Although much of California remains parched as big cities and little towns devise plans to find and/or conserve water, the Antelope Valley is managing its way through the drought with relative ease. That’s not to say that water conservation is a low priority, but this section of northern Los Angeles County undertook measures years ago to manage its water affairs which apparently are paying off under the latest statewide restrictions.

The Antelope Valley has a vast reservoir of wells, called naturally the Antelope Valley Groundwater Basin (AVGB). To better serve a population expected to exceed 600,000 residents by 2020, the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency (AVEK) is anticipating the construction of three potable groundwater wells to connect the existing Los Angeles County Waterworks District (LACWWD) turnout (connection) at the northeast corner of West Avenue H and 80th Street West in Lancaster. The completed project will allow the AVEK to provide an additional supply of water to meet demands during periods of below average allocation of imported water from the State Water Project (SWP). The wells may supply a needed emergency supply of water because the transmission piping will connect into the turnout for the LACWWD, which is one of the AVEK’s largest customers.

Also, the Palmdale Recycled Water Authority has introduced a new Recycled Water Facilities Plan in which wastewater collection/treatment can be better monitored with the addition of two new treatment plants in Palmdale and another just across Avenue M in Lancaster. Each plant will facilitate storm runoff to provide more water for agriculture. The new plants are important advances in capturing more water for agricultural and industrial use, while leaving the many wells within the AVGB available for households. The Lancaster water reclamation project provides most of the agricultural water for the region, and also supplies water for a 200-acre wetlands wildlife refuge as well as maintaining the water level at Lancaster’s Apollo Community Regional Park which has a lake.

Because the Antelope Valley is a closed basin with no ocean outlet, treated wastewater either evaporates, is reused, or infiltrates into the groundwater basin itself. The Los Angeles County Sanitation District (LACSD) is in charge of wastewater treatment; its plan for the two new facilities is to reduce the amount of recycled water that it provides for agriculture and possibly use the savings for industrial and city maintenance applications. Until that happens, the recycled water must be disposed of via agricultural irrigation.

Upgrades to Palmdale Water Plant

The LACSD has completed upgrades and expansions at the Palmdale Water Reclamation Plant, resulting in increases in the future availability of recycled water. Next year, the plant expects 15,000 AFY (acres feet per year) of recycled water for agricultural use. When the Palmdale Hybrid Power Plant goes online in 2017, it will use about 3,400 AFY of recycled water for its cooling system. The plant will be serviced by a portion of the Recycled Water Backbone System which is in the design process headed by the City of Palmdale and Waterworks No. 40, the latter being a statewide governmental body that prescribes regulations that limit the amount of contaminants in water provided by public water systems. There is also the potential to use a blend of imported and recycled water to recharge the AVGB at Littlerock Creek and/or Amargosa Creek. The City of Palmdale, the AVEK, Waterworks No. 40 and the Palmdale Water District are all hoping to come up with a plan to recharge imported water at the Amargosa Creek. The aforementioned “Backbone System” will allow recycled water from both the new Lancaster and Palmdale reclamation plants to be used throughout the region. So far, portions of the Backbone System have been built by both Lancaster and Palmdale as well as Waterworks No. 40.

The water supply in the Antelope Valley may be more plentiful today because of the rapid change from high water usage in agriculture to less water needed for residential service. Practically all of Los Angeles County relies on imported water supplied largely via the Metropolitan Water District (MWD).

The soil in Lancaster is primarily clay—much like it is in southern states—and extensive groundwater pumping tends to make the ground collapse, resulting in depleted wells becoming unusable. In Palmdale, the soil is a little more porous, thus water can more easily be pumped back in and stored. The AVEK is the sole supplier of water to the Antelope Valley, and purchases its product from the SWP, then sells it to dozens of water companies, among them the West Valley County Water District, the Quartz Hill Water District, the Palmdale Irrigation District and the Lancaster Mutual Water Company.

Today, a little more than 50 percent of Antelope Valley water is pumped from the groundwater basin, and the rest comes from the AVEK. The drought has resulted in less purchases from the SWP and its subsidiary the MWD. Years ago, groundwater pumping caused water levels areas near Lancaster and the southern portion of the Rogers Dry Lake Bed at Edwards Air Force Base to subside as much as three to five feet. The Antelope Valley has a vast groundwater basin, the result of one million years of water infiltration. Lancaster has the largest basin and over the years, this deposit of water has been subdivided into various aquifer systems. In fact, there are two natural alluvial aquifers beneath Lancaster, lying about 100 feet below the surface.

Imported water helps maintain supply

Groundwater into the Antelope Valley—before the irrigated agricultural industry began in the early 20th century—flowed primarily from the San Gabriel and Tehachipi mountains into the vast array of meadows, marshes and springs near the center of the region. In the late 1880s, settlers had drilled more than 300 flowing wells to tap shallow artesian aquifers. Most of those water deposits dried up long ago. In the 1970s, the Antelope Valley began importing much more water via the California Aqueduct to sustain residential growth while maintaining an adequate supply of groundwater. In non-drought years, groundwater constitutes about 60 percent of the total water supply to the Antelope Valley, but water demands have tripled since 1990 when the population was grew from about 265,000 to today’s count of almost 500,000 residents.

