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Some California cities seek water independence

Until the Wells Run Dry in Lake of the Woods

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) - Drops of rain fell on Josephine Miller's 1920s bungalow - a watery relief in the midst of a punishing drought. Instead of flowing into storm drains and washing out to sea, an oversized tank harvested the precious resource to keep her thirsty citrus trees and vegetables from shriveling up on dry days.

Across Santa Monica, backyard rain barrels and cisterns are becoming fashionable. Since 2010, the beach city has doled out 385 rebates to homeowners who direct rainwater back into their gardens as part of a broader effort to become water independent that also includes cleaning up contaminated groundwater and recycling water.

"This is kind of a no-brainer, low-hanging fruit solution for anyone," said Miller, who three years ago installed a 205-gallon water storage container, which resembles an upright accordion.

California is gripped by historic parched conditions that have desiccated farmland, dried up reservoirs and forced rural communities to ration water. A welcome dousing late last month did little to break the arid spell.

Even before this latest drought emergency, some agencies that historically draw their water from the overtapped Colorado River and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have taken steps to slash their dependence on water from outside sources and boost their own supplies. Past drought woes, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have forced some communities to rethink where their water comes from, and they're increasingly realizing local sources are insurance against future dry weather.

Santa Monica, population 92,000, has perhaps the loftiest goal: to completely wean itself off outside water by 2020. The city long depended on its groundwater wells, but supplies became polluted in the mid-1990s from underground gasoline storage tank leaks and the addition of a fuel additive.

The contamination forced Santa Monica to buy most of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a giant wholesaler that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in six counties. Meanwhile, the city used proceeds from settlements with oil companies responsible for the pollution to purge the wells. The cleanup, completed three years ago, allows the city to tap groundwater for up to 70 percent of its water needs.

About 50 miles to the northwest, the semi-agricultural community of Camarillo receives about 60 percent of its water from the State Water Project - a maze of dams, pipes and canals that carries snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and transports it to points south - that it blends with salty groundwater sources.

The city wants to cut down its imported supplies to 25 percent before 2020 and has invested in a $50 million regional treatment plant that would pump and treat brackish groundwater into drinking water.

"We want local reliability and the ability to control our own destiny," said Lucia McGovern, deputy director of the city's Public Works Department.

The Southern California port city of Long Beach, which relies on outside water for 40 percent of its drinking water, studied the possibility of building a desalination plant, which separates salt from ocean water. But it was too expensive, and the city is now focused on increasing groundwater supplies.

A recent amendment to a court order deciding groundwater rights would allow Long Beach to pump more water. It's in the very early stages of drawing up a multimillion-dollar plan to build miles of pipelines to move the water.

While maximizing groundwater is key to cutting down on distant imports, which can be fickle depending on the weather, it's not an option for every community.

Groundwater is "not available everywhere and it also depends on the quality," said Jennifer Persike, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies. "You have to be careful not to overpump it."

While Santa Monica bets on groundwater, it's also investing in other water conservation tactics, including recycling and rain harvesting. Near the touristy Santa Monica Pier, a water recycling plant treats excess irrigation and other urban runoff that is then used to water parks, school grounds and a cemetery.

The city also collects rain. The main library has a 200,000-gallon underground cistern that captures raindrops to water the gardens. Last year, officials installed a smaller cistern that will fill toilets at a newly built library scheduled to open next month.

Since 1997, the city code requires that new construction and remodeled homes must catch the first quarter inch of rain.

During a recent downpour in late February, Miller checked on her cistern, which she bought from a hardware store and installed by rerouting the downspout. She paid $571 for the tank, which is bolted to the side of her house for earthquake safety, and the city reimbursed her $250. As rain funneled from the roof into the beige cistern, water from neighboring houses coursed down the street like a river.

Though Miller's yard consists mostly of cactus and succulents - she's in the process of ripping up the last patch of grass - there are orange, lemon and kumquat trees, and a small vegetable bed of green beans, sweet peas and snap peas that need water. A full tank typically can last for months, allowing Miller to tend to her water-needy trees and vegetables on rainless days.

