In the Water Wars, A Small Victory for Consumers

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Under much of Los Angeles County lie the beds of ancient rivers that carried rain and melt water from the young mountains that ring the basin. Millennia of floods and earthquakes buried these rivers under thousands of feet of clay and shale. Under my Lakewood home are layer upon layer of river gravel and sand filling a nameless valley cut into the Los Angeles Basin at the end of the last ice age.

These rivers are ghosts, but many of them still flow with runoff that percolates into them at the edge of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Santa Monica mountains and along the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. (The flooded gravel pits of Irwindale are a window into this process.)

The basin's underground plumbing includes other zones of gravel and sand that act like hundred-acre sponges holding water. The ghost rivers and sponges are the basin's aquifers. They're natural water storage units.

Wells throughout the Los Angeles Basin drop down into the aquifers like so many giant straws, drawing up water for industries like the Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, for homes in southeast cities like mine, and for large private suppliers like the Golden State Water Company.

Fault lines and the roots of mountains have segregated the basin's aquifers into separate units, the largest of which is the Central Basin. It lies under the eastern side of the county from Commerce to Long Beach. At current rates of pumping and water replacement, the Central Basin's aquifers hold enough water for about 500,000 households for about a year.

But that's only a half of what the Central Basin could hold -- enough stored water for at least a second year. With drought and steady population growth already putting water supplies at risk in Southern California, the Central Basin's storage capacity is a resource waiting to be used.

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It hasn't been, largely because of a decade of bickering between two obscure water management agencies -- the Central Basin Municipal Water District (CBMWD) and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD). Both agencies have checkered histories of mismanagement, questionable politics, and even outright corruption.

Their fight over who controls water storage in the Central Basin has cost water consumers more than $5 million in legal fees just since the end of 2011.

But in a small victory in the water wars, an implementation agreement has been reached that will allow water companies to add to the Central Basin's store of water in wet years and then pump the stored water to consumers went it's needed, particularly in drought years.

Not all the parties to the agreement agree on every detail, however, and some aspects of the agreement may require additional negotiation to clarify, including what roles the WRD and the CBMWD will play in overseeing the agreement.

Nevertheless, consumers should welcome the victory, since stored water pumped in drought years from the Central Basin's aquifers will cost less than a third of what water bought from the Metropolitan Water District will cost.

Now, if only it would rain.

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