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Water's energy -- and expense

Power costs and climate-change rules are threatening Southern California's long love affair with imported supplies, forcing the region to consider sources closer to home.

November 14, 2011|Bettina Boxall
  • The Julian Hinds Pumping Plant is one of the hydraulic hearts of Californias vast water supply system, built to push water from where it is to where it isnt, no matter how many hundreds of miles of desert, mountains and valleys are in the way.
The Julian Hinds Pumping Plant is one of the hydraulic hearts of Californias… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

CHIRIACO SUMMIT, CALIF. — The aqueduct stretched across the desert like an endless blue freight train, carrying its cargo of Colorado River water to a concrete building at the base of a craggy-faced mountain.

Inside the plant, adorned with the seal of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a set of massive pumps hoisted the water 441 feet high, disgorging it into a tunnel and the final leg of its journey from the Arizona border to a Riverside County reservoir.

The Julian Hinds Pumping Plant is one of the hydraulic hearts of California's vast water supply system, built early in the last century to push water from where it is to where it isn't, no matter how many hundreds of miles of desert, mountains and valleys are in the way.

Defying geography on such a grand scale takes energy. A lot of it. It's also expensive. And it's going to become more so, driving up Southern California water rates and forcing the region to consider more mundane sources closer to home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 16, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Imported water's energy costs: An article in the Nov. 14 LATExtra section about the energy used to import water to Southern California identified a senior assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as Jim McDaniels. His last name is McDaniel.

The volume of water propelled uphill on one recent day at Hinds weighed the equivalent of more than four World Trade Center towers and required six 12,500-horsepower motors driven by electricity, much of it from Hoover and Parker dams on the Colorado.

But the federal contract that allocates more than a quarter of Hoover Dam's hydro-generation to the MWD expires in 2017. The water agency expects to lose 5% of its Hoover electricity under a new pact that will accommodate additional customers by trimming sales to longtime users.

The MWD will have to buy additional power on the open market, at higher prices. And the state's upcoming cap-and-trade program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could require the district to purchase expensive pollution allowances to offset the energy it gets from fossil-fuel power plants.

Agency officials predict that the double whammy will boost the aqueduct's energy costs, which amounted to nearly $49 million last year, by 80% over the next decade.

For similar reasons, the district could face even steeper price hikes from its other water source, the State Water Project, which brings supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Southland. That system is the single biggest power user in California.

Costs there are expected to climb by $20 million a year after the Department of Water Resources drops its ownership interest in a coal-fired Nevada power plant in 2013, and replaces it with cleaner electricity sources.

The twin forces of energy prices and climate-change regulations are threatening Southern California's long love affair with imported water, increasing the allure of local sources such as groundwater, rain and recycled supplies.

"It will further encourage retail water suppliers to use less imported water," said Edward Osann, a former federal water official who is a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's that simple."

The 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct is a monument to 20th century grandiosity, when Southern California's power brokers thought nothing of rearranging nature to serve their urban ambitions. It was constructed in the 1930s, when the region realized Los Angeles' Owens Valley supplies weren't enough to sustain its explosive growth.

The aqueduct was named a modern "civil engineering wonder" in 1955 by the American Society of Civil Engineers "because of its unprecedented cost, length, pumping rate and lift" as well as difficult construction conditions.

Unlike the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which relies on nothing more than gravity to send supplies from the Owens Valley to L.A., the long straw that the MWD dipped into the Colorado River needs a boost.

To provide it, the Whitsett, Gene, Iron Mountain, Eagle Mountain and Hinds pumping plants were carved into mountainsides along the aqueduct's eastern portion. They lift the river water, in stages, 1,617 feet to keep it moving across the relatively flat desert.

On a September day, nearly 900 million gallons flowed from the aqueduct into Hinds, 150 miles east of Los Angeles. Built in the Art Moderne style, with a red tile roof, terrazzo floor and elegant light fixtures reflecting the agency's aspirations of watering a modern metropolis, the plant houses nine pumps.

Each is several stories tall and so finely calibrated that one of the original engineers boasted: "You can stand a nickel on end when I get done," said Alan Cross, an MWD pump plant specialist. "That's true today," he added, balancing one on a shiny green pump housing.

The State Water Project's California Aqueduct, which extends 444 miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, relies on a series of pump stations to carry Northern California supplies to the Southland.

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