Imported water into the Antelope Valley comes from the SWP and is released from Lake Oroville into the Feather River in northern California. From there it travels down the river to its convergence with the Sacramento River which is the state’s largest waterway. The water then flows down the Sacramento River into the Sacramento-San Juaquin Delta, and from that point water is pumped into the California Aqueduct and travels south to the east branch of the California Aqueduct for use in the Antelope Valley.

The United States Geological Service (USGS) has reported that, since 2009, groundwater pumping for agricultural and municipal supplies has resulted in water level declines of more than 200 feet in some parts of the AVGB. Land subsidence, where the ground literally drops several feet, has been recorded by as much as six feet in some areas. In 2010, the Antelope Valley State Water Contractors Association undertook a demonstration project to recharge the groundwater system by using a mixture of imported water from the SWP and tertiary-treated wastewater in the eastern portion of the AVGB.

The Antelope Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (AVIRWMP) was developed in 2007 to provide a “vision and direction” for the sustainable management of water resources in the region through 2035. The organization is basically a multi-county collaboration effort developed to address regional concerns about water supply reliability and quality, and also flood protection, environmental resources and land use management in the Antelope Valley. Their objective is to help to provide a mechanism for: (1) coordinating, refining and integrating existing planning efforts within a comprehensive, regional context; (2) to identify specific regional and watershed-based priorities for the implementation of various water-related projects, and (3) to provide funding support for the aforementioned plans, programs, projects and priorities of existing water agencies and area stakeholders.

More money for conservation

The California Water Service Company (CWSC) reported in 2012 that the per capita demand in the Antelope Valley was about 259 gallons per person each day. That’s reportedly a downward trend resulting from the drought with changes in demand attributed to a number of factors, including economic conditions, public awareness, climate and implementation of conservation programs. Statewide policies and agreements impacting water use reduction demands include recent decisions by the California Public Utilities Commission directing many agencies to reduce per capita urban water demand. SB x7-7 (as part of the California Water Code) mandates that urban water suppliers reduce per capita demand by a minimum of 20 percent by 2020.

The bill requires each urban retail water supplier to develop and meet interim and 2020 urban water use reduction targets—in accordance with specific requirements—in order to be eligible for state grants and loans. The calculated target for next year and by 2020 for Cal Water’s Antelope Valley district are 317 gallons per capita, and 281 gallons per capita respectively. Two state laws, AB 715 and SB 407, were passed during the past seven years in an expectation of accelerating the replacement of low-efficiency plumbing fixtures—primarily toilets in homes and businesses—with higher-efficiency alternatives.

Still, water remains at a relatively low price at less than a penny per gallon, according to the CWSC. Californians use an average of up to 124 gallons per person daily; some regions may use up to 379 gallons per person daily.

The California Department of Water Resources this month announced the award of $27.3 million from Proposition 84 grant funds to be distributed among the 14 drought relief projects in Los Angeles County, as part of the greater Los Angeles County Region Integrated Regional Water Management Plan. State officials want some of this money to go toward conservation as well as improved water management projects.

“Nearly $130 million has been awarded in recent years through our grant program to water resource management agencies in LA County,” said Gary Hildebrand, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. “This latest infusion of funds is a tribute to the dedication that local water partners have shown to the integrated planning process and will go a long way towards ensuring a more sustainable water future for L.A. County.”

Whose water is it, anyway?

Because groundwater in the Antelope Valley has routinely been overpumped in the past decade, some lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to adjudicate the AVGB for water allocation assignment. Though some of the class-action suits have reached settlement, the most prominent may be Wood vs. Los Angeles County Waterworks No. 40. Under California law, property owners have a right to pump and use groundwater (water underneath their property), but the Superior Court of the State of California said early on in the suit that the “. . . naturally available supply of water in the AVGB may not be adequate to satisfy everyone who wants to use that water.” Wood brought the action in 2012 to protect his right and that of other AV landowners to pump and use the water under their properties, and to obtain compensation for any wrongful taking of their property rights.

In the suit, Richard Wood of Rosamond said he and other landowners have water rights which are “superior to the rights” of certain public water suppliers who use that water. The public water suppliers claim that they have been pumping this water for generations and that fact gives them a sort of “carte blanche” in drilling for water wherever they please. There was a partial settlement last year (monetary amount unknown) with Wood himself agreeing to drop his suit against the City of Lancaster, the Palmdale Water District, Phelan Pinon Hills Community services district, and the Rosamond Community Services District. Wood is continuing to litigate his claims against the non-settling defendants, among them the City of Palmdale, Littlerock Creek Irrigation District, Waterworks No. 40 and North Edwards Water District.