Orange County offers model for places without enough water

FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Orange County’s natural water supplies come from just three sources: limited rain, a single unreliable river and aquifers.

But those are nowhere near enough to support the lawn-and-pool lifestyle that helped the home of Disneyland grow from 700,000 residents in 1960 to about 3.1 million today. So utilities must mix a sort of waterworks cocktail that includes importing snowmelt from distant mountains, making toilet water tap-worthy and capturing storm runoff. Eventually, they may strain the salt from ocean water.

The county’s diverse efforts to keep water flowing are a model for other communities across the nation with stressed supplies.

Roughly 112 million Americans are now affected by drought, according to federal calculations. Some California communities have lost running water. Parts of Georgia and Texas are abnormally dry or back in drought several years after emerging from one. Farmers in Kansas are pumping aquifers far faster than rain replenishes nature’s underground storage.

In a recent survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 of 50 state water managers said they anticipate some supply shortages over the next decade.

Yet water problems in the U.S. are less an issue of supply than distribution. Far more precipitation falls from the sky across the country during an average year than is used by every home, farm, ranch, business or factory.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that total average water use in the Lower 48 states for everything but energy production was about 70 trillion gallons in 2010, the latest year for which data was available. About 24 times that amount falls as rain in an average year.

The annual surplus is so great that it could cover the continental U.S. with water more than 2 feet deep, but there is little political appetite or funding to expand the kind of water storage and distribution systems that allowed the growth and agricultural boom in the West.

Periodically, someone suggests building a pipeline to supply California’s thirsty cities with water from rural, wetter regions. Serious proposals for pipelines to Alaska in the 1990s and far Northern California in the 1970s were rejected as far too expensive.

Officials in Kansas, where the Ogallala aquifer has dropped more than 100 feet in some places, floated the idea of building a 360-mile canal and 15 pumping stations to move Missouri River water across the state to irrigate fields in the state’s southwest.

Back in the 1980s, farmer Bill Mai realized that the Ogallala would not be a reliable source. He turned to “dryland” farming, growing wheat and corn using only the water that falls from the sky onto his 2,200 acres in far western Kansas. While that has worked, others have pumped so much that wells that once hit water at 105 feet below the surface must now sink even deeper, to 194 feet, he said.

And, Mai said, less than 30 feet remains in the water table where he lives in Wallace County.

“A lot of the people say, ‘It’s my water. I’m going to use it until it’s gone,’” Mai said.

Scientists with the Kansas Geological Survey estimate that most of the aquifer under their state still has 50 to 200 years of supplies left. They caution that those are estimates, and that some places have only a few decades’ supply while other parts are “effectively exhausted.”

Long-term fixes, such as the canal, are a tough sell.

Gov. Jay Nixon of neighboring Missouri has called the project a “hare-brained idea.” Given the estimated $18 billion cost, its future appears bleak.

Congress is in no mood to spend on huge new public-works projects, meaning states and local communities will be largely on their own.

Like the rest of Southern California, Orange County receives huge quantities of water imported from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains through a vast system of canals. Last year it was enough to flood the county 7 inches deep.

Of course, the world’s largest supply is right off the coast — ocean water. Two desalination plants are coming online elsewhere in Southern California, although making seawater drinkable is expensive because it takes so much energy. Still, Orange County is reviewing proposals for two desalination plants.

What distinguishes Orange County when it comes to a reliable local supply happens in a series of otherwise unremarkable buildings. Treated sewage from a sanitation plant next door is filtered, chemically doctored, forced through tiny holes that screen out nearly everything but water molecules, then zapped with ultraviolet light.

After the 45-minute process at the Orange County Water District facility, the water is so distilled that workers must rebalance its acidity or it will corrode the pipes that carry it a dozen miles away to ponds where it percolates into the aquifer. Within a few years, the water will be pumped up for drinking, washing and irrigation.

This spring, the treatment plant expanded to produce 100 million gallons of water each day. That’s enough to supply 850,000 people, even after some is injected into wells that form a barrier against the intrusion of ocean water into the aquifer. Despite its success, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System risks becoming a victim of the conservation being promoted throughout California.

In the 1990s, the sanitation district received about 200 million gallons of sewage each day. Now, thanks to low-flow toilets, shower heads and appliances, it receives about 150 million gallons.

“We’re running out of wastewater,” said Philip Anthony, a member of the water district’s board of directors since 1981.

Anthony recalls the massive campaign that helped the public get over the ick factor that sunk a “toilet-to-tap” project in San Diego a generation ago. The city is now planning to resurrect the technology.

On Monday, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the region’s behemoth water importer — said it would investigate partnering with sanitation districts to create one of the world’s largest systems for making sewage water drinkable.

The idea is growing in acceptance elsewhere. In Texas, where it took historically heavy rains this year to break a historically brutal drought, three places are trying it.

“It’s by far one of the easiest ways to get more water at a reasonable price,” Anthony said.


Contact Justin Pritchard at .