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Putting a Lid on It : Long Debate Ends With MWD Vote to Cover San Joaquin Reservoir


LOS ANGELES — Without any fanfare, a four-year debate over whether to cover the San Joaquin Reservoir to keep the water free of contamination ended Tuesday when the Metropolitan Water District voted to spend $2.9 million to begin the designing of the cover.

The board of directors of MWD, which co-owns the reservoir with seven Orange County agencies, voted unanimously to have the 55-acre reservoir capped with a floating nylon-reinforced rubber cover, which will cost $18.2 million upon completion.

The reservoir, MWD's only uncovered supply of treated water, has been shut down 22 times since 1986 because of water quality problems caused by, among other contaminants, algae growth, insect and bird droppings, debris and bacteria.

Tuesday's vote paved the way for the rubber cover, which is contingent upon the decisions of the reservoir's other co-owners, which are the Irvine Ranch Water District, Mesa Consolidated Water District, the Irvine Co., Laguna Beach County Water District, South Coast Water District and the cities of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

Officials of most of those agencies indicated this week that they will follow MWD's lead in the next couple of months to vote to have the 27-year-old reservoir covered. If approved as expected by the boards of directors of those agencies, the cover will be completed and in place in 12 to 18 months.

"Our board of directors has gone on record as supporting the floating covering as the most cost-effective and expedient alternative of all the solutions presented," said Mary Urashima, spokeswoman of Mesa Consolidated, which provides water for Costa Mesa, portions of Newport Beach and parts of unincorporated Orange County, including John Wayne Airport.

The man-made, asphalt-lined reservoir located in an unincorporated area southeast of Ford Road near Newport Beach opened in 1966. It holds up to 1 billion gallons of treated drinking water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California for about 400,000 residents in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and Corona del Mar. It also provides emergency storage for catastrophes and backup for local fire departments.

Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), whose district includes Huntington Beach, sent a letter to MWD officials Tuesday urging them to vote for the cover.

"After examining all the options, it is my belief that the most cost-effective and ratepayer-friendly solution is a permanent floating cover," Allen said. "Water consumers deserve the best possible quality at the lowest possible cost."

The local co-owners will pay $8.3 million of the estimated $18.2-million total cost. MWD will pick up the difference, provided it doesn't exceed $17 million. If that happens, the co-owners will renegotiate. Local water agencies have not yet discussed rate increases, so it's not clear how much of the $8.3 million water consumers would be expected to absorb.

According to MWD officials, the only drawback to the floating cover, so called because it rises and falls with the water level, would be the aesthetic loss to some homeowners in the area. They are trying to appease the homeowners, the officials said, with plans to spend $375,000 to landscape the area with trees and shrubs when the project is completed.

Where they now gaze at azure-hued water, about 100 homeowners of the Harbor Ridge and Spyglass Hill areas would be looking instead at a dusty green or gray plastic surface once the cover is in place.

Those homeowners have been vocal opponents of the cover for the past four years, asking water officials instead to consider a treatment plant that would purify water once it leaves the reservoir. None of the homeowners attended Tuesday's hearing.

John Valentine, whose house overlooks the glistening water of the reservoir, said he still doesn't want a cover over his sweeping view.

"I have a nice view," Valentine, 54, said of his house on Vienna Street. "If you have a choice of looking at a body of water or a plastic cover, what would you look at?"

Michael Drucker, an orthopedic surgeon who has lived in Harbor Ridge since 1979, said Tuesday he resents water officials using some "scare tactics" when they talk about some of the problems the uncovered water supply has attracted.

In 1984, the reservoir was shut down and drained to remove about 850,000 African clawed frogs that infested the facility. "That was 10 years ago and there are no frogs there now," Drucker said.

Drucker and the other homeowners whose view would be affected said they will not fight the water officials' vote.

"We are parents, we are grandparents and we do not want unhealthy water for our family," said homeowner Linda Magstadt. "We just want other options pursued, that's all."

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