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Beneath Our Feet: Water and Politics in Southeast L.A.

1888 irrigation map of Southern California (cropped for header)
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The cattle and horses were dying in early September 1864. Three years of little rain was burning through rangeland that had been unusually lush in 1861. Over-grazing now made the land barren. In Los Angeles County, 70 percent of the herds died or were slaughtered to leave forage for the rest. Carcasses were left where they fell. Out of reach beneath them – in some places, only a few dozen feet – pooled billions of gallons of life-sustaining water in the Los Angeles aquifer.

New cycles of drought intensified the search for reliable water at the start of the 20th century. The worst dry period lasted for eleven years, from 1893 to 1904. In six of those years, rainfall was less 70 percent of normal; three consecutive years averaged less than 51 percent. The city of Los Angeles went looking for water in the foothills of the Sierras and found it in the Owens Valley. The communities west of the city and the towns on the Downey Plain punched some 3,500 wells into the Los Angeles aquifer for agriculture, industry, and the neat rectangular lots of suburban homes.

Artesian well in northern Long Beach at the turn of the 20th century.
Artesian well in northern Long Beach at the turn of the 20th century. The aquifer paralleling the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers once produced more than a thousand artesian wells that flowed like this one. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The Los Angeles aquifer – collectively the water-bearing strata of gravel and silt that channel storm runoff and snowmelt – is immense and deep. The water in it is in almost constant motion from the foothills, through the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, under the plains west and south of downtown, and invisibly into the sea.

A chain of low hills formed by the Newport-Inglewood Fault, running from Culver City to Long Beach, splits the greater part of the Los Angeles aquifer into the West Coast Groundwater Basin and the Central Groundwater Basin. The largest portion is bounded by East Los Angeles to the north, Whittier to the east, Lakewood to the south, and the Florence-Firestone neighborhood to the west. (There are other Los Angeles basins with access to groundwater. Of particular importance to the city of Los Angeles is the Upper Los Angeles River Area Basin at Tujunga.)

Unlike water taken from streams and lakes, California had no set of basic laws regulating the extraction of groundwater. Consumers – particularly petroleum refiners beginning in the 1920s – could could take all the water they wanted. By 1953, groundwater extraction from the two basins reached a high of 331,600 acre-feet of water a year, almost twice the amount naturally recharging the aquifer from winter rains and spring snowmelt.

Map of the San Gabriel Wash in 1900 courtesy of the US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Maps
Well into the 20th century, the upper San Gabriel River took a meandering course through a knot of shallow beds. The underlying geology allowed the billions of gallons of rainwater and snowmelt flowing out of the San Gabriel Valley to sink into the aquifer under the Central Basin. Map of the San Gabriel Wash in 1900 courtesy of the US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Maps.

Overdrafting the basins was an accelerating catastrophe taking place unseen beneath the feet of unsuspecting suburban homeowners. Wells had to be drilled deeper and powerful electric pumps installed as water levels fell. (A well in Vernon fell an estimated 240 feet between 1904 and 1960.) Some wells went completely dry. And as the aquifer emptied from overdrafting, saltwater flowed in at the seaward edge of the West Coast Basin and began to threaten the larger Central Basin.

A partial solution to the crisis came in two parts. The aquifer beneath the two basins could be artificially recharged (something that had begun as early as 1890 when San Antonio Creek was diverted from its natural channel to spreading grounds at the mouth of San Antonio Canyon). And large landowners, public and private water companies, and industrial pumpers could establish an annual limit on the amount of water they took.

Recharging the aquifer under the West Coast and Central basins became the responsibility of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (the WRD) when Los Angeles County voters set up the district in 1959. The WRD today is a regional government with a five-member board elected by voters, but the WRD’s constituents are actually the pumpers who draw water from the two basins. The WRD closely monitors what the pumpers take out and what nature and an elaborate system of spreading grounds, reclamation plants, and water injection wells puts back in.

The pumpers pay for managing the system, as well as for the “imported water” the WRD buys to augment natural recharge of the aquifer. The pumpers pass the costs to their customers. The costs are higher in the West Coast Basin, where natural recharge is limited and saltwater intrusion must be slowed by injecting fresh water into the aquifer. The costs of pumping and imported water have gone up dramatically in the past decade.

The orange groves seen in this panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley in 1930 were replaced by urban development by 1960, impacting the recharge of the aquifer under the Central Basin.
The orange groves seen in this panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley in 1930 were replaced by urban development by 1960, impacting the recharge of the aquifer under the Central Basin. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The Central Basin benefits from natural recharge. Storm runoff from the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River, captured behind the Whittier Narrows Dam in South El Monte, is pumped over 1,000 acres of spreading grounds that flank Washington Boulevard. Wastewater, treated to near-drinkable quality, has augmented recharge from the spreading grounds since the early 1960s. At the south edge of the Central Basin, fresh water and treated wastewater are injected into barrier wells that hold the sea back.

