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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

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paxrail March 17 2014 at 3:42 AM

First of all, LEAVE THE GREAT LAKES ALONE, ESPECIALLY LAKE SUPERIOR. Secondly, none of you, apparently, realises how much free water actually does fall from the sky, even in our droughty years. It is possible to harvest hundreds to thousands of gallons of water from a single roof in a single storm. People better start figuring this out and make a plan for storage.

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rothhammer1 paxrail March 17 2014 at 4:20 AM

Do you really suppose that Santa Monica, California gets water from Lake Superior?
Geography, anyone?
"Hundreds to thousands of gallons of water from a single roof in a single storm?" You must have a heck of a large roof.

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1 reply
eileen rothhammer1 March 17 2014 at 10:45 AM

No it doesn't, however recently legislation has been passed to PREVENT that from happening...to prevent the Great Lakes from pillage by dryer western states...so it's been on the radar for some time now. It's our inner ocean...don't steal it, or we'll move to your neighborhood and have to share your ocean views.

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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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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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Vern March 17 2014 at 9:24 AM

Cites need to separate shower water. Use a separate pipe for toilet water.

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1 reply
Pearl Vern March 17 2014 at 9:46 AM

Agreed, in some places many people use the water from the washing machine on their trees and lawns.

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pagifal March 16 2014 at 6:26 PM

California, like ny other state that borders the ocean should have using desalinazation plants
instead of draining rivers and lakes to furnish fresh water to the whole state. After all, this is what ships, both commercial and military do and i9t is a proven source for water. AND, instead of draining rivers and lakes for the water to irrigate their golf courses and parks they should be using only recycled water from water treatment plants just like a lot of inland states do.

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1 reply
eltrip pagifal March 16 2014 at 6:52 PM

In this area I think California is more like the inland states than you realize. Don't know about all but every golf course in so cal I've played on in the last 20 years uses reclaimed grey water to irrigate.

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bcastera March 17 2014 at 9:41 AM

Not only we can recycle rain water, but it is possible to re-use "gray water" from laundry, sink, shower and dishwasher. If we avoid using salty detergents this water is perfect for gardening and to fill the toilet tank. In addtion it is possible to find in Europe some washing machines that recycle the water used for rinsing into the next wash. Not only this saves water, but also detergent. We have to realize that after energy, Water should be the next comodity to be saved.

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Pearl March 17 2014 at 9:44 AM

Since your reservoirs are empty now how about eliminating the filth and eyesore at this time, from the bottom of your reservoirs, by removed those old cars and furniture at the bottom of the above mentioned. That is your glass of water, when your heavy rains from El Nino arrived you could make more room for the water, I am fed up with all of the nasty pictures out on the internet, California you appear to not appreciate water when you do have it.

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bryanmerrittper2 March 17 2014 at 10:22 AM

I think this is a great Idea for everyone who lives in a dry area. I am not much into the green movement but this is a great Idea and the City and county's that are in southern California could do this on a much larger scale where water just runs off and out to sea like in creek beds and river beds and collect large reserves of water during the wet season in dams and basins lined with concrete. They could pump it out as needed for irrigation purposes.

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steve March 17 2014 at 2:29 AM

I guess this is what happens when you kip issuing building permits and do not have the basic services to support them

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rwmmiller March 16 2014 at 6:08 PM

The point of this article is no matter where you get your water, you can reduce what you are presently using. I have built a rain harvesting system, I have built a grey water system, I have put in a 1000 gal. storage tank. I bought a composting (no water) toilet. I did this in an area that has plenty of rain and I need no outside water supply.

I am starting to build the same type system in the desert in Baja, but no rain catchment since there is very little rain. I calculate I can live on 1000 gal a month easily. I will have it trucked in at about $38.

The article is focusing on what each individual can do on their own to reduce water consumption and waste.

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mnwishbone March 17 2014 at 10:23 AM

You have plenty of water....just use desalinization to get water from the ocean. No new golf courses allowed unless they help with the costs of desalinization and all golf courses pay double the water rate of residents. Is that so hard?

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