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Study: O.C. Economy Vulnerable to Drought

September 19, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A major drought in Southern California could devastate the Orange County economy and trigger widespread unemployment, a new water reliability study shows.

In the report's worse-case scenario, researchers concluded that if local water supplies were cut 20% for one to three years, the county's $133-billion-a-year economy would lose between $15 billion and $43 billion.

The study, which was released Thursday, found that if water supplies were reduced by just 5% over the same period, the economic losses would still be substantial, ranging from $11.7 billion to $35.1 billion a year.

"We are very dependent on imported water," said Wallace Walrod, vice president of research for the Orange County Business Council, which represents hundreds of local companies. A drought "would be similar to what a large earthquake or a hurricane could do to the local business community."

The business council joined with UC Irvine and the Municipal Water District of Orange County to produce the report. The district, which paid for the $31,000 study, supplies 28 local water agencies that serve about 3 million people. District officials say they want to use the study for planning purposes and to ensure adequate water supplies.

Orange County's economy is the 35th largest in the world, surpassing such countries as Finland, Greece, South Africa and Thailand. Since 2001, it has ranked among the top five counties in the country in terms of job growth and business creation.

The county now uses about 700,000 acre-feet of water a year, an amount that is projected to increase to 800,000 acre-feet in 30 years. More than 40% of the water is brought in from the Colorado River and Northern California. The rest comes from a large ground-water basin in northern Orange County, local surface water, aquifers and reclaimed water.

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