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El Niño won’t solve all problems   

Lew's Views: By Lew Avera
Lew’s Views:
By Lew Avera

As we all know, we are in the grips of the worst drought of our time. We are now hearing of the expected “EL Niño” rainfall and the suggestion that it could be the answer to our water problems.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it will do very little and worst of all a simple, immediate and desired solution to the drought may be well beyond our control.

I am writing this edition of Views as a matter of real interest to most of us and as a person who has extensive knowledge and experience in the subject of our water supply.

In 2004 and 2005 during the years I served on our Orange County Grand Jury I had the opportunity to travel all over California with the water agencies to view and understand in detail our water supply, where it comes from and how it gets to us. Probably the most important variable is our climate; however, all the variables we hear about are important—amount and location of precipitation annually, geography, population distribution, economic factors, costs and governmental/organization issues.

First of all, approximately 50 percent of the population of California resides in LA, Orange and San Diego counties—approximately 18 milloion out of 36 million people. When adding the remaining five counties below the Tehachapi Mountains, that number goes to approximately 70 percent or 25 million people in these eight most southern counties. The decisive factor is that 75 percent of the rainfall in the state falls in the northern one third of the state, Sacramento and above, with only 25 percent falling in the south to supply 70 percent of the people. Obviously, this means that most of our water must be imported from a far distance.

Going well back to the 1920s, governing bodies, beginning in Los Angeles, began to understand this and took major steps to begin to import water and, as a result, provided for the growth and development of southern California. The first agency was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, forming at the same time the city of Los Angeles developed the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power. To this day, MWDSC remains the “kingpin” of water resources for us.

Through the state Water Resources Project, they actually own most of the precipitation in the north. Currently they have some 30-member agencies in the south to which they supply and sell water. Here in OC, the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County and the Orange County Water District are the two major agencies. Both MWDOC and OCWD then sell water to a large number of cities and smaller water agencies. When considering where our individual water comes from, imagine this as a virtual pyramid of agencies supplying it.

Once we understand the organizational part of the system above, the next question must be: “How does the water physically get to us from original sources in northern California, and a few other places, to our cities, towns and homes in Orange County?”

This is a complex and fascinating system, and because of limited space in this single article, will be described in next month’s Views.

Looking ahead to the dynamics of distribution next month, we also need to be aware of several other factors that will impact the future and may come into play in the next few weeks. El Niño, no matter how large, will not solve our water problems. In San Clemente and all of Orange County we have virtually no storage facilities to capture rainfall and store a needed amount of water. Heavy rainfall is good for the golf courses, our lawns and open space, however, most of it flows directly into the ocean. If our current drought is in fact a result of significant climate change, we have monumental challenges ahead.

In addition to next month’s description of the distribution system, there are currently some small exceptions to the above problems that help some jurisdictions in this crisis and will be described. Also, we will discuss some potential solutions.

Lew Avera is a retired career officer, Lt. Col., U.S. Marine Corps. He has been a director of the Talega HOA since 2003 and served on the San Clemente Planning Commission from 2005 to 2013.

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