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R.J. Kelly: How we navigated the water scene in 2009

Posted: January 30, 2010 3:02 p.m.
Updated: January 31, 2010 4:55 a.m.
With California's water supply at a well-publicized crossroads, the past year has posed significant challenges to water professionals statewide, and the coming year promises a continuation of those challenges as well as a potential major turning point in the way our state manages this essential resource.

At the beginning of each year, we at the Castaic Lake Water Agency review the previous 12 months, assessing our efforts to achieve our goals and continue providing a safe, reliable water supply.

We also look ahead to the coming year, anticipating and planning for issues we'll face in the months ahead.

In this commentary, the first of two parts, we look at 2009 with an eye toward the major goals and objectives we laid out one year ago.

We are proud of the way our board and agency staff have confronted these and many other challenges as we strive, in collaboration with the local water retailers, to be good stewards of the Santa Clarita Valley's water supply:

* Rio Vista expansion: As we plan to meet future water needs, we have begun work to expand the Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant. The design was completed in 2008, and in 2009 we put the project out to bid and began construction.

One upside of the 2009 economic climate was that the low bid came in 19 percent lower - at $36.96 million - than the original cost estimate. The project is on track to be completed in 2011.

* Perchlorate cleanup underway: We reached a greatly anticipated milestone in the effort to restore two service wells previously closed due to perchlorate contamination from the former Whittaker-Bermite munitions manufacturing plant.

In September we and our project partners celebrated completion of a treatment plant designed to stop the contaminant plume from spreading, remove perchlorate from groundwater and restore two of the closed wells into service.

We are in the shakedown phase of the new plant's operations and awaiting completion of the state permitting process, which will clear the way for the treated water to be reintroduced into the water supply.

This project was the result of a decade of hard work and cooperation among multiple agencies, including CLWA's Santa Clarita Water Division, the Newhall County Water District, the Valencia Water Co. and the city of Santa Clarita.

Planning, design, construction and up to 30 years of treatment plant operations are being funded by the past and present owners of the site and their insurers, as well as federal funding secured through the efforts of Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon.

* Legal victories protect your water: As 2009 began, we awaited appellate court hearings in two lawsuits in which CLWA's right to acquire water on your behalf was challenged by organizations seeking to use water to control land-use planning.

At issue were two water transfer agreements: a 2006 agreement in which CLWA acquired the rights to 11,000 acre-feet of Kern River water annually from the Buena Vista and Rosedale Rio-Bravo water storage districts, and a 1999 agreement in which CLWA acquired 41,000 acre-feet of the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District's annual State Water Project contract amount. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre one foot deep)

We were confident the appellate rulings would echo the trial courts' sentiments and uphold these transfers as legally and environmentally sound. That's exactly what happened. CLWA achieved important victories in both cases, and these acquisitions are needed to meet the present and future water supply needs of the Santa Clarita Valley.

* Staving off rationing: The drought continued to pose challenges, and we are proud to say we emerged from 2009 without mandatory reductions in water use.

This is attributable to several factors, including CLWA's water-banking programs as well as the community's positive response to our calls for not just short-term conservation, but an ongoing ethic of efficient water use. We've seen a 10 percent reduction in local urban water use from 2007, which helps tremendously as we strive to avoid mandatory reductions.

In 2009, we did withdraw 4,950 acre-feet from banked supplies, but the good news was, a late increase in the State Water Project allocation means we ended up with some "carryover" state water going into 2010. (Carryover water is sort of like rollover minutes on your cellular phone plan)

* Delta, Delta, Delta: Major progress was made in 2009 as California wrestled with the crisis facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where aging and seismically vulnerable infrastructure, drought and a series of court rulings limiting pumping to protect the Delta smelt, salmon and other fish species have created a crisis that could have long-term, devastating impacts on California's water supply.

We are extremely pleased these efforts resulted in a legislative package and a proposed 2010 bond initiative that recognize the co-equal goals of reestablishing the Delta ecosystem and ensuring a reliable water supply.

The package adopted in November represents the most promising action we've seen to resolve this crucial issue.

* Other accomplishments: CLWA faced a raft of additional issues and dealt with them from the overriding perspective of providing good stewardship of the SCV's water supply.

We dealt with reductions in wholesale revenue, kept the agency on sound financial footing and adjusted rate structures to ensure wholesale rates fully cover operating costs.

On the retail side, we adopted new "tiered" rates to encourage efficient water use by Santa Clarita Water District customers. CLWA also budgeted nearly $750,000 to support water use efficiency programs, including a newly launched program aimed at helping large landscape customers conserve water.

And in 2009 we engaged in valuable cooperative efforts with other agencies, by working with the other local retailers to complete a groundwater management study to ensure that we correctly utilize local groundwater, and by partnering with the retailers, the city of Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County to form the Santa Clarita Valley Water Committee to promote smart water use.

It's been a busy year on the local water front and while we are proud of CLWA's accomplishments in 2009, we don't expect the pace to slow down in 2010. Next week, we'll look ahead to what's in store for the coming year.

R. J. Kelly is the president of the Castaic Lake Water Agency board of directors. His column reflects the Agency's views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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