Historical Information 

A History of Orange County Water District

It was 1933. America and much of the world were at the lowest point of the Great Depression. Unemployment exceeded 25 percent, and 11,000 U.S. banks had failed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address, proclaimed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and promised the country a new deal. In Orange County, still covered by its namesake groves of Orange trees, the landscape was rapidly changing -- both above and below ground.

In the
previous decade, water levels had dropped by an average of 77 feet in some areas of the Orange County groundwater basin. Artesian wells, once a common sight in areas of Tustin, Irvine and Fountain Valley, had gradually disappeared. A largely agricultural economy was siphoning more than 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually from wells punched through the sand and clay of a semi-desert landscape.

The Santa Ana River, the main source for basin replenishment, was carrying less and less water into Orange County. Below-average rainfall was partly to blame, but expansion of upstream water storage and spreading operations were considered a more formidable threat over the long term. Legal action against the upstream interests, begun in 1932 by Orange County ranchers, would not reach settlement for a full decade.

The Orange County Water District had its beginning in 1933. Governor James Rolph, Jr., had signed the Orange County Water District Act on June 14, following its passage by the California Legislature.

"The people of the State of California do enact as follows: Section 1. A district is hereby created to be known and designated as "Orange County Water District...."

The newly formed Orange County Water District (OCWD), covering more than 163,000 acres, was authorized "to represent the water users and landowners of the Coastal Plain in all litigation involving outsiders." It was empowered to protect the water supply and the rights of those who depended upon it: 60,000 people, whose water use was 86 percent agricultural.

The District Act did not adjudicate the groundwater basin; users could pump from the basin as much water as needed. And they did. The District, expected to ensure an adequate supply for all (even during drought periods and rapid population growth), strived to fulfill its mandate to protect the groundwater basin from depletion and irreparable damage.

Fortune smiled on the District in its early years: above-average rainfall from 1937 to 1944 yielded bountiful runoff for natural recharge. In fact, some of the heaviest rain ever recorded occurred in 1938. A storm hit February 27 and did not subside until five days later. Ten inches fell on the fourth day alone, at times measuring two inches an hour. Sadly, roads and bridges washed out and 19 people perished.

By 1941, two highly significant public works projects were completed: Prado Dam and the Colorado River aqueduct. The dam became a high priority after the 1938 flood, but the aqueduct addressed a different problem: population growth in a perennially arid region. In 1942, at a time America was fully engaged in World War II, the U.S. District Court issued a judgment limiting the amount of water that upstream agencies could divert from the Santa Ana River.

Drought Leads to Overdraft and Seawater Intrusion
As OCWD entered its second decade, groundwater was plentiful throughout the basin. Then disaster struck. A drought that began in 1945 was relieved by only two wet years until the floods came in 1969. An annual overdraft of 100,000 acre-feet brought the average groundwater level to 15 feet below sea level, and ocean water moved into the aquifers. Some wells along the coast began producing brackish water and had to be abandoned. Another world war had ended at last, but the battle of the Orange County groundwater basin was just beginning.

In the face of drought and growing demand, natural recharge could not offset groundwater extractions. Without this local source of water supply, massive importation and storage facilities would have to be constructed at an exorbitant cost. Thus began an important program of artificial recharge with supplemental water.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), formed five years before OCWD, had ready access to plentiful Colorado River water and, more importantly, was willing and able to supply all that OCWD might need for basin replenishment. OCWD first began using MWD water for recharge in 1948. But the cost for the massive quantities of imported water needed to restore the basin prevented the District from successfully fulfilling its mission. So, the District Act was amended by the State Legislature in 1953, authorizing a replenishment assessment (RA), or "pump tax," be charged to all groundwater pumpers (now called Producers) and requiring that all pumpers report semiannually the amount of groundwater they extracted. In 1954, OCWD assessed pumpers $3.50 per acre-foot for groundwater extracted from the basin.

By determining the amount of replenishment water needed to offset the annual overdraft (averaged over five years) and to reduce the accumulated overdraft by one tenth, the cost to purchase that amount of imported water from MWD was then apportioned to all pumpers in the District's service area. At last, OCWD had the means to reverse the trend of groundwater depletion.

