What you need to know about South Orange County’s water

Figure 1A graphic showing where the aqueducts cross the San Andreas Fault. There is no way to bring water down from the North without crossing the fault.

Some are saying the drought is over. We got enough rain. What drought? No worries.

Yet, California’s precarious water supply continues to be an issue. Experts talk about the need for a diversified water portfolio. Do we need a risk management plan or forecasting and evaluations to spread out our risk? What does that mean? Where does our water come from? What would happen if an earthquake along the San Andreas Fault completely cut off our supply?

Do you have enough emergency supplies for a natural or man-made disaster all lined up in your garage? Do you have enough food and drinking water for you, your family, and your pets? Do you have three days’ worth? Six months? A year? Maybe you are thinking the same thing a lot of people do about emergencies. Someone else will take care of it. If there is a disaster, someone will help us. Here in South Orange County, we have planned for a drought or a disaster that could cut off our water in a similar way. But is it good enough? Would it surprise you to learn that we only have enough emergency water storage to last seven days? The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California could only provide water for six months with emergency reserves.

The reality is that a 7.8 earthquake could sever the aqueduct connecting us to our water supply. Cutting off water to Southern California would affect 18–22 million people. Rebuilding the aqueduct could take more than a year. And it would cost the California economy an estimated $53 billion dollars.

Figure 2 Reverse osmosis equipment used in purifying water at OCWD. Photo credit: OCWD

Do we have our eggs all in one basket?

In South Orange County, we obtain 80 to 85 percent of our water from the Colorado River or Northern California. The rest of the county gets about 75 percent of their water from groundwater aquifers. In North and Central Orange County, sewage travels to one central location for treatment. It is the job of the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) to recycle the sewer water. After treating the sewage, OCSD then sends 100 million gallons per day of recycled water to the Orange County Water District. There, the water receives advanced treatment. OCSD then injects the recycled water into large aquifers. The water is further filtered through the aquifer and later used for drinking water. The purified water provides enough water for 850,000 residents each year. You would think they are set. But even OCWD is currently looking at adding other technologies like desalination. New technologies will help them to further divest their water portfolio and provide a safety net.

South Orange County is not as fortunate. Our wastewater treatment plants are located throughout South Orange County. This makes it difficult for us to model Northern Orange County’s sewer water recycling. Replicating their system could be cost prohibitive.

Water recycling — “the purple pipes”

South Coast Water District (SCWD) has projects to help us reduce our reliance on imported water. More than four decades ago, South Orange County led the way by using recycled water for irrigation. “Purple pipes” sprouted up throughout the county, and now make up 15 percent of SCWD’s water supply. We continue to expand our programs to use as much recycled water as possible.

Investment in new technologies to save water

During the past 20 years, new technology made conserving water easier. Many homeowners installed ultra-low-flow toilets, water sense products, weather-based irrigation controllers, and other tools to cut water use. Others installed artificial turf and drought-tolerant gardens. These savings add up to nearly a billion gallons of water each year.

Conservation success

Our customers have also done a great job conserving. Through your hard work and effort, we have reduced our water use by 26 percent over the past year. That is an amazing accomplishment. We should all be proud of our efforts.

However, we need to do more. Other South Orange County water districts are also planning to diversify their water portfolios. Santa Margarita Water District is a partner in the Cadiz Water Project. The project would transport groundwater from under the Mojave Desert to the Santa Margarita Water District.

The San Juan Basin Authority, a group made up of south county water agencies — including SCWD, also plans to decrease reliance on imported water. The goal is to make more groundwater available to our region by capturing more of the runoff from the north. Ultimately, the goal is to use recycled water to augment potable water supplies.

Diversified water portfolio

All water agencies are actively seeking ways to lessen our dependence on imported water. All new projects are needed to meet Orange County’s water demand.

South Coast Water District’s goal is to diversify our water portfolio for three important reasons. First, we want to be ready for the “Big One” that will come. Second, we want to create a high quality, drought-proof, and locally controlled water supply. We don’t want to be severely limited or cut off from water supplies. And the last reason is a financial concern: We must insulate the District from significant price hikes of imported water due to water to vulnerabilities in the Bay Delta and Colorado River shortages, or extreme water conservation.

All of us must take responsibility for taking control of our water supply, continuing to focus on how we can conserve, and looking for new sources of water for our communities. Times are a changing…drought is not here today; gone the next time it rains. All indications are that drought will be a constant for us in the years to come. As many have said, we are living in the “new normal.”

To learn more about water conservation, water supply, and new water sources visit us at scwd.org. And sign up to receive regular notices from us updating you on what you can do to help.

See an earthquake simulation of what would happen if a major earthquake hit the Bay Delta region https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BsSqGpy5jY&feature=youtu.be.