While rainwater capture does little to affect the water table, it does reduce potable water demand.

"I don't think it's as dramatic as buying an electric car, but if everyone in LA did it, imagine the water savings there would be," she said.

Santa Monica officials estimate that rain harvesting, low-flow toilets and other conservation measures save the city about $326,000 per year. If the city becomes self-sufficient by 2020 as planned mainly by tapping groundwater, it is expected to save $3 million per year.

"Every drop counts," water resources manager Gil Borboa said.

California's drought has caught the attention of foreign leaders. During a recent three-day swing through California, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Gov. Jerry Brown that the semi-arid country has no water troubles because it emphasizes desalination, wastewater recycling, irrigation that uses less water than traditional sprinklers and other measures.

Kevin Wattier, Long Beach Water Department general manager, said incentives are important, but there's no substitute for educating people to stop watering sidewalks.

"People need to quit wasting water. It's that simple," he said.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
Bill March 17 2014 at 8:02 AM

Desalinization, irrigation, reservoirs, even cisterns(!) would have been great "Shovel-ready" projects.

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valetgrocer March 17 2014 at 10:27 AM

Fortunately Californians can use such rainfall-diverting devices such as cisterns to help use less city processed water. Believe it or not, there are places like Colorado that does NOT allow the capturing of rainwater! You can actually receive a fine for diverting rainfall from you own property (the down spouts like Ms. Miller's) and into a simple rain barrel to water your garden! We are going to see more of the governmental interference in the basic rights of people (you can't capture rain water on your own property?!?!). Kudos for the smart lawmakers and water resource managers for encouraging this type of water conservation!

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5 replies
paddleman1928 March 16 2014 at 8:04 PM

how are they going to do that with only a fraction of the normal rainfall?

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hgdn March 16 2014 at 7:48 PM

The most flagrant waste of water I've ever seen was by a homeowner in Beverly Hills.

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1 reply
kcarthey hgdn March 16 2014 at 8:57 PM

Check out some of the water bills of homes bordering the Dallas Country Club.

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bgilb74747 March 16 2014 at 7:40 PM

pipeline water from the mississippi river, it would create jobs, build infrastructure for the country, and help reduce winter flooding on the river run off from the winter thaw,,, and along the way from the river route, drop some of the water in the colorada river, snake river, that would help out a couple states with water trouble, and still send water to califonia, course we would have to have a congress and a president who had the courage to build jobs, and put aside party politics,,, and the pipe line size would have to be like 12 feet tall to move trillons of gallons a min, this job would require thousands of workers,, from cement workers to operators, truckers, engineeers, general labor to steel workers,,,and the job would at least take 10 years, would most likely irrigate the southwest usa and reduce the unemploy rate by at least 2 or 3 percent, but like i said we dont have the president or congress with the courage to consider this project...

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2 replies
rdrvr1752 bgilb74747 March 16 2014 at 7:50 PM

Sure. The power required to pump Mississippi River water uphill several thousand feet - remember the Rockies and the high altitude plateaus to the south lie between the source and destination - was estimated over forty years ago to require the equivalent of a couple dozen new nuclear power plants. The government was in a far better position to fund it then than now. Who would be willing to pay the astronomical tax bills required to fund the largest public works project in American history?

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2 replies
bootsnchaps60 rdrvr1752 March 16 2014 at 8:46 PM

Thanks. I think that was more of an opportunity to bash Obama than a rational suggestion.

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jhillseth rdrvr1752 March 16 2014 at 8:54 PM

We paid for this same type of nationwide effort in the 50s with Eisenhower. The personal income taxes back then and in the early 60s were 91% on income earned over $400,000.00 per year. We built America based on an equitable tax code, and not letting individuals make a fortune on the backs of poverty paid labor. Today, people like Mitt pay 13% on his total income. The takers keep taking and the makers keep working for low wages, just getting by.

