Los Angeles, Water, and Harvey Mudd College An Evaluation of Water Use at Harvey Mudd College

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2Los Angeles’ Water: The Triple Bottom Line

At under $2.00 for a hundred cubic feet, or one CCF (748 Gal), water is cheap, even here in our dry climate. And, while some argue that the price of water will rise in the near future, it would have to increase nine-fold before HMC's water use rivaled its electricity use in economic cost. HMC paid about $120,000 for the 2005-06 school year, which pales in comparison to the electric bill of almost $1,000,000. So, then why does anyone really care about water usage given that it is so very cheap? The social and environmental impacts of water and the legislation governing water usage in this area were first set up about a hundred years ago, but are still a changing issue of moral and legal debate. Furthermore, water usage on campus is one of the most visible of our resource uses. If we want to become leaders in sustainability, then evaluating and reducing our water usage is an important step.

2.1California’s Water

California is noted for being a large and geographically diverse state. Even here in Claremont, we are approximately equidistant from skiing and surfing. Going along with the geographic diversity is a huge variance in precipitation levels. Precipitation levels vary from more than 140 inches a year in the northwestern portion of the state to less than three inches in Death Valley [i,ii]. As a whole, California receives 200 million acre-feet of water in precipitation yearly (Figure 2 .1). 35% of that remains on the ground as runoff, the rest of it is lost to evaporation or transpiration in plants. 30% of the runoff that remains ends up going to salt sinks (including the Pacific Ocean) [iii]. This means that only around 25% of rainfall actually recharges aquifers and flows into rivers. While 80% of California’s water usage occurs south of Sacramento, 75% of our yearly rainfall occurs north of Sacramento. Southern California and the Central Valley use far more water than they could ever hope to produce on their own.

Figure 2.1: Mean annual precipitation, 1961-1990[Error: Reference source not found].

2.2Where does our water come from?

At the lowest level, HMC's water is supplied from Golden State Water Company. Golden State Water Company (GSWC) is part of American States Water Company. Claremont is part of the Foothill District of their Region III service area, which consists of the San Dimas, Claremont, and San Gabriel areas. The water delivered to Claremont is a mix of local groundwater and water imported from the Bay Delta in Northern California [iv]. Claremont does not actually receive water from the Colorado River as the lines that bring Colorado River water into the region are located at a lower elevation than Claremont and the cost of pumping it up is prohibitive.

The Six Basins Watermaster allocates the pumping rights for the local wells that Golden State Water Company uses to provide the local groundwater for the mix. Many of the wells used for our local ground water are owned by GSWC, but not all. For example, Pomona College owns two wells. They sell the water back to GSWC. As a result, Pomona College pays only $0.20/CCF, nine times less than the rest of Claremont [v].

The aquifer that the local groundwater comes from is recharged primarily at the spreading grounds below the San Antonio Canyon Dam (on the way up to the Baldy ski lifts). This means that most of the local water here in Claremont comes from snow pack on Baldy. Conscientious management of the aquifer is critical to its endurance. Consistently drawing more water than is recharged every year can lead to the destruction of this water source [vi]. The Six Basins Watermaster is charged with overseeing pumping rights, which includes the responsibility of controlling the amount of water that is removed from the aquifer each year.

The rest of Claremont’s water is purchased by GSWC from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). The MWD oversees water importation for the L.A. area and gets the majority of its water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project.

2.2.1Los Angeles’ First Imported Water: The Owens River Valley

How a huge metropolitan area ended up where it is, in the middle of an arid region, is the story of a burgeoning nation’s insatiable appetite for expansion. How that metropolitan area ended up with enough water to survive is, to a large extent, the story of one man. William Mulholland, a Dubliner born in 1855, began his engineering career working as a ditch tender for the Los Angeles City Water Company in 1878 (Figure 2 .2). By 1904, Mulholland was in charge. It was through the Los Angeles City Water Company that Mulholland met Fred Eaton, whose family founded Pasadena. Fred Eaton was probably one of the few people in L.A. that had seen the Owens River valley and he envisioned it as the savior of L.A.

Figure 2.2: William Mulholland at approximately 50 years of age [vii].

Together, Mulholland and Eaton orchestrated the appropriation of the Owens River. They did so by purchasing water rights as quickly as they could up and down the Owens River. All of the measures they took were legal, though many of them were unscrupulous. The end result was that Los Angeles got enough water to support a million people, and the Owens River Valley, a thriving agricultural haven, would slowly be turned to a dust bowl. The building of the aqueduct from the Owens River to Los Angeles resulted in the annexation of the San Fernando Valley. This made Los Angeles the largest city in the world in terms of geographic area, and provided it with enough wealth and political power to continue to accrue the water it needed to grow. The Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought the Owens River water was completed in 1913. By the early 1920’s it was clear that more water would be needed and Mulholland began lobbying for an aqueduct from the Colorado River. Mulholland is credited as the inspiration for the founding of the MWD, the organization that would eventually complete such an aqueduct, in 1928, the same year as the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which ended his career [viii].

