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Where Does Our Water Come From?

In observance of Earth Day, Patch offers this two-part series on the sources of our local water supply and the conservation efforts that are underway to use each drop wisely.

Did you know that more than 60 percent of the water used in the Beach Cities and the Palos Verdes Peninsula is imported from faraway places?

The West Basin Municipal Water District, which serves the South Bay and other nearby communities, gets the majority of its supply from two sources: the State Water Project’s system of reservoirs and aqueducts delivers water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California and from runoff of melting snow in the Eastern Sierra Nevada; the Colorado River Aqueduct brings water from the Lake Havasu reservoir on the California-Arizona border.

The remainder comes from a combination of groundwater and recycled water and other local sources, such as water that was originally imported but remains unused as "conserved water."

“We’ve done too good a job letting people take water for granted,” said Ron Wildermuth, public and government affairs manager for the West Basin district. “But it’s a changed world, and now we have to tell them it’s a changed world.”

The average individual uses about 120 gallons of water a day. The West Basin district wholesales imported water and provides drinking and recycled water to nearly 1 million people in 17 cities and unincorporated areas of coastal Los Angeles County.

Wildermuth’s mission is to tell the water story and remind his audience that water is a finite resource whose supply is subject to weather changes, recurring droughts and dry spells, and is vulnerable to the calamities such as earthquakes.

“We’re in an industry where we don’t control the raw product—Mother Nature does,” said Wildermuth, a retired Navy captain who worked at the Orange County Water District and was an aide to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War.

While taking a Patch reporter on a tour of the Edward C. Little Recycling Facility in El Segundo, Wildermuth stood like a commander himself as he pointed out the network of outdoor tanks where wastewater is pumped in from the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment plant about five miles away.   

Nearly 30 million gallons a day of sewage water is treated and reclaimed in a recycling process that will allow it to be used for irrigation and landscaping, in cooling towers, on golf courses, in commercial businesses, as part of an underground sea barrier, and for other non-drinking purposes.

The 20-acre facility that Wildermuth proudly showcases is where 8,000 schoolchildren a year visit to learn about water: where it comes from, how to maintain its quality and why we must use it judiciously.

The district says recycled wastewater now accounts for about 7 percent of its region’s water supply. Its goal is to triple that amount by 2020.  

The district also hopes to step up its education efforts and conservation measures by that target year in an effort to double the amount of water that is now saved under such programs.

“Recycling and conservation are the two pillars of our plan to cut our dependence on imported water,” said Wildermuth, who added that a third element of the district’s plan is ocean-water desalination.

The twin messages of water reliability and water conservation could be seen during an in neighboring Manhattan Beach last weekend.

The city had several tables and booths where staffers in green shirts encouraged the use of water-saving sprinkler systems, taking shorter showers, reducing yard watering, and other conservation methods.

“We have to be mindful of our need to save water,” said Sona Kalapura, environmental programs manager for the city of Manhattan Beach. “As our population continues to increase, our demand will increase and we have to be mindful of our future.”

Keeping that message in mind is not as simple for some.

Across from Kalapura’s booth at one of the Earth Day exhibits, a young mother watched intently as her child tossed a bean bag into the holes marking the different rooms of a cutout house. On the display were the words: “Water conservation at home.”  

When asked about her own practices, the woman admitted she was wasteful when it came to water usage, and then she declined to disclose her name.

“I don’t want to give my name because I sound so stupid when it comes to water,” she said. “I don’t know where our water comes from. I just turn on the tap and there it is.”

The young mother is not alone. Even those who consider themselves environmentally aware acknowledge there may be a collective blind spot for people when it comes to water.  

Andreas Koch, who was at the same Earth Day exhibit with his 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, said he is building a home in Manhattan Beach that will be more energy efficient.  

He drives a hybrid, uses an energy-saving irrigation system, and strives to conserve his water usage and improve its quality with a water purification system.

But when asked about the system that provides him and other local residents with water, he was a bit uncertain.

“I know it’s very complex and water travels a long way to get here,” Koch said. “And if something were to cut it off, it would be a real crisis for our population down here.”

What Koch tries to do, he said, is pass on to his family that awareness of a need to conserve water and other resources.

“I try to teach my children that … they’re the next generation,” he said.

Coming up in Part 2: How city officials are making an effort to conserve water and how the water district hopes to cut dependence on outside sources in the future.

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