At a time when every drop of water delivered to parched Southern California is being wrung from a miserly supply, Orange County sits atop a big, bargain-priced reserve that quenches the thirst of 2 million people, no matter how dry it gets.
A vast underground pool--pampered and guarded by water managers for more than half a century--provides northern and western Orange County with a cheap, dependable source, despite the longest drought in California history.
The county's treasure, worth millions of dollars a year, is the envy of many water-poor neighbors in Southern California, where most ground water is too salty, too polluted by chemicals or too rigidly controlled by court order to offer much drought aid.
While North County cities draw up to 80% of their supply from the ground, the rest of the region, including South County, gets zero to half of its supply from local water. That means that the rest of the region is more reliant on deliveries from drought-plagued Northern California and the Colorado River--which have been slashed by 20% this month and will be cut by 30% beginning next month.
"The word is out that we're in better shape than the rest," said William R. Mills, general manager of the Orange County Water District. "I was in Sacramento the other day, and (other water managers) were joking that they want us to start pumping water back up north."
Some of the county's fortune stems from the luck of geography. The earth beneath North County holds billions of gallons of high-quality water at an easily reachable depth. About 300 major wells are dotted throughout the county's subdivisions, pumping water from 1,000 feet down that is delivered to the faucets of homes and businesses in a broad area from Yorba Linda to Seal Beach to Irvine.
But much of the district's success is by design, not luck. The county has spent hundreds of millions of dollars--$73 million this fiscal year alone--to make itself as resistant to drought as possible, with an elaborate and sophisticated program of nurturing the basin.
"I wouldn't call it a luxury--it was a system we developed and paid for in blood," said Lee Harry, water manager for Santa Ana, which gets 70% of its water from the ground. "Each agency and city has spent millions of dollars to replenish the basin in anticipation of a drought such as this. We treat it like a prudent reserve, not a luxury."
The ground water is not only reliable during a drought but offered at comparatively bargain rates. Water imported hundreds of miles costs Southern California $230 per acre-foot, a price expected to double by the end of the decade. The same amount of ground water costs Orange County about $100. An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water needed to serve two small families for a year.
Despite the comfortable cushion and modest prices offered by the underground supply, the county's water managers sternly warn that this is no time for complacency. No one knows when California's rain and snow will return to normal, and meanwhile the county population keeps growing.
As an added threat, chemicals and farm runoff have polluted about 60 of the county's wells and could spread further, despite an ambitious program to keep them in check.
The county's ground supply is far from inexhaustible or invulnerable, so its managers are watching carefully to ensure that people don't get greedy during the drought.
Until recently, the 2 million residents of North County drew about two-thirds of their water from the ground. That has risen to the 80% figure now that five years of drought have dried up other sources.
As the pumping increased, the county's water table has dropped steadily for five years and has reached its lowest level since 1977. The underground basin contains about 65 billion gallons less than its ideal level, said Mills, manager of the county water district, and it is creeping lower as the drought persists and wells keep pumping faster than ever.
Back in 1956, the county learned a lesson the hard way about what happens when the level drops too low.
More water was drawn that year than in any year in history, and seawater began to creep inland along the coast, threatening wells. The Orange County Water District built rows of new wells--not to pump water out but to pump it in--which formed a barrier that has stopped the salty flow since.
Although creeping seawater is not a big threat anymore, city officials fear that if the water table keeps dipping, by this summer many city wells will not be able to draw deep enough.
Mills said up to a third of the county's 300 major wells will not function properly if the amount of water pumped from the ground is doubled, dropping the water table by another 60 feet.
To keep that from happening, the district's directors warned the cities and agencies that use ground water that they must show that residents are conserving 20% or their pumping will be limited.