The WRD accounts for how much water is put back in the aquifer. How much can be taken out each year was determined in a series of court cases, some brought by the pumpers themselves. They sought a court-administered adjudication that confirmed their access to groundwater and bound them to an agreement, overseen by an appointed Watermaster, that would prevent unlimited groundwater extraction. The West Coast Basin adjudication took effect in 1961. The Central Basin adjudication took effect in 1965.

(Other adjudicated basins in the county include the Main San Gabriel Basin, Raymond Basin, San Fernando Basin, and Upper Los Angeles River Area Basin. There, new facilities to capture storm runoff will help recharge the depleted aquifer beneath the San Fernando Valley.)

Watermasters monitor groundwater extraction under the court’s jurisdiction, have oversight of water rights sales among the pumpers, and assess a fee to cover administrative costs. The state’s Department of Water Resources, through its local office, acts as Watermaster for the West Coast and Central basins. Other basins with adjudication have other arrangements for a Watermaster.

Water management is more than the WRD and the Watermaster, however. Each basin is governed by an elected board of directors as a municipal water district. Despite their names, the West Basin Municipal Water District and the Central Basin Municipal Water District aren’t water companies. Their constituents are water pumpers.

All of this legal and hydrological apparatus – in its cobbled together, ad hoc messiness – secures about 40 percent of the water for four million residential and industrial customers in 43 cities in the two basins. The remaining 60 percent comes from Northern California and the Colorado River and recycled water from county wastewater treatment plants. (If you thought Robert Towne’s Chinatown explained water in Los Angeles, you’d be wrong.)

The Watermasters and elected members of the governing boards who oversee the extraction and replacement of groundwater from the Los Angeles aquifer deal with complex (and often unknowable) variables of climate change, seasonal weather, population growth, and the pricing of imported water. The thing they seek to manage is huge: 420 square miles in area and thousands of feet deep. It’s unseen by them, mapped only provisionally by soundings and educated guesses, and knowable only by the occasional well that dips down into the dark.

Spreading Grounds
Los Angeles County operates the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo spreading grounds on behalf of the Water Replenishment District. Storm runoff is mixed with reclaimed wastewater and allowed to percolate into the aquifer. Although these look like actual lakes, the water level is kept under a foot, to minimize wind-blown waves that would erode the berms that pen the water in. Photograph courtesy of the LA County Department of Public Works.

Murky Politics

For the millions who depend on the aquifer beneath the Central and West Coast Basins, the running of the complex system that supplies their water is equally murky. Basin management is at least one remove from the suppliers that send out water bills, which might be a city or one of the region’s for-profit water companies. The Water Replenishment District’s elected board of directors is one more step beyond each basin’s own governing board, also elected. And who would know the identity of their basin’s Watermaster, whose court-appointed presence is one remove further and who might actually be employees of the state’s Department of Water Resources?

The system seemed to work, until the generation of pumpers and engineers who devised the basin plans and managed water replenishment faded into retirement to be replaced by termed-out state legislators, political operatives, and their questionable allies.

Governance that is remote, technically complex, and rarely in the news is likely to become corrupt. The boards of the Water Replenishment District, the West Basin Municipal Water District, and the Central Basin Municipal Water District have been shadowed for decades by questionable practices in contracting, hiring, and compensation and sometimes actual criminal activity.

Central Basin Municipal Water District logo
Despite its name, the Central Basin Municipal Water District doesn’t supply water directly to customers. The district oversees the management of the Central Groundwater Basin from which city water departments and for-profit water companies extract the water used by homes, businesses, and industry. Logo courtesy of the CBMWD.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District, according to a state audit released at the end of 2015, violated state law by secretly funding a $2.7-million groundwater storage project in 2014. (After being sued, the district was reminded in a summary judgment that putting water in the ground is the responsibility of the Water Replenishment District.) The audit also found that the district’s board routinely sidestepped competitive bidding requirements, improperly amended existing contracts, and so poorly supervised senior managers that the district temporarily lost its liability insurance coverage. (The insurer feared more payouts to compensate sexual harassment claims.)

“This report concludes that the district’s board of directors has failed to provide the leadership necessary for the district to effectively fulfill its responsibilities,” said Elaine Howle, state auditor, in a letter to the state legislature that accompanied the audit report.

It’s a given that candidates (some with their own political baggage) regularly run for district seats on a platform of “cleaning up the corruption” in district management, employment practices, and contracting. It’s also a given that very little in the politics of the Central Basin has yet changed. But that was before two bills, awaiting signature by Governor Jerry Brown, were approved by the legislature.

As noted by the Whittier Daily News, AB1794, authored by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Downey), adds three members to the district board from among the water suppliers who are the district’s direct constituents. The board would eventually have seven members, four elected by district voters and three selected by the cities and water suppliers in the district. SB953, authored by state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), restricts the use of sole-source contracting and prohibits the board members from changing their compensation or benefits without a two-thirds vote of the board.

The path to reform of the Central Basin Municipal Water District will begin with Governor Brown’s decision to sign both bills, which impose ethical standards and put technical competence ahead of political ambition.

Top image: 1880 topographic map of Los Angeles and San Bernardino by William Hammond Hall, courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

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