By Nick Diamantides
(Part two of a two-part series)
If not for the work done by the Water Replenishment District (WRD), residents in the Long Beach-Signal Hill area and surrounding cities would be paying much more for water, and they would not have as much of it available to them. Even though WRD has been working quietly behind the scenes for more than 50 years to ensure a plentiful supply of groundwater, few people are aware of its existence or the work that it does.
Two weeks ago, (August 27), WRD held its second annual “Water 101 Forum.” The event– attended by 50 local government officials– was designed to update audience members on current federal and local water projects and legislation designed to address the state’s water challenges. Last week, the Signal Tribune reported on the comments made by the forum’s keynote speaker, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-39th District). This second installment in the series outlines the presentation WRD Board of Directors Vice President Lillian Kawasaki made at the forum.
Kawasaki noted that during much of the first half of the 20th Century, the pumping of groundwater was unregulated in the region, allowing cities, farms, businesses and residents to pump as much water as they wished from their own wells. She explained that the absence of regulations led to more water being pumped out of the underground aquifers than was being replaced by rainfall seeping into the ground. That, in turn, caused two things: seawater seeping into the freshwater aquifers, and ground subsidence– large areas of ground sinking to lower elevations.
Kawasaki explained that WRD was formed in 1959 by a vote of the people of this region to regulate the amount of water being pumped from the ground and to develop ways to replenish the underground water supply. Today, WRD manages groundwater supplies in a 420-square-mile area encompassing 43 cities with a combined total of approximately 4 million people– 10 percent of the state’s population. She noted that groundwater supplies 40 percent of the region’s total water demand, and that percentage will probably increase as water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River becomes scarcer and more expensive.
“It is not surprising that we pump out more groundwater each year than can be replaced naturally,” Kawasaki said. “A lot of this is due to urbanization– areas that have been paved over. In order to replenish the groundwater, we actually use local runoff (storm water), recycled water and also imported water.”
Kawasaki noted that the groundwater basin managed by WRD produces about 250,000 acre-feet of water per year. “An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons,” she said. “That’s about what two average families use per year.” She added that the amount of water produced in the basin each year is enough to supply about 125,00 average families.
Kawasaki stressed that the intrusion of seawater into the underground aquifers is one of the most serious threats to the region’s supply of fresh water. She explained that in order to stop the intrusion, WRD and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works oversee three separate water barriers, which consist of a network of wells where freshwater and highly treated recycled water are injected into the aquifers to keep seawater from encroaching further inland. Kawasaki added that, because the highly treated recycled water is perfectly safe and less expensive than imported water, WRD plans to one day use only recycled water in the water barriers.
“We are very fortunate in our area that we don’t have the kind of major contamination that we see in the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley,” Kawasaki said. “Both of those have very large superfund sites, and it is very difficult to get the kind of money needed to clean them up.” She acknowledged, however, that there are areas of contamination, which WRD and local water agencies are working to clean up.
Kawasaki also noted that WRD is not part of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which imports water to the region, although sometimes WRD purchases water from MWD. “Nor are we a retail agency,” she said. “We do not deliver water into homes and businesses.” She explained that MWD supports the agencies such as city water departments that pump groundwater and deliver it to their customers.
An important part of that support, according to Kawasaki, is WRD’s safe drinking water program. She reminded the audience that years of improper disposal practices of industrial solvents allowed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to seep into the southern Los Angeles County groundwater aquifers from which drinking water is pumped.
Kawasaki explained that to deal with that problem, WRD established its wellhead treatment program in 1991. Under the program, WRD and the agencies it serves test water drawn from wells and use specialized equipment to remove VOCs from groundwater, allowing affected wells to meet public drinking water standards. Kawasaki noted that WRD purchases and provides treatment equipment to the groundwater producer as long as needed at an affected well.
During her approximately 30-minute presentation, Kawasaki also described WRD’s Water Independence Now (WIN) program and Groundwater Reliability Improvement Program (GRIP). WIN is a collection of projects designed to eliminate WRD’s need for imported water by capturing and conserving more storm water and increasing the use of recycled water for groundwater replenishment. GRIP is WRD’s strategy for maximizing federal funding with various WRD construction projects, water-conserving landscapes, contamination studies and other projects aimed at ensuring a reliable supply of safe drinking water for the region. WRD’s annual budget is approximately $60 million. Kawasaki noted that most of WRD’s operational costs come from pumping fees it charges to the agencies that pump groundwater from wells in the region.