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Yorba Linda reservoir languished for years

Local water officials had warned as early as 1981 against construction of homes in Hidden Hills until a large water tank could be built. It's still stalled, and 19 homes burned in November.

January 12, 2009|Tony Barboza and Stuart Pfeifer

Like many in his Yorba Linda neighborhood, David Ramocinski had complained for years about the erratic water supply that left sprinklers sputtering and shower heads trickling. When nothing but air came out of his faucets, he wondered if there would be enough to protect his hilltop house if the bone-dry brush that surrounded it ever caught fire.

For three decades government officials have promised to build a reservoir that would finally provide a reliable water supply to the upper reaches of Hidden Hills Estates. But when a wind-whipped fire tore through the adjacent Chino Hills State Park in November, burning Ramocinski's home and 18 others as firefighters tried in vain to coax water from hydrants, the project remained stalled in bureaucracy.

A review of city and water district records by The Times found that the Hidden Hills Reservoir project has been at a standstill for years at a time, even though thousands of homeowners had already paid for it through property taxes, and $9 million sits in an account ready to build it.

As early as 1981, Yorba Linda Water District officials in a letter to the city said no one should even move into the fire-prone neighborhood unless the reservoir was at least under construction.

Nearly 30 years later, the reservoir has still not been built. And only after the November fire did it become a priority. As recently as 2007, the reservoir did not even make the top half of the district's priority list of water projects, ranking 20th out of 29, district records show. The top priority on the five-year list of projects was the district's new administration building, which was completed last year.

Water district officials said the main reason for the delay was they didn't know how big to make the reservoir because they were uncertain how many homes would ultimately sprout up on the hillsides. Build it too small, or too big, and you've wasted millions of dollars, they said.

If a reservoir holds too much unused water, "it flat goes stale. It just doesn't sustain the quality you need," said water district General Manager Ken Vecchiarelli.

In addition, the district had what appeared to be more pressing needs, including the replacement of a 109-year-old reservoir. Other factors that delayed the project included government-required environmental reviews and restrictions on building during the breeding season for the California gnatcatcher, an endangered bird.

But angry residents, several of whom have filed legal claims against the city and water district, say that if the reservoir had been built years ago as promised, their homes might have been saved.

"My home did not have to burn," said Gillian Johnson, a Hidden Hills homeowner who filed a $1.8-million claim. A firefighter, she said, returned to her destroyed home to tell her that the hydrant at the foot of her driveway had been dry during the fire. "You can't fight fire without water. That's the bottom line."

Best known as the home of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, Yorba Linda is a suburb of 65,000 in northeast Orange County that residents pay handsomely to live in, with a median household income nearly twice the state figure.

It is the type of community where public services -- clean streets, neatly trimmed trees, speedy trash collection -- are taken for granted.

Which is why the spotty water service has been such a source of annoyance in Hidden Hills, the only neighborhood in the city not served by a reservoir.

Reservoirs are preferable to pump stations alone because they use gravity to feed water to homes and fire hydrants instead of just pushing it hundreds of feet uphill.

Even Yorba Linda Water District documents have referred to the community's water pump system as "temporary," "undesired and inefficient."

In one six-week stretch last summer, Ramocinski's home lost water pressure eight times, records show. When the disastrous Freeway Complex fire raced toward his home in November, he tried to protect it with his lawn sprinkler system and a garden hose. But the water pressure failed. So he fled down the hill, leaving his home to burn.

Burned-out electric pumps that pushed water to the neighborhood shut down the day of the fire. So did the gas-powered backup. When firefighters tapped into some hydrants, only air whooshed out.

The Orange County Fire Authority said as many as five of the fire-ravaged homes could have been saved if they had had water.

In the weeks that followed, the Yorba Linda Water District expedited plans to build the Hidden Hills Reservoir. Ramocinski and others wonder why it took a devastating fire to spur water officials to action.

In the 1980s, the water district said the reservoir should be built before homes were occupied, records show. In 1989, just before the first homes were built, the water district projected the reservoir would be built within two years.

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