Disneyland sprang from Anaheim's fields and orchards in 1955, as Orange County's population soared skyward like the Matterhorn. Groundwater levels, despite recent efforts, plummeted to their lowest point ever, averaging 20 feet below sea level. With the accumulated basin overdraft estimated at 700,000 acre-feet, salt water was now found in aquifers as far as five miles from the ocean.

In the years between 1956 and 1964, the District's replenishment program caught up -- then outpaced the rate of extraction by a wide enough margin to bring groundwater storage to 24 feet above sea level. By 1964, OCWD was sinking as much as 200,000 acre-feet of supplemental water in a year's time, and pumpers had shifted nearly a third of their demand to imported supplies.

The Santa Ana River, meanwhile, became ever less reliable as a source of replenishment water. In 1960-61, only 26,190 acre-feet of base flow was measured at Prado Dam, the lowest amount ever recorded.

Basin Management Refined
By 1969, OCWD had modified its basin management strategy. Faced with evidence that the Forebay recharge operations could not completely control seawater intrusion, the District adopted a conjunctive use policy. This philosophy emphasized heavier reliance on imported supplies for direct use and groundwater storage during periods when it was plentiful. The basin, meantime, was recharged and ready to meet demand during water-short periods.

In 1972, a new source of replenishment supplies became available through California's newly completed State Water Project. Unfortunately, a steep rise in energy costs pushed imported water prices sharply upward during the following five years. OCWD expanded its recharge operations to keep up with growing demands on the basin.

Anaheim Lake had been used since 1962 for percolating imported water, but in 1974 a pipeline was constructed to divert Santa Ana River water into the lake. The pipeline connected Anaheim Lake with Warner Basin, a 50-foot deep recharge basin next to the river at the intersection of the 55 and 91 freeways.

In 1977, a gravel excavation site known as Burris Pit, between Lincoln Avenue and Ball Road, was put into service to capture storm runoff from the river. Kraemer Basin, purchased in 1976, would not be fully excavated and prepared for use as a recharge facility until the mid-1980s. OCWD pushed toward a goal of percolating 300,000 acre-feet annually in the Forebay.

In 1965, OCWD began a pilot project to stop seawater intrusion along the Talbert Gap in Huntington Beach, where ocean brine had invaded wells as far as five miles inland. The Alamitos Barrier, on the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties, had been in operation since the early 1960s. This joint project, constructed by OCWD and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, relied on imported water purchased from MWD for injection to form a hydraulic barrier.

At the Talbert Gap, however, the District injected treated wastewater to create the barrier. In 1971, upon careful review of water quality data from the pilot project, the State Board of Public Health approved a full-scale project. Construction of Water Factory 21 and a series of 23 injection wells began in 1972 and full-scale operation of the project started in 1976.

Wastewater, after being subjected to primary and secondary treatment at the Orange County Sanitation District's nearby reclamation plant, was delivered to OCWD for advanced treatment. The new facility, built with a capacity of 15 million gallons per day (MGD), provided chemical clarification, air stripping, recarbonation, filtration, granular activated carbon absorption and chlorination.

During this period, a federally funded seawater desalination plant was built as a source of distilled water for blending with the reclaimed water. But the government, faced with skyrocketing energy costs, soon abandoned the project. Both Watergate and the energy crisis were temporarily forgotten, however, as the nation celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976 with tall ships and fireworks, and with stars and stripes on the Prado Dam spillway.

Undaunted by Washington's abandonment of the seawater desalter, now dubbed "the great white elephant," OCWD soon had an alternative source of blending water. This was a 5-MGD demineralization plant that produced purified water by an ingenious process known as reverse osmosis. This facility provided half the amount needed for blending; for the other half, the District drilled four wells 1,000 feet deep. Between the injection wells and the shoreline, OCWD drilled seven extraction wells to intercept salt water and return it to the ocean.

Water Factory 21 was dedicated in a 1977 ceremony that included serving punch made with reclaimed water. WF 21 soon won international acclaim for its 21st century technology, which included the world's largest operating reverse osmosis plant. Visitors from around the globe flocked to OCWD, eager to learn the processes that could transform wastewater to pure drinking water.

For 15 years, WF 21 not only complied with all drinking water regulations, but also introduced numerous cost-cutting innovations. In 1991, the WF 21 successes were rewarded when the California Department of Health Services granted OCWD a permit (the first ever issued) to inject 100 percent recycled wastewater, without blending. Major conditions of the permit included operating the program as a research and demonstration project, and ensuring that the injected water met all drinking water standards.

