Groundwater Levels Plummet in Crucial LA County Basins - NBC Southern California

Coverage of one of California's most severe dry spells on record and its dramatic turnaround

Groundwater Levels Plummet in Crucial LA County Basins

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Southern California's severe drought is depriving groundwater wells of the rainwater they so desperately need, putting a strain on water resources for some 4 million people. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Published Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014)

    New laws intended to safeguard California's dwindling groundwater largely exclude crucial basins in Los Angeles and Orange counties, on the grounds that local monitoring systems for them are already in place.

    But that is not keeping their water levels from descending to historically low levels, NBC4 has learned.

    "The system has worked until now," said Anthony Zampiello, executive director for the watermaster overseeing the main San Gabriel basin, historically replenished by runoff from the mountains.

    What has changed things is this third year of drought.

    "Now it's stressing all the safeguards put into place," Zampiello said.

    The court order that established the San Gabriel watermaster four decades ago also specified an "operating range" for groundwater levels.

    Water as measured at the key well in Baldwin Park fell below the operating range in February and has continued to drop to the point it is now 18 feet below. "It's never been this low," Zampiello said.

    Groundwater levels are also plummeting in the central groundwater basin which underlies much of the southern end of Los Angeles County.

    At one test well checked Wednesday in Pico Rivera, the water level had dropped to 102 feet, 17 feet lower than recorded just half a year ago. Similar drops have been recorded across the basin.

    "One more foot, and it will be at the lowest level in 57 years," said Ted Johnson, chief hydrogeologist for the Water Replenishment District.

    The state legislature created the WRD in the 1950s after the post World War II population boom led to rapid drawdown of groundwater, both in the Central Basin and to the west in the coast basin beneath the South Bay. With both the San Gabriel Watermaster and the Replenishment District, the goal was to apportion allocations in order to stablize the basins so they could meet ongoing demand.

    Dealing with prolonged drought was not part of the original vision for either entity.

    The original source of replenishment for both the San Gabriel and Central basins was runoff from the mountains, captured in giant spreading basins so the water could percolate through the soil and into the basins. Later, after the completion of the California Aqueduct in the 1970s, the entitites purchased water sent south by the California Water Project.

    Both those sources have been severely curtailed by the drought. During the drought, recycled and treated waste water has proven to be the most reliable replenishment source for the WRD, and it is moving to expand its recycling capability with the goal of achieving independence from imported water. But a major increase in recycling capacity may not go online before 2018.

    How much accessible groundwater remains in the Central Basin is not known with cetainty, Johnson said.  What the historical record shows is that prior to WRD replenishment, the basin had dropped hit a low 30 feet below where it is today.  At current drawdown rates,  it would be a year at soonest before the aquifer would hit that level, said Johnson.

    The Orange County Water District has been a longtime proponent of water recycling. Its groundwater basin has dropped to the lower one-third of its operating range, according to the district. Groundwater rights in some other basins have also been "adjudicated," but much of the state has lacked grounwater monitoring, and the absence of statewide regulation had made California unique among the western states.

    The package of groundwater bills signed Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown creates a framework for reporting groundwater pumping and replenishment, and ultimately calls for development of local sustainability plans. Apart from reporting requirements, the existing overseers of basins such as San Gabriel, Central, and Orange County are specifically exempted from the other provisions of the bills. The overseers have not attempted to order cuts in pumping from wells.

    "We can't dictate," said WRD Board Director Sergio Calderon.

    Whether the watermaster could do so is yet to be explored. For now, the watermaster hopes to the drawdown can be slowed by its member water districts taking more from the Colorado River, which has been less affected by the drought.

    When Gov. Brown proclaimed a drought emergency in January, he called on Californians to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.  In fact, most areas have fallen far short of that goal.  As recently as May, Los Angeles and other cities were using more water than the previous year.

    Perhaps as soon as a month, Calderon said the WRD board will consider proclaiming a Drought Emergency for the Central Basin.  Like the Watermaster for the San Gabriel Basin, Calderon does not  see the need for mandatory curtailment of deliveries in the months ahead, but that could change if another dry winter propels California into a fourth year of drought.

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