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article imageCalifornia's water is delicate, precious and overlooked Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Mar 27, 2011 in Environment
As the California landscape receives a healthy downpour of rainfall for this time of year, water management-system experts want to remind the public that water is a very precious necessity.
The Groundwater Replenishment System (or GWRS) of Orange County among other such facilities is an example of current on-going plans to address California’s future water needs.
Annual rainfall varies from year to year and in places like Southern California rainfall can be considerably less than Northern California. Coastal fog and microclimates can keep temperatures cooler for spots within the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yet Southern California with its triple-digit desert climate in summer and dense population must constantly face the reality of drought and the slim margins between water supplies and increasing water demands.
GWRS takes highly treated wastewater that would have previously been discharged into the Pacific Ocean and purifies it using a three-step advanced treatment process consisting of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide.
The process produces high-quality water that exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards.
Operational since January 2008, this state-of-the-art water purification facility can produce up to 70 million gallons (265,000 cubic meters) of high-quality water daily.
This is enough water to meet the needs of nearly 600,000 residents in north and central Orange County, California. Presently Orange County and surrounding areas pump water from the underground water basin, which is the primary source of water for 2.4 million people. This is why such a facility is critical.
Mike Marshall of Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign knows the delicate balance of water supply and demand. He and his non-profit, based in San Francisco, are trying to get public support to move the water held at Hetch Hetchy reservoir relocated elsewhere so to restore the valley adjacent to Yosemite National Park.
He sees the GWRS of Orange County as an outstanding example of water management for the future. Marshall believes more groundwater should be replenished. Water recycling is a way to aid in that process.
"We began recycling water in the 1970's with Water Factory 21," said Gina DePinto, Principal Communications Specialist, for the water district. Yet as needs increased the Orange County Water District understood that building a new and better facility was inevitable.
DePinto had no comment about the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign, only that water needs for one of the most densely populated states in the nation is an on-going concern. Groundwater replenishment is critical according to De Pinto.
The design and construction of the GWRS was a project jointly-funded by the Orange County Water District and the Orange County Sanitation District.
These two public agencies have worked together for more than 30 years. They are leading the way in water recycling and providing a locally-controlled, drought-proof and reliable supply of high-quality water in an environmentally sensitive and economical manner.
Marshall would like to see the same type of cooperation (for the Orange County facility) implemented on part of the SF Public Utilities Commission and other entities in San Francisco to meet the water demands of its population.
Presently, the SFPUC takes its stewardship of water resources and the natural environment very seriously. Since the1990’s, SF PUC has been implementing more extensive efforts to promote water conservation.
"San Francisco is doing some great things in its effort to conserve water, especially in use of 'gray water' and the construction of 'dual-plumbed' buildings, said De Pinto. Yet while water needs vary from region to region, the fact remains that water is not always plentiful.
For the Orange County Water District, DePinto noted that "half of the 70 million gallons per day which the facility produces goes into the aquifer basin the other half goes to offset the seawater barrier," she said.
In an area of California that sees even less rainfall per year than the San Francisco Bay Area, (which usually averages to be less than half). DePinto sees water recycling as essential to meeting water needs. "We all ought to be doing this," she said in an interview by phone.
She pointed out that California for all its abundance like most of the Pacific Southwest is always vulnerable to unpredictable periods of drought. This season, so far the San Francisco Bay Area received over 24 inches of rain – that is slightly above normal which is at about 19 inches annually; as reported by the SF Chronicle.
"Southern California is lucky to get 14 to 16 inches of rain per year and that amount is nothing" - when compared to the amount of water needed for an expanding population. "Wet years are few and so our primary source for water is groundwater," DePinto said.
She mentioned that as populations continue to grow, the need for water for many uses will get more complicated. She noted that business and agriculture as well as home use is top on the priority list. California is famous for its abundant produce and wine growing regions – not just Hollywood and easy-weather living.
University of California at Davis has a curriculum and graduate program dedicated to Land, Air and Water Resources. As concerns about the environment increase, subjects like climate change, energy resources and pollution will impact the human population. More questions need to be answered. As a field of study the program offered at UC Davis is now a burgeoning profession.
This reporter spoke with Professor Jay R. Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
Lund and his team provided some of the research and analysis data to the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign. The research was objective and independent of the non-profit’s aim. Lund noted that as California’s population continues to expand, water needs will require more attention.
Filtration and treatment is expensive but as water resources diversify that is essential. In all areas of the population water needs are always present; not only for health and safety but especially for the local economies.
For example researchers at UC Davis point out, water restrictions for the agricultural sector could mean up to $800 million in lost income and force 25,000 people out of work in the California Central Valley.
"San Diego for example, DePinto noted, has almost no groundwater to work with. Most of its water is imported from Northern California and the Colorado River and stored in above ground reservoirs. San Diego's water needs can become direr," she said.
The GWRS was built at a cost of over $400 million, provided by a capital budget fund and various grants and loans. "To convert salt water from the ocean into drinking water is extremely costly."
But as researchers, scientists and advocates illustrate the water supply is fragile. California’s legendary status and popularity often eclipse the fact that water is never always ‘ever-abundant.’
As the Public Policy Institute of California noted in a study it released to the press in December of 2009, “Myths about California’s water problems and their solutions are hindering the development of effective policies to manage one of the state’s most important natural resources.”
Common myths held such as “California is running out of water," "a villain must be responsible," and "we can build our way out of California’s water problems," etc. are a few according to the institute.
PPIC also noted that such myths persist, in part, because California’s water management is decentralized. With more than a thousand local and regional water agencies responsible for water delivery, wastewater treatment, and flood control the state’s water system is very complex.
The institute also noted that while this system encourages innovation and responsiveness to local problems, it fails to foster the collection and sharing of information.
“But Californians lack a shared understanding of how it works and the options for improving it,” says Ellen Hanak, director of research at PPIC and report co-author.
"It’s essential to move beyond myth as population growth and climate change put even more pressure on our resources,” said Hanak.
DePinto would agree. "What many people don't realize is that it is easy to take water for granted," she said.
With the GWRS facility Orange County is able to deliver "near-distilled" high quality water to residents. Yet DePinto reiterated that the public must understand how valuable water is and how everyone, everywhere must depend upon a reliable and sustainable source of water.
More about Groundwater, Orange county, water recycling, Water, California
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