OCWD Sets Basin Production Percentage (BPP) and Basin Equity Assessment (BEA)
Faced with the county's population explosion, OCWD saw the need for District water retailers (Producers) to supplement their groundwater extractions with direct purchase of imported supplies. In 1968, the District Act was amended to give OCWD the authority to issue incentives to Producers for precisely that purpose.

The District's Board of Directors began setting an annual basin production percentage (BPP), specifying the proportion of total demand to be produced from the basin during the year. In conjunction with this, the board established an annual basin equity assessment (BEA) to reward pumpers who extracted less and penalize those who took more than the board requested.

Basinwide Monitoring Program Focuses on Water Quality
Whereas the intrusion of ocean water into coastal area wells was OCWD's main water quality challenge in its early years, the passage of time brought new concerns. Nitrate contamination soon evolved as a legacy of the county's agricultural history. Then, as industrialization picked up momentum, new cleaning compounds, insecticides and spilled or discarded hydrocarbons began to pose unforeseen dangers to the groundwater basin.

For years, OCWD had monitored key wells throughout the District, but new threats and new regulations eventually required that all 500 production wells be monitored. In many cases, local purveyors were not equipped to perform their own sampling and analyses, and the services of commercial laboratories were costly. So, in 1989, the District assumed responsibility for testing all production wells for compliance with Title 22 of the California Administrative Code. The District enlarged its water quality laboratory and equipped it with state-of-the-art instruments and highly qualified chemists to handle the enormous workload. Concurrently, OCWD's own basin-wide monitoring program was rapidly expanding in the face of increased evidence of potential groundwater contamination. By 1992, OCWD's state-certified lab was processing almost 20,000 samples a year, performing about 145,000 analyses.

Groundwater Management Plan Sets Major Challenges for OCWD
The space shuttle Challenger disintegrated above Cape Canaveral in 1986 and a nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union acquainted the world with Chernobyl. In California and the West, a drought began that was to continue unabated for six years. Imported water had become progressively less dependable and more costly.

OCWD, faced with the formidable challenge of maintaining an adequate water supply while keeping the basin at safe levels, took a can-do approach. By 1989, OCWD had developed a comprehensive Groundwater Management Plan, an ambitious program for increasing water supplies, cleaning up contamination, and improving basin management and District operations.

A master plan for the Forebay included permanent dewatering systems for all the deep recharge basins, improved diversion and transfer facilities, and a new recharge basin on Santiago Creek. The District had purchased a 270-acre gravel quarry site on the creek in 1985, and it was to be supplied by a 4.5-mile pipeline from a 90,000-gpm pumping station at Burris Pit. The project, with a storage capacity of 14,000 acre-feet, began operation in the spring of 1990.

Green Acres Project is Accelerated During Drought
The recycling of water took on greater urgency during the drought, with replenishment water in short supply. The District set an accelerated course for completing the Green Acres Project, which had been in various stages of planning for more than a decade. Designed to provide recycled water for irrigating parks, golf courses, schoolyards, cemeteries and greenbelts, the project offered the ideal means for preserving potable water supplies for household use. In October 1991, the first water produced by the project was delivered to Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.

The project's 7.5 MGD treatment plant produces recycled water for distribution through 25 miles of pipeline into areas of Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. OCWD's administration building, completed in 1991, uses Green Acres water not only for landscape watering but also for toilet flushing. In addition to these applications, some industrial users are substituting this lower-priced water for domestic supplies formerly used in their operations.

OCWD Takes Pride in its Past and Prepares for the Future
OCWD has grown far more extensively and rapidly than its founders could possibly have anticipated in 1933. Land has been annexed periodically through the years, as local water agencies have expanded their service areas. The District now covers well over 200,000 acres and serves a population of more than 2.4 million. And, whereas 86 percent of groundwater in 1933 was pumped for agricultural irrigation, today less than 4 percent is used on the county's disappearing farmland.

The Orange County of today barely resembles that of 1933. The problems of the early days, enormous for that time, appear minor by comparison with those that loom today, challenging us from every direction. With new technologies at our fingertips, exciting research opening doors almost daily, and with a public more aware than ever of the need to conserve, we can look to the future with confidence.