Controversy swirls around WRD’s declaration of water emergency

By Nick Diamantides
Staff Writer

On Friday, Nov. 19, the Board of Directors of the Water Replenishment District (WRD) unanimously declared a water emergency that will impact the amount of water its customers– including the Cities of Long Beach and Signal Hill– can hold in reserve. WRD manages the water pumping rights of 43 cities in southeast Los Angeles County, which have a combined population of approximately four million people. Three of those cities– Cerritos, Downey and Signal Hill– strongly oppose the water emergency declaration.
“District staff has received formal requests to declare a water emergency from 21 pumpers representing 55 percent of the water-rights holders in the Central Basin,” said WRD General Manager Robb Whitaker, in his November 19 report to the board. “Additionally, the Central Basin Water Association and the District’s Technical Advisory Committee have both recommended such a declaration.”
Early in the hearing, WRD Senior Engineer Jason Weeks outlined the reasons why the declaration was necessary. “Because of persistent drought and the unavailability of imported replenishment water, groundwater levels have been declining for the past several years,” he said. During his approximately 20-minute PowerPoint presentation, he noted that a monitoring well used as an indicator for the need to purchase replenishment water has caused concern among WRD officials. “Water levels in this well have dropped to levels not seen since the drought of the late 1970s,” he said.
Referring to a 1991 court judgment, Whitaker explained how the water emergency declaration will help WRD replenish the aquifers. “The declaration of the water emergency invokes a provision of the groundwater pumping judgment that allows the creation of a drought carryover account,” he said.
Even before WRD declared the water emergency, pumpers could carry over up to 20 percent of their annual allotment of water to the next year, but carryover could not accumulate in successive years. Whitaker explained that pumpers still have the right to carry over 20 percent of their unused water rights in a given year, but now the water emergency gives them a one-time option of carrying over an additional 35 percent of unused water rights for a total of 55 percent in a given year.
“If a pumper has the right, and they think they are going to lose it, they will generally pump the right because groundwater is the least expensive form of water in our area,” Whitaker said. “If they can carry that over to a subsequent time period, some of them will be willing to do that. By carrying it over to later, our hope is that the Basin will have recovered much more by then and the Basin will be in better shape to sustain that pumping in the future.”
The three cities objecting to the declaration of a water emergency are concerned that allowing cities a one-time carryover of 35 percent of their allotment will cause water rates to rise for cities that need more than their allotment in a given year. Before the water emergency, WRD sold unused pumping rights at low rates to cities that needed more water. In addition, cities could sell their 20-percent carryover to other cities that needed that water in a given year. Now, some cities will be able to keep the rights of up to 35 percent of a year’s water allotment for several years, and sell those rights if they wish to do so.
“The declaration of a water emergency is creating a fictitious storage of water, which will enable some cities to say, ‘I have it, you don’t. How much will you pay me for it?’” said Signal Hill Vice Mayor Larry Forester. “So it’s going to create a market for this water with water rates going up.”
Vince Brar, assistant city manager for the City of Cerritos, also spoke at the WRD hearing, and he read excerpts from a nine-page letter he had sent to WRD on November 18. “The enclosed materials from official reports, available to WRD, and expert analysis show that conditions of natural and imported supplies have improved significantly and no water shortage emergency currently exists,” he said.
Brar noted that the letter cites reports from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) describing improvements in imported water supplies for the region. (MWD is the state agency that sells water from other regions to local water agencies.)
According to Brar, MWD reports show increases in MWD’s own stored water, increases in Northern California state water storage projects, increases in the Colorado River Water Supply and decreases in demand for water in Southern California due to conservation efforts. Brar also noted that a recent court ruling could lead to the availability of more water from the Sacramento River Delta.
“Based on my experience as a civil engineer and water resources professional, I do not believe that the recent reports indicate a drought or water emergency necessitating the action recommended by WRD staff,” Brar said. “Instead, the reports indicate an improvement in imported water supply.”
Brar also referred to reports that show a recent trend of above-average rainfall that will improve native water supplies in the Central Basin.
James Glancy, director of water resources for the City of Lakewood strongly disagreed with Forester and Brar. “According to statements made by the opponents at the WRD hearing, it is obvious they are confusing the lasting drought effects of low groundwater levels with surface water drought status and rainfall,” he said. “The groundwater levels are still very low, a situation that the WRD action will help to remedy.”
Glancy also pointed out that during the Water Emergency declared in 1977, cities did not sell their one-time carryover to other cities and most of that water is still in the ground. Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, also firmly disagreed with Brar and Forester. “We strongly support WRD’s declaration of a water emergency,” he said. “It is the right thing for WRD to do for their customers, to enable them to efficiently manage their water supplies and provide a reliable water supply to their customers in the future.”
Representatives of the three protesting cities seemed to hint that a future lawsuit against WRD pertaining to the declaration of a water emergency was possible.­

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