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North County Can Weather Long Drought, Officials Say : Resources: A vast underground lake is insurance against the Metropolitan Water District's planned cutback in deliveries, but South County could be left thirsting, according to a survey of water companies.


Northern Orange County's abundant ground-water supply would leave it virtually unaffected by a planned cutback in water deliveries, but some South County consumers could be left dry if the drought continues, according to a survey of water companies Wednesday.

Water officials said voluntary conservation programs implemented in parts of the county over the past year have neared or met the 5% reduction in the residential supply, based on last year's consumption levels, that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to implement Feb. 1. Further conservation and plentiful ground water should make up for any reduced MWD flow, they said.

"We have a mandatory rationing plan that we could implement, but I anticipate that the voluntary efforts will do it," said Karl Kemp, director of the Mesa Consolidated Water District, which serves Costa Mesa and parts of Newport Beach and derives 70% of its supply from ground water. "We just need to get the word out to more people more often that this is not a drill. This is real."

Highly residential districts, such as Mesa Consolidated, will be able to rely for years on ground water from a lake beneath the county that contains millions of gallons accumulated from centuries of Santa Ana River runoff.

But South County cities and districts are already suffering from bone-dry creeks and wells and can ill-afford a decrease in imported water from MWD, which delivers water to 27 Southland agencies that retail it to the public. Increased water needs for southern farmlands--to which MWD plans to cut supply by 20%--and the area's booming population will only compound the problem.

But even with those factors against them, South County water consumers still are not likely to see mandatory rationing soon, water officials there said. So far, voluntary cuts in water use have been enough to keep pipelines from drying up.

"We do have a voluntary conservation program in effect now, which, if we ensured the measures are carried out, can achieve our 5% cutback without any drastic actions," said Jack Foley, general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District, which covers parts of Laguna Niguel, Dana Point, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo. Foley added that if the 5% reduction isn't met, an ordinance allows the board to enforce it through penalties.

The Irvine Ranch Water District receives 70% of its supply from MWD and serves large tracts of farmland. But a project in which water is recycled for gardens and other industrial purposes, and a voluntary conservation program that cut water use 6.4% from May to September, means that Irvine will be relatively unaffected, said Joyce Gwidt, a spokeswoman for the water district.

"We have really planned for future needs, so we're in a little better place that other cities that depend totally on imported water," Gwidt said. "We've been actively teaching water conservation in the schools and working with our customers (on conservation techniques) for a couple of years now."

Still, water district officials surveyed Wednesday were only cautiously optimistic. While they were confident that mandatory rationing and rate hikes can be avoided in the short term, nearly all of the cities and water companies said they have contingency plans at the ready should the drought continue into a fifth year.

In several districts, city councils have passed or are considering ordinances that allow for gradual water cutbacks as the drought worsens. Nearly all cities in Orange County have passed resolutions calling for voluntary cutbacks of varying degrees.

Typical of such conservation programs is one implemented in May in the Capistrano Valley Water District, where officials passed a four-stage conservation ordinance, Administrative Services Manager Don Metzger said.

"In Stage One, which we are in, it's strictly a voluntary conservation," Metzger said. "It does provide the option to go to mandatory as the stages progress." The second stage would continue voluntary conservation with some mandatory measures, such as a ban on serving water in restaurants without a specific request.

"In the third and fourth stages, reductions become mandatory, including penalties that can disconnect service until a customer corrects the situation," Metzger said. "It means no irrigation during peak periods, no hosing down driveways, fixing leaks right away. Now we just ask people to do these things."

More likely than strict conservation in the short term are tiered-rate systems that charge customers based on the amount of water they use. Few districts or cities have plans for rate hikes, but officials said the tiered system could be an effective method of getting consumers to cut water use.

Foley, of the Moulton Niguel district, said consumers there have been under a tiered-rate system since 1976, the only current tiered system in the county. "It's made up in 30 units, each of 100 cubic feet (of water)," he said. "The first 30 units are on a fixed rate, each 10 after that, the rate jumps up." He added that the system has proven effective in conserving water.

"High rollers pay an incrementally higher amount," Foley said. "I figure that's an incentive to save water."

Mary Helen Berg, Len Hall, Greg Hernandez, Lisa Mascaro, Laura Michaelis, Jon Nalick, Lynda Natali, Wendy Paulson and John Penner contributed to this report.

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