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Liquid Assets : Last Independent Water Agencies in Foothill Communities Cast About for Ways to Stay Afloat

August 20, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Without enough water, crops shrivel, brush fires threaten, and boom towns go bust.

This wasn't lost on speculators who developed the arid foothills of La Canada and La Crescenta earlier this century. To ensure a steady water supply, they assiduously drilled wells and schemed over water rights. By the 1920s, seven small water purveyors flourished.

Today, four remain. They deliver to 15,000 households and are unlikely to expand much farther, since there is little land suitable for building left in the foothills. But local water agencies say that rising costs, aging equipment and pollution of the local wells make staying afloat increasingly difficult. Some are turning to innovative financing and new technology for help.

For instance, Crescenta Valley County Water District, which has 8,000 customers and is the biggest local agency, plans to build a $2-million plant to extract nitrate pollutants from its well water. Crescenta Valley purchases 55% of its water from outside sources and blends it with local well water to lower levels of industrial chemicals and nitrates, a sewage byproduct, to meet government-imposed health limits.

Officials say the treatment facility, only the third such plant in the United States, will save money by allowing the district to pump 75% of its water needs from its own wells.

Snowpack 35% Below Normal

That could be especially important in the coming years if the snowpack in the Sierra remains low; this year it is at 35% of normal levels in some key watershed areas. Scarcities could lead to higher water prices and, in case of severe drought, water rationing.

Crescenta Valley's reclamation facility will remove nitrates from water by treating it with a chemical resin that exchanges the nitrate ions for chloride ions. As the untreated water passes through the plant, the nitrate ions stick to the resin and the chloride dissolves into the water, said Ernie Kartinen, an engineer with Boyle Engineering Corp. Boyle developed the process and is designing the plant, which will be at Glenwood and Sycamore avenues in Montrose and will treat up to 3 million gallons of water a day, Kartinen added.

The plant will be financed by a low-interest state loan from the 1984 Clean Water Bond Act and will save $200,000 annually after building costs are recouped, said Robert K. Argenio, the district's general manager. Construction is expected to begin after officials sign a contract with the City of Los Angeles to pump the nitrate-contaminated waste from the Montrose plant to Los Angeles' Hyperion treatment facility in El Segundo. A Los Angeles Department of Public Works spokesman said he does not foresee problems with such a contract, and neither do Crescenta Valley officials.

Foothill water agencies are divided into three types. The smallest is the privately owned Mesa Crest Water Co. in La Canada Flintridge, which has 650 customers. Founded in 1956 by the Flynn family of La Canada Flintridge to supply a subdivision that family members built in the city's northeast, Mesa Crest has no wells and buys all its water.

May Merge Operations

Flynn family members say the water company makes a small profit, but they hope to lower operating costs by acquiring another agency and merging operations. Barring that, the Flynns may put Mesa Crest up for sale, they say. If so, they will not be alone; privately owned water companies in California have dwindled from 500 to 260 since 1967, a state Public Utilities Commission spokesman said.

Public and mutual water agencies tend to do better. Their numbers have held steady since the 1960s at about 850, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources said.

The area's mutually owned firm is Valley Water Co., which serves south La Canada Flintridge. Its 3,500 customers are shareholders and part owners. Valley Water was founded in 1910 and pumps 30% of its water from two wells in Pasadena's Raymond Basin.

There are also two public, nonprofit water districts: Crescenta Valley and the La Canada Irrigation District.

Districts are governed by an elected board of directors whose members are paid up to $100 a meeting to set water rates and plan pipeline and pumping facilities. All four have staffs that handle engineering and administration. Crescenta Valley, the largest, has 27 employees.

La Canada Irrigation District, which supplies almost 3,000 households on the northeast side of town, was founded in 1924. It buys 90% of its water and pumps the rest from two wells in the Raymond Basin.

"We have no problems with nitrates. We're very fortunate; for some reason our wells do not exceed the limits allowed by the state," said Doug Caister, the general manager.

2 Contaminated Wells Closed

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