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The Water Story: City Effort to Save

The final installment of this two-part series takes an in-depth look at local efforts to conserve water.

When it comes to water, city officials in towns across the South Bay consider conservation efforts and education to be vitally important.

They have implemented programs for homeowners and businesses aimed at improving water quality by reducing the array of pollutants and other debris that collect in storm drains and catch basins and wash out to sea.

Plus, some cities have entered the Wyland Foundation’s region-wide Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, which encourages participants to pledge to save water.

In Hermosa Beach, city officials have their own website touting conservation efforts for residents, and a stormwater program that is aimed at filtering out and detaining pollutants that could mar local beaches.   

A has been installed, said Frank Senteno, deputy public works director, and infiltration boxes on Hermosa Avenue and are being used to filter and divert urban runoff and other wastes.

Pamela Townsend, a senior planner who spearheads Hermosa’s water quality efforts, also said that the city has sought to raise public awareness of the need to decrease water use along with reducing wastes from landscaping, restaurant grease, trash and other harmful runoff.

“All this stuff is contributing to bacteria and has a health impact getting into the ocean and is affecting our seafood, which can be a catastrophic issue,” Townsend said.

“A large portion of our water is imported, so we need to reduce our water habits,” she added. “We’re going to have to change our habits and that’s hard.”

In Redondo Beach, Mayor Mike Gin and other city officials last February unveiled the Alta Vista Park Diversion and Reuse Project that will use recycled rainwater.

When fully operational, the new drainage system will reclaim about 1 million gallons of rain annually that would otherwise be released as polluted stormwater into Santa Monica Bay.

“As soon as we get enough water in the cistern, we will use it in the park’s irrigation system,” said Michael Shay, a principal civil engineer who led the effort.

The Alta Vista project follows the formation of a Water Quality Task Force in 2006 that was established to deal with water quality issues surrounding the city’s beaches, harbor and pier.  

Redondo Beach has implemented 19 of the task force’s 33 recommendations and even relied on its suggested cleanup procedures for a “red tide” incident when the city was faced with the recent massive fish-kill at the harbor, Shay said.

As part of its water conservation efforts, Manhattan Beach instituted an ordinance in 2009 governing landscape watering and the washing of sidewalks, streets and vehicles in the city, among other things. Also included were guidelines for water usage in restaurants, hotels, motels and car washes.

Meanwhile a “tiered rate” fee structure based on water usage has been put into place, said Sona Kalapura, the city’s environmental programs manager. 

“As people use more water, they’re beginning to pay more for water,” she said.  “Maybe they’ll connect the two and save more water.”

Manhattan Beach also considers its Polliwog Park an important environmental resource during rains, with the storm water from the surrounding neighborhood flowing into the pond at the center of the park. From there it can drain into the storm drain system or seep into the groundwater supply or nourish local wildlife.

In Rancho Palos Verdes, water quality efforts include the city’s public outreach to reduce the amount of waste that is going down storm drains.  

The city has installed stainless steel screens in 60 catch basins to snag debris and officials have sent flyers to residents and homeowner associations advising them not to over water their lawns and gardens, nor allow fertilizer to wash away into the storm drains.

“There can’t be a disconnect between the people paying the water bill and the people maintaining the landscape,” said Andy Winje, associate engineer for the Rancho Palos Verdes Public Works Department. “We’re trying to get the message out that there is a lot of potential to conserve water.”

Meanwhile, at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, officials on the 11-acre campus were lauded by the West Basin Muncipal Water District for their conservation efforts in retrofitting the college’s facilities with water-saving devices.  

Those improvements translated into an annual savings of 500,000 gallons of water per year.

City and community efforts are vital to help maintain and reinforce a statewide water program that is already strained, said Ron Wildermuth, public and government affairs manager for the West Basin district.

The state’s water systems, Wildermuth said, were designed to serve 18 million people and now serve 37 million. He added that with climate change, the Sierra snowpack is shrinking and there is the ever-present loss of water in reservoirs through evaporation and the risk of coastal seawater intrusion into the groundwater supply.

The West Basin district started in 1947 at a time when residents were more dependent on local groundwater.

“They took so much groundwater out of the groundwater basin, which was basically sand and water, that the groundwater level went down and sea water backfilled because everything is hydraulically connected,” Wildermuth said.

“People in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach were watering their lawns and killing grass with salt water,” he said.

To replace that groundwater source, West Basin—one of the largest members of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District—joined the MWD in 1948 to begin supplementing its local water with water imported from the Colorado River and then later from Northern California.

The district is seeking to wean itself off its dependence on outside sources. Currently, 62 percent of its supply is imported, and it wants to cut that amount to 33 percent by 2020.

While the majority of those savings will come from added conservation and recycling efforts, a smaller percentage of that difference will come from ocean-water desalination, Wildermuth said.

The district hopes to ultimately produce 20 million gallons of water a day through desalination, a process that uses micro-filtration and reverse osmosis.

The district operates a demonstration project at the SEALab facility in Redondo Beach to test the same technologies that will be used on a full-scale, permanent project. That pilot project, which began last November, will be in operation for three years with initial data expected in two, Wildermuth said.

He added that he understands environmentalists’ concerns that a desalination project could damage the ocean and sea life, but said those issues will be addressed through the use of “passive wedge wire screens, brine dilution and diffusion” and other technology.

“We are going to develop science here to show that it can be done without harm to the ocean,” Wildermuth said, adding that the test results will be posted online for scientists and the public to evaluate.

Still, doubters of the desalination process remain. They include Redondo Beach City Councilman Bill Brand, whose district includes the site of the demonstration plant.

“I’m not a big fan of desalination,” said Brand, who, along with other critics, contends that the $10 million the district says it has already spent on the project is much lower than the actual cost. “It’s a very expensive process.

“That money could have gone a long way to educating the public on conservation, which is cheaper than sticking a straw in the ocean and desalinating it,” he said.

Another skeptic, Diane Wallace of the Environmental Priorities Network and VOICE, agreed with Brand that the money spent on the desalination plant could be better used for conservation efforts.  

“It’s just too costly to run the plant,” she said.  “It uses too much energy and is too costly.  The water is too expensive for people to buy.”

Wallace added that, as it is, too many people squander water and everyone is dependent on a precarious water system.

“We use too much of it,” she said. “We have to conserve it. And we have to be prepared for an eventuality like an earthquake along the San Andreas Fault that could break this whole big state plumbing system that brings water down from the [Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay] Delta or from the Colorado River, and we could lose our water.”

That dire prediction has a familiar ring to some.   

Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Los Angeles Times that California’s statewide water system was a “ticking time bomb.” And while Gov. Brown recently declared the years-long drought over, there were those who worried that the pronouncement would send the public back to wasteful habits.

That is a concern for Wildermuth as well, which only makes him more determined to push the need for water conservation and a reliable water source. But mixed in with that message is a sense of optimism that there is a place for common ground with environmentalists as well as other water users.

“The water industry in the last couple of years has done something they’ve never done before,” Wildermuth said. “They said that providing water and protecting the environment are co-equal goals. That’s a whole new world.”

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