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Metropolitan Water District wages costly war with nature and age

Increasingly frequent shutdowns of the Colorado River Aqueduct for maintenance and repair are the biggest drivers of rising water bills in Southern California.

March 18, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • Toby Root, resident inspector for the project, talks about a weather-resistant coating being applied to expansion joints in the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant's three hillside pipelines.
Toby Root, resident inspector for the project, talks about a weather-resistant… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Out in the desert, the wind never quits. Over its howling one day recently, Roy Howard strained to make himself heard as he explained why its usual accompaniment, the rush of water and the rumble of enormous industrial pumps, had fallen silent.

We were at the Metropolitan Water District's Julian Hinds Pumping Plant, situated at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park and about 20 miles north of the Salton Sea. Hinds is one of five pumping plants on the Colorado River Aqueduct. And it's the last point on the 242-mile journey of Colorado River water from Lake Havasu on the California-Arizona border where pumping is needed. Gravity carries the water the rest of the way to the aqueduct's terminus, Lake Mathews in Riverside County.

As I braced myself against the gale, Howard pointed out nine switches that will be replaced on the plant's electrical grid and the locations of nine expansion joints to be refurbished on the 10-foot-diameter pipes that carry pumped water 441 feet up the side of a mountain.

So that work can be done, the aqueduct has been shut down, a once rare but increasingly frequent event dictated by the demands of maintenance and rehabilitation of the MWD's aging system. The contractors have exactly 19 days and three hours to finish the job, counted back to Feb. 28 at noon, when the shutdown started and the aqueduct went dry.

"After that, we have to be sending water up that hill," Howard, the rehab project's resident engineer, told me in clipped military tones, which sounded entirely appropriate given the rigorous logistics of the job. "For every day they're late, they have to pay us $75,000 in liquidated damages," Howard said, referring to the construction contractors, "but that's a fraction of the millions Met would lose by not delivering water."

The Hinds plant is one of the front lines in the MWD's war with nature and age. The battlefield is largely invisible to the average Southern California water user, whether an industrial plant manager, a farmer or a homeowner with garden hose in hand, pool in the backyard and three bathrooms indoors, who probably has little idea of what's been pushing water rates higher. Key fact: It's not the H2O, which accounts for only about one-fifth of the bill. The water service bill of the average Southern California family of four will include about $34 a month in MWD charges, not including add-on fees charged by its local water district; of that, about $7 is the cost of the water itself.

"The repair and replacement of our aging infrastructure is probably the No. 1 driver of our rates," says MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger, who had invited me and Times photographer Al Seib along on his inspection visit to the work at Hinds.

In the 1990s, the MWD says, the huge water district's annual average capital budget of about $500 million included perhaps $30 million for maintenance. The rest went to expanding facilities to manage growth and provide storage, including the construction of Diamond Valley Lake reservoir near Hemet.

Over the next two years, the capital budget will average about $275 million a year, but as much as 60% will cover maintenance and repair of infrastructure that includes the Colorado aqueduct, begun in 1933, and the MWD's share of similar costs incurred by the State Water Project, which carries water from Northern California.

The bill for all this is already in the mail. From 1995 through 2003, the MWD went without a rate increase; then rates began climbing, with a cumulative increase of nearly 70% from 2008 through this year. Next month the district's board will consider a proposal to raise rates about 12% over the next two years.

Some of that will cover the costs of an entirely unexpected development, the appearance after 2007 of the dreaded quagga mussel in the Colorado River system. The tiny pest, an ineradicable interloper that probably made its way to the river from the Great Lakes by hitching rides on recreational boats, can clog channels, pipes and other waterworks if not regularly blasted away or scraped off.

The MWD has spent $30 million over the last five years to fight the quagga and might be spending $8 million to $10 million a year on it into the unfathomable future.

As it is in so many other respects, when it comes to facing the challenges of maintaining such an indispensable infrastructure, California is a bellwether for the country.

That's despite the relative youth of water systems in the West compared with other regions: More than 60% of the Northeast's large-scale water infrastructure but less than 10% of the West's dates to the 1920s or earlier, according to the American Water Works Assn., which represents water utilities and consultants.

The group estimates the nationwide bill for maintaining and expanding existing water treatment and delivery systems will come to $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

Yet for the arid West, the distribution of imported water is much more crucial, lending more urgency to upkeep.

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