Can you count the number of western movies you have watched where the plot centered on water rights? Typically, where the rights were owned by an honest, hard-working farming family, which were being threatened by an evil cattle baron? Some attribute the quote about whiskey and water to Mark Twain, but no matter if he was the originator or not, those words remind us how important water is to the southwestern part of our country.
For Santa Clarita, it seems there is always either too little or too much water. Take a trip back to the late 1960s, when enough rain fell from the sky for our river (at that time called “the wash”) to be filled all the way to the top and from side to side. The bridge across Soledad Canyon at Camp Plenty was washed away, and the bridge on Sierra Highway just south of Soledad sunk a couple of feet. Another time was brought to light in “This Week in History 1983” in Wednesday’s Signal, when a rainstorm took out a section of Soledad Canyon Road. And, for the last few days, we have read about the problems that water from heaven may create, specifically for the homeowners in American Beauty and the Trestles. Sometimes, too much water is as much a problem as it is a blessing.
Over the years, as weather patterns changed and local rainfall became sparser, we were still in good shape because the State Water Project made up for what nature was not providing. The aqueduct was bringing all the water we needed from the northern part of California. Then, in May of 1996, the hammer fell when the pumping of fresh water south through the Delta was reduced and limited, due to environmentalists noting an increased number of Delta Smelt being trapped in the pumps. As a result of reduced water supply, farmland in the central part of California was greatly impacted. One only had to drive up the I-5 to see many signs reminding us “Crops grow where water flows.”
By now, over 20 years later, you would expect our state government would have found a solution to this problem. While there has been talk of building a “Peripheral Canal” or “Supply Tunnels” under the delta, nothing has happened. The California State Water Project has not added a new reservoir since the 1970s. Aquifers in the central part of our state have been over-pumped to the point where ground levels have reported to be sinking. All the while, thousands of gallons of water north of the delta are being discarded in the ocean because there is no place to store it or move it south to where it is needed. Locally, we have not done much better. During our last drought period, the only solution offered was for residents to “conserve and use less water.” At the same time, our water companies and city officials continued to approve additional development.
All this went on while we have additional water resources which are only marginally being taken advantage of. A few years ago, when the SCV Sanitation District was trying to sell our community on the need to desalinate our wastewater, we were informed the Santa Clarita Valley uses 20 million gallons a day inside our homes and 40 million gallons of water per day for landscaping. Water from inside our homes flows to one of the two Sanitation District Water Reclamation Plants, and treated water is currently discharged into the river, with a small percentage siphoned off to irrigate a Golf Course in Valencia. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that if we were to use our total Water Reclamation Plants output for irrigation, it would reduce our valley’s water consumption by 30 percent. Unfortunately, a portion of the Waste Water Treatment Plant output is required by state regulators to be discharged in the river, in order to maintain protected species habitats. Determining the amount which can be recycled was a most important aspect for the SCV Sanitation District Environmental Impact Report to ascertain. No matter if the amount available is 7, 10, or 13 million gallons a day, it would be a significant impact.
Yet, on February 27, 2019, The Signal reported that the Sanitation District “would not be pursuing recycled-water plans and, specifically, would not be preparing the environmental studies needed to make them happen.” Grace Robinson Hyde, the chief engineer and general manager of the SCV Sanitation District stated litigation which had “delayed compliance with the state-mandated chloride limit by two years and cost ratepayers an additional $5 million … To be very clear, all of the legal and resulting costs incurred to date, as well as those potentially incurred in (the) future, have been and will be borne by the ratepayers.”
Someone needs to remind Ms. Hyde that the Sanitation District creates no funds of their own. Every cost is born by the ratepayers, including the cost of not using recycled water. The District probably could have avoided the legal challenge to the Water Recycling EIR if the Sanitation District had not attempted to use outdated portions of the previous EIR instead of conducting a new study.
Plus, on February 18, 2019, the Orange County Register published an article that included a listing of LA County’s Wealthiest Special Districts. The SCV Sanitation District made the list, as it was reported to have $111.4 million in cash and investments, take in $43.6 million per year and spend $31.4 million per year. These are some of the reasons I find the SCV Sanitation District Board’s decision to discontinue the Water Recycling EIR unbelievable. The only part of the current SCV Sanitation District’s Chloride Reduction project (costing our ratepayers over $90 million) which would benefit those who will be paying the bill, is the ability to use recycled water for irrigation. How could this happen, when the majority of that board also sits on the Santa Clarita City Council? That is the question of the day.
For the last several years, the public has been told about the City of Santa Clarita’s Plan to install “purple pipe,” designating recycled water for all median landscaping. But purple pipe is of no value if it is not connected to recycled water. Since the predominant potential source of recycled water in the Santa Clarita Valley is the output of our Waste Water Treatment Plants, and that water cannot be used, where is the city planning to acquire recycled water to fill all those purple pipes? In addition, SCV Water announced plans to implement the first series of pipelines to transport recycled water to areas like parks and schools. Looks like those pipes will remain empty as well.
In a smart move, two major SCV developments currently in process, (Vista Canyon Ranch and Newhall Ranch) are forming their own Sanitation Districts and planning to use the output of their Treatment Plants for irrigation within their developments.
There is one last bit of sunshine in this discussion, which is storm water. State and local governments spend a great deal of time and your money to keep pollution out of storm water, but very little is done to capture it for our use. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Conservation and Local Resources Committee provided a presentation on the subject of “Storm water Capture and Flows to the Ocean” on January 9, 2018. In it they estimated 7 percent of rainfall, or 457,000 acre-feet per year, goes uncaptured and flows to the ocean within their service area alone. Now water types love to use acre-feet as a measurement. Since 99 percent of the population has no clue what an acre-foot is, it makes the discussion sound so technical. So, let me translate for you. 1 acre-foot = 325,853 gallons, which makes 457,000 acre-feet equal to 147.9 billion gallons. Big numbers. Santa Clarita uses 60 million gallons a day, which is 21.9 billion gallons per year. These numbers show that every year’s worth of storm water which goes uncaptured is enough to provide Santa Clarita with water for 6.8 years.
Therefore, the next time you hear politicians tell you to take shorter showers because there is not enough water, remind them the problem was caused by these same elected officials not being proactive in using recycled water, stormwater capture and local storage. While it is true, all these solutions have a cost to implement and cannot happen immediately, if we stand back and continue to do nothing, water shortages will only get worse.
It seems all this turmoil was foretold by Mark Twain, as he sat in an old western saloon drinking whiskey and thinking about the next fight over water.