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A Thirsty Riverside Seeks More Water

Decreased supply is forcing the city to seek other sources and to emphasize conservation.

June 28, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

With Riverside expected to lose a portion of its water supply because of a drop in water levels at a once-ample well field in San Bernardino, city utility officials say they are being forced to use costly alternatives and an aggressive conservation campaign.

They plan to buy more costly imported water from Northern California and are studying reusing treated sewer water now discharged into the Santa Ana River.

"The bottom line is that this supply picture we've had in the past is probably gone," said Dieter Wirtzfeld, assistant director of Riverside Public Utilities. "We need to get customers to realize how precious water is in this desert area .... If this continues for a year or two, I'd hate to think about what we will do."

The utility has historically relied on groundwater in Riverside and San Bernardino to provide 78,000 acre-feet of water to about 230,000 people. An acre-foot can supply two families of four for a year.

Not having to buy expensive water from Northern California has meant that Riverside residents pay significantly lower water rates than neighboring communities. In November, an average monthly bill in Riverside was $25.35, compared with $43.66 in Corona.

The majority of the city's water has been pumped out of the Bunker Hill basin, a vast aquifer beneath San Bernardino that captures melted snow and rain from the San Bernardino Mountains. The basin, which has a surface area of 120 square miles, can store nearly 6 million acre-feet of water.

"We live in the semiarid desert. You get four or five fairly dry years, and occasionally you get one extremely wet year," said Randy Vangelder, assistant general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, which manages the basin. "The groundwater basin allows us to store water from the wet times and pump it out as needed during drier times."

Riverside is legally limited to drawing 52,199 acre-feet a year out of the basin.

Other cities in San Bernardino County, such as Redlands, Loma Linda and San Bernardino, are limited to a combined total of 167,238 acre-feet but are not penalized for exceeding that limit. Historically, these limits have not been enforced because the basin was overloaded. The water table had been so high that water reached the surface, particularly in southern San Bernardino, where streets have buckled, basements have flooded and a small stream was once created in the front rows of a movie theater. To lower the water table, two court-appointed "water masters" have the power to allow extra pumping. That "extra" water has been available for much of the past two decades.

But last year was the first in recent memory that the water was not available because water levels had dropped.

Water Master Don Harriger, general manager of Western Municipal Water District, said he and Water Master Bob Reiter of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District would decide soon whether to declare surplus water available this year.

"Within the next 30 days we will make a determination as to whether or not we have circumstance within the basin now that will enable us to declare" surplus water available, Harriger said.

Riverside utility officials say the declining water levels are due to drought. Though there was average precipitation last year, the last time there was significant rain was during El Nino in 1998. From 1999 to 2002, rainfall was well below average. The basin is nearly 350,000 acre-feet lower than normal, according to the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District.

However, Harriger said, last year's lack of surplus water was caused when water officials lowered the water table to reduce the risk of flooding and liquefaction during earthquakes. This safety measure will continue yearly.

Whatever the cause, Riverside officials say, it's a long shot that they will see surplus water in coming years.

"We don't anticipate them declaring extra water available to us or anyone else .... We believe it will be a long time until we see it again," said Tom Evans, general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. "We have to replace it."

City water officials are working on a number of ways to increase supply and curtail demand.

This coming fiscal year, they plan to buy roughly 3,500 acre-feet from Northern California, spending $1.6 million. In contrast, this year, the city is spending about $150,000 to buy a lesser amount. The city also plans to pump deeper in seven existing wells in the Bunker Hill basin, which increases energy costs and decreases pumping efficiency.

A recent rate hike of 24% over three years, approved by the City Council in May, will pay for both of these efforts, as well as replace some antiquated pipelines, seismically upgrade Evans Reservoir and do major maintenance work on a huge water line that brings water into Riverside.

Additionally, city officials are looking into ways to reuse 40,000 acre-feet of treated sewer water for nondrinking purposes, such as watering freeway landscaping, golf courses and parks.

This month, the City Council approved a $208,361 contract with a consultant to study the environmental impact of creating such a gray-water system.

Finally, the city is increasing its focus on conservation. The city's rate increase penalizes heavy water users.

The city already educates three-quarters of fourth-graders about conservation; the goal is to reach 100%. It also plans to include inserts about conservation measures, such as water-wise landscaping, in water bills. And the city plans to run a contest to give away several high-efficiency washing machines.

"We've been doing a certain amount of it, but not as much as we intend to do in the future," Wirtzfeld said.

"The real answer for Southern California's future is conservation. A good conservation effort goes a long way to keeping these rates down."

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