There are lots of Southern California water agencies that do not have access to groundwater and have to import their drinking water from distant sources. The Santa Margarita Water District, which supplies water to more than 170,000 residents in southern Orange County, is developing water supplies that are closer to home.
“Our primary sources of water — the Colorado River and the State Water Project — are hundreds of miles away,” said General Manager Dan Ferons, explaining that nearly 100% of the District’s drinking water comes from regional wholesaler Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Although Metropolitan has proven to be a reliable source, its conveyance system of aqueducts and pipelines is in harms way in the event of a catastrophic earthquake or other disaster that might stop its flows. Santa Margarita is taking steps to ensure water supply for its customers whatever disaster may come. A local supply would, instead, be within 20 miles of the District’s service area, which currently covers the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, as well as the unincorporated areas of Orange County, which comprise the communities of Coto de Caza, Wagon Wheel, Las Flores, Talega, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.
To diversify its water supply by 2030 as directed by its Board of Directors, the District has three strategic goals: develop a 30% alternative supply of potable water; recycle 100% of its treated wastewater; and have a six-month supply storage capacity.
The 30% alternative supply is designed to meet customers’ indoor use needs, so in the case of a major emergency, customers could still shower, wash clothes and do dishes and other household activities. Also included in the system is supply for healthcare and fire protection. The recycling provides for irrigation, freeing up precious potable water for higher purposes and a supply that one day could be treated further and made potable.
The District recycles more than two billion gallons of water a year. It is one of the largest recycled water programs in Orange County.
“If you’re going to bring water from 400 miles away, you ought to reuse it as many times as you can before you let it go,” Ferons said. “Recycling also helps reduce our need for imported water.” Right now, one quarter of the District’s total water demands are met with recycled water, although currently, not all the water the District recycles is used due to a lack of storage capacity in the service area. During the winter months, there is less need for recycled water largely due to reduced irrigation demand. So, without adequate storage facilities, the unneeded recycled water is discharged to the ocean. Roughly 20% of recycled water generated each year is lost in this way. But a solution is in the works.
In the fall of 2020, the District will complete Orange County’s largest recycled water reservoir, the Trampas Canyon Dam and Reservoir, which will store more than 1.6 billion gallons of recycled water. This $93-million project will translate to a year-round supply of water for irrigation and other non-potable uses and lessen the need for imported drinking water. One day, it may serve as a drinking water source.
The thinking behind the development of this kind of major infrastructure is that local projects will ultimately help provide a water supply that is less expensive than imported water. There are other benefits as well. Trampas Reservoir will also help to recharge the San Juan Creek watershed, a groundwater basin described by the District as its “best alternative water supply.”
Another initiative of the District, the San Juan Watershed Project, is a multi- phase effort that will also enhance water reliability by capturing local stormwater runoff, as well as directing recycled water into temporary storage and using it to recharge the underground aquifer. When completed, the San Juan Watershed Project will be able to provide about 5.6 billion gallons of additional local, reliable water. That’s enough water for 50,000 families each year.
“San Juan Watershed can become that backbone reliability for us,” said Ferons, adding that the District is annexing the city of San Juan Capistrano’s water and sewer utility, which includes a groundwater treatment plant virtually on San Juan Creek. “It’s the best alternative for us in the short term because it’s locally controlled and we can keep costs reasonable.”
In addition to creating a regional water supply that will be treated for potable use in the long term, the District has been enhancing communities and the environment since the 1970s. Through four runoff diversions/basins, the District captures and reuses more than 500 million gallons of urban return flows each year.
Most recently, the District, in cooperation with the city of Mission Viejo and the Lake Mission Viejo Homeowners Association, created California’s first recycled recreational lake. Responding to pressure from the State of California during the most recent drought to stop filling the lake with imported drinking water, the groups joined together to build and operate an Advanced Treated Water Facility to refill the lake with highly-treated recycled water. The water is safe for swimming, fishing and other recreation and preserves an important community feature.
Santa Margarita Water has long been recognized for its environmental stewardship. The District’s decades-long urban return flow capture efforts have created a renewable water source and protected local habitat areas. The Gobernadora Multipurpose Basin, south of the community of Coto de Caza, naturally treats urban runoff for irrigation use and also reduces downstream erosion and sedimentation.
The Dove Canyon Conservation and Water Recovery Project, another environmentally friendly initiative, is a partnership with nearby Trabuco Canyon Water District and the Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary. The project is helping to preserve a delicate habitat along Bell Creek.
Santa Margarita Water has been providing safe drinking water to its customers for over 50 years and will continue to pursue innovative ways to ensure that reliability, conserve and recycle water to serve its customers in south Orange County’s into the next century.