The location of the St. Francis Dam was, to a large extent, the result of a falling out between Mulholland and Eaton. Droughts had made it clear that Los Angeles needed not only the flow from the Owens River, but the ability to store it as well. Eaton owned a reservoir site that would solve the water storage problems of the Los Angeles Aqueduct with the construction of a 140 ft dam. The trouble was, Eaton wanted $1 million for the land and Mulholland refused to pay. Instead of paying Eaton, Mulholland decided to increase the size of the St. Francis Dam that was already under construction. When the reservoir behind the dam reached capacity, it began to leak. The water it was leaking was brown with the soil of the surrounding abutments.

Figure 2.3: St. Francis Dam before and after the collapse. The center portion that remained standing was referred to as the ‘Tombstone’ [ix].

On March 12th, shortly before midnight and hours after Mulholland had inspected the dam, the abutments failed and the dam collapsed (Figure 2 .3), unleashing its 11.4 billion gallon capacity down the Santa Clarita valley. Five hours later the flood reached the ocean some 50 miles from the dam site. Though Mulholland was not found criminally liable for the failure, the collapse of the St. Francis Dam ended his career [Error: Reference source not found].

While the St. Francis Dam no longer plays a role in water in Los Angeles, the story of its construction and failure provides a example of the attitude that was taken in bringing water to the area. Mulholland was a man with a vision and a man with a passion. His passion was for Los Angeles and the growth he envisioned it could attain. Like many men with passions, he did great things, but he also overlooked many consequences of his actions. This attitude continues to dominate water issues in southern California, and only in recent years has it begun to change.

In 1997, the Department of the Interior identified 11 species that have been threatened or endangered by the destruction of habitats in the Owens River Valley and proposed recovery plans for these species [x]. In 2006, Los Angeles rerouted water so that for the first time in nearly 100 years, water flowed into the lower Owens River Valley [xi]. Southern California’s attitudes towards water and our entitlement to it (or lack thereof) are very slowly starting to change. But, 100 years of aggressive policy has already put into place systems and ideas that are less than ideal.

2.2.2Colorado River Water

Probably the most well known source of California’s water is the Colorado River. A small, dirty, and unpredictable river, the Colorado is an unlikely celebrity. In 1922, Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming sat down to negotiate the Colorado River Compact. They divvied up the river’s flow for two basins, the northern including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and the southern including the rest. They also left an allocation of water for Mexico. However, none of the individual states could come to an agreement to ratify the compact. For example, California’s ratification was contingent upon the construction of Boulder Canyon Dam (which would become Hoover Dam) and the All-American Canal and Arizona wanted the southern basin to agree to the division of its allotment before it would ratify. In 1928, Congress finally took control and authorized Boulder Canyon Dam and the All-American Canal and limited California’s diversion to 4.4 million acre-feet a year. The rest of the allocations of the original compact stood. Unfortunately, those original allocations were based on the Bureau of Reclamations estimate of the Colorado’s annual flow of 17.5 million acre feet a year. In 1953, a hydrologic engineer by the name of Raymond Hill pointed out that since 1930, the Colorado had only averaged 11.7 million acre-feet a year. No one had noticed so far since most of the states involved in the pact did not have the resources or the need to draw their full allotments, except California, which thanks to its wealth and growth on the back of the Owens River water had built an aqueduct to harvest the Colorado and was pulling its full allotment and itching for more of Arizona’s unused water rights. Currently, California is still the only state that pulls its full allotment; in fact, we are pulling more than our allotted 4.4 million acre-feet. The missing 5.8 million acre-feet has been the cause of seemingly countless legislative battles and engineering projects since [xii]. It is important to note, that while legislative battles rage here over which states get how much water, Mexico is also dependent on the flow of the Colorado, and being at the end of the river is the most likely to be overlooked in allocations.

Beyond the social and political conflict that surrounds water from the Colorado, diversion of the river has environmental costs. In its natural state, the Colorado would switch from riverbed to riverbed every couple of years, replenishing habitats and ecosystems along the way. Now that a large portion of the river is diverted, complex and delicate environments like the Salton Sea (located east of San Diego) that once depended on the Colorado to replenish and refresh them are dependent upon humans to conserve them, or else they will vanish [Error: Reference source not found].

2.2.3California State Water Project

The California State Water Project is a large aqueduct system that serves to bring water down from northern California to the more arid south. In 1960, the bond measure to fund the project was passed, despite opposition from northern California. The first wave of construction was completed by 1973, and an additional phase of building was finished in 2003. The State Water Project (SWP) today includes a 444-mile-long aqueduct that runs through the Central Valley, 33 storage facilities, 21 primary reservoirs, 26 pumping plants, and 7 power plants; the Project provides water to 29 separate water agencies (Figure 2 .4). As of the end of 2001, over $5.2 billion had gone into the construction of the SWP [xiii]. Based on our understanding of data provided in Bulletin 132 (a state published document on the operations of the SWP) $700 million in taxpayer dollars go to fund the project every year [xiv].

Figure 2.4: Map of the California State Water Project facilities [xv].

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