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jhillseth bgilb74747 March 16 2014 at 8:45 PM

Well said. Eisenhower did this with the highway system in the 50s.

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posthuf March 17 2014 at 10:46 AM

If the dummies in CA would stop stacking their state government with incompetent liberals, and put some people in charge who had the well-being of the state in mind over their own aggrandizement, things would change in a heartbeat. Libs would still be ranting and raving, unhappy and nasty, but then that has become their natural disposition, even when they get everything they want.

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2 replies
calgirl posthuf March 17 2014 at 1:42 PM

They keep voting for the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The debt keeps rising and the pension plans are not only killing the state but the whole country. Why San Francisco keeps people like Pelosi in office I have not got a clue.

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jay love posthuf March 17 2014 at 2:12 PM

I have heard it said recently in the news that the pension plans initiated by these Liberal govts. over the last 30 to 40 years in all places where they are in total charge, such as Calif. Chicago, and as we have seen in Detroit and Birmingham, Al. (two liberal cities which have already had to seek BK protection) these places have looming debt problems thanks to the over-sized and bloated pension agreements the liberals have negotiated with the city, county and state unions and these pensions are ready to blow up soon leaving the taxpayers holding all the debt? also these Pols negotiate these pensions not because they are fair, or reflect the private sector, but they do it to buy votes, elections donations, support, etc....from these same unions which have helped to keep these same incompetant morons in charge?? this is going to be the straw which breaks the camals back one day soon, water will be a concern when the taxpayers won't be able to afford to buy it?

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Rachel March 16 2014 at 7:09 PM

Hey I live in nor cal and I'm doing my part in saving water - I only flush after doing #2...But seriously, we need plan B and I think desalinization is the answer. In my opinion, with a huge state like California, it should alleviate the problem of rising sea levels due to glacial meltdown. The days of water rationing is once again on the horizon and price of produce will rise because California is America's major bread basket and EVERYONE will feel the pain...just saying.

Having said that, everyone please don on your Indian feather headdress, loincloths, beat the drums and perform the everpowerful raindance and face WEST!! PLEASE!!

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3 replies
ajt1025 March 16 2014 at 7:04 PM

California has been pleged by droughts for hundreds of years if not longer. It may be nice to live there I don't know as I perferr to live on ground that don't shake. All the fund in the sun crap is silly, but hey that is for some andnot for others. I don't know why California is not building Desalinazion plants to make sea wather drinkable and useable for growing products. That state goes thru this years and still they do nothing always waiting for someone else to do it for them. It would not only create millions of jobs for the state but needed tax revenu.. Its a no brainer and still they do nothing. Shame poor leadship is poor and don't get any better no matter who is in contro.

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2 replies
nuttberry ajt1025 March 16 2014 at 7:16 PM

If your writing skills are anything to go by, then your reading skills must be equally as bad - it says quite clearly that the possibility of desalination plants (that's the correct spelling by the way), was looked into but it was much too expensive.

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evansd141 ajt1025 March 16 2014 at 7:20 PM

But me need a high speed train to get the rich politicians from LA to SAC with out breaking a sweat. The H*ll with the tax payer. Oh yes and give the illegals everything they want for free, at TAX payer expense.

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DAVID STROK March 16 2014 at 6:43 PM

First gasoline, now water. We can't win. They are right next to the ocean for cripes sake. Let's go you bunch of people trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill. The answer is the OCEAN. HELLLLLOOOO

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mrheh March 16 2014 at 6:41 PM

The state should mandate that every county with a beachfront should have a desalination plant all the middle east countries do it !!! Sure it's expensive but at the rising cost of water and construction do it now it will always be more expensive later and it takes years to get those plants built....

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1 reply
notorious6 mrheh March 16 2014 at 6:44 PM

Santa Barbara has a desalination plant. The fresh water it produces is extremely expensive. It is OK for drinking water but much too expensive for irrigation. Without water there is no food.

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