter treat­ment plant that al­lowed it to tap into pre­vi­ously un­us­able wa­ter, and since then, it has not im­ported any wa­ter from ei­ther the State Wa­ter Pro­ject or the Colorado River, of­fi­cials said.

The city has also taken steps over the years to re­duce wa­ter use, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing a turf re­moval pro­gram and hir­ing an ed­u­ca­tor to talk to stu­dents about wa­ter con­ser­va­tion.

Re­cently, the City Coun­cil also ap­proved re­strict­ing out­door wa­ter­ing to three days a week.

Bai­ley said the city is in talks with state of­fi­cials and is hope­ful they will come to a res­o­lu­tion to in­clude it in the 4% tier and avoid mov­ing for­ward with the suit.

Given the steps the city has al­ready taken to re­duce wa­ter us­age in re­cent years, he said, it’s “prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble” to reach the 28% re­duc­tion the state is ask­ing for.

“I be­lieve River­side is a best prac­tice when it comes to wa­ter con­ser­va­tion,” he said. “And I would love for the state to look more closely at what we’ve ac­com­plished and to show that to other agen­cies across the state of Cal­i­for­nia.”

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

RIVER­SIDE has not im­ported wa­ter from out­side sources for seven years, in­stead re­ly­ing on ground­wa­ter, which off icials say has been undi­min­ished by the drought. The city has also taken steps to re­duce wa­ter use.

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

RIVER­SIDE sued the state af­ter it was de­nied in­clu­sion in a spe­cial 4% re­duc­tion tier for sup­pli­ers that do not im­port wa­ter and have at least a four- year sup­ply.

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