From Snowpack to Tap— Water’s Epic Journey

The West Basin Municipal Water District Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility (ECLWRF) in El Segundo, CA is part of the complex network of infrastructure that provides water for the Topanga area. Photo courtesy West Basin Municipal Water District

While California experienced record rain and Sierra snow this past winter, the community of Topanga has not always had a steady supply of fresh water. As always, because of the threat of drought due to climate change, there is always the need for continued water conservation methods in the canyon.

In the early days, Topanga farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders used Topanga Creek, dug wells, or tapped into the natural mountain springs. In the 1920s, Fernwood subdivisions were already advertised with a brochure proclaiming, “Pure mountain water under pressure is accessible to each lot.”

Back then, brochures for Topanga Oaks advertised one share of stock per lot of “pure mountain water, piped to every lot in the tract.” Depending on where you lived, water could be sourced from local private agencies who would charge residents accordingly.

In the 1920s, mutual water companies sprang up for Old Topanga, Sylvia Park, and the Post Office Tract, advertising clean mountain water until after WWII, when the Los Angeles County Health Department permitted distributing only chlorinated water from the creek.

Over time, the wells decreased in quantity and quality—leaving homeowners and ranchers without a reliable source of water. Shortages were common and, in some cases, when there was no water, they would have to truck it in from the outside. To save water, many Topangans shared baths and still used outhouses into the 1940s. In fact, by the late 1940s, the main question to new residents was not “where do you live,” but “what water system are you on?”

In spite of the ready access to L.A. County water dating back to 1935, The Topanga Story documents that there was always a small, yet vocal opposition to “tapping into the County water” by those who wanted to keep Topanga small and retain its rural nature.

Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1950s, terrible “water wars” ensued involving nearly every resident of Topanga, including a skirmish between Old Canyon and the Post Office tract “as they fought for the same source of water.” (For the full account of Topanga’s colorful water history, see The Topanga Story, on sale at Topanga Homegrown and the Topanga Historical Society.)

Ultimately, after WWII, most Topangans felt the need to find permanent solutions to their chronic water shortages.

Disappointed with the “lack of progress” made by the local water companies, the Topanga Chamber of Commerce formed the Topanga Permanent Water Committee in the early 1950s while local companies still supplied the majority of the water from springs, wells, and the creek. In fact, in the spirit of Topanga, benevolent water owners would sometimes provide faucets near the road on Old Canyon and Circle Trail to catch the overflow from private wells and springs.

In 1954, according to the Topanga Story, Topanga voted with Malibu to become part of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), thus making water available “on paper” only to find charges showing up on water bills for water residents didn’t receive.

Getting the water into Topanga’s hills and canyons proved a more daunting task than anyone expected, as a unified delivery system had not been built and the wells were running dry. Locals petitioned the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1955, “requesting the formation of a County Water District to improve existing water resources and to procure outside water from Metropolitan only when needed,” thus reducing costs. The plan, however, was soundly defeated by local residents.

In 1956, Topanga joined Malibu to form Malibu-Topanga Water Research, Inc., to draft plans to bring water to the two communities. The committee’s final report in 1959 recommended the formation of a local County Water District to be governed by a locally elected five-person board.

 

WATERWORKS DISTRICT 29

Topanga’s and Malibu’s West Basin Waterworks District 29 (WWD 29) was established on September 29, 1959, by a public election and later added more than a dozen separate substandard water systems from private water purveyors. Old timers would remember that some of the acquired facilities were originally constructed in the 1940s and 1950s.

The 30-inch-diameter transmission pipeline on Pacific Coast Highway was finally built during the 1960s. To get water to Topanga and Malibu, WWD 29 had one source of water supplied by MWD that imports water from the State Water Project (SWP) and Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA) to supply drinking water to most of Southern California.

The water from MWD is delivered to Topanga through West Basin’s District WWD 29 system that also has small emergency connections with the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Las Virgenes Municipal Water District (LVMWD).

Currently, WWD 29 serves more than 22,500 people through 7,500 metered connections in Southern California and purchases about 2.9 billion gallons per year from Metropolitan. Topanga’s portion is about 960 million gallons a year on average.

The water is initially treated to drinking water standards at one of MWD’s water treatment plants. To supply Topanga and Malibu directly, WWD 29 has a connection with MWD located at the corner of Venice and Sawtelle Boulevards in Culver City, then travels 13 miles along Venice Boulevard and up Pacific Coast Highway where it enters WWD 29’s boundary and continues nearly an additional 22 miles just short of the Ventura County line

 

THE LONG JOURNEY SOUTH

In order to pump water to Topanga and Malibu, much of Southern California’s water actually comes from Northern California. The largest water delivery project of its kind, the State Water Project (SWP) is a system of reservoirs, pump stations, storage facilities, power plants, and 660 miles of pipes and canals that span two-thirds the length of California.

To serve Topanga and other areas of Los Angeles County, water flows south from High Sierra snowpack through the Sacramento Delta, is stored in reservoirs such as Oroville Dam and then released to flow south through the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.

From the rivers, the water moves to the California Aqueduct where it flows down through Central California until it is pumped over the Tehachapi Mountains into pipes owned by MWD to provide water for more than 10 million people.

Located at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains, the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant is the largest pumping plant in the SWP. MWD reports online that the pumping plant raises water from the California Aqueduct nearly 2,000 feet up the Tehachapi mountains where it crosses the mountain range through a series of tunnels.

After years of planning, construction of the Edmonston pumping plant began in 1965, and in 1971, Southern California received its first deliveries of State Water Project water. According to state water engineers, while the source water is very pure, it collects sediments and organics along the way and must be treated before it is delivered for human consumption. The imported water is generally treated using conventional treatment methods including coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection.

There is still another source of water, but the supply is becoming increasingly scarce.

 

COLORADO RIVER AQUEDUCT

The Colorado River Aqueduct stretches 240 miles from Lake Havasu on the California-Arizona border to Lake Mathews in Riverside County. State water engineers report that California has been taking more than 5 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River even though they are only entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is approximately the amount of water that would fill a football field one foot deep.)

“In areas where local groundwater is available, West Basin Municipal Water District owns and operates groundwater production wells, which are used to pump groundwater to the surface,” said a member of the Board of Directors for the West Basin MWD. “The groundwater is then disinfected and pumped into the distribution system.”

According to West Basin, because Northern California water was limited due to the drought, Southern California has been receiving most of its water from the Colorado River Aqueduct, which begins at Parker Dam, located on the California-Arizona border. This dam forms a reservoir, Lake Havasu, where our water is stored.

Located on Lake Havasu is the first huge intake pumping plant of the Colorado River Aqueduct that uses a great amount of force to take water from the lake and start its journey to Southern California.

“The Colorado River Aqueduct to Southern California is a man-made river formed by open concrete channels and large pipes that carry water through mountains and deserts,” the Board member said. “In addition to the intake pumping plant at Parker Dam, four more pumping plants are located along the aqueduct route to Southern California. Each continues to push water up steep hills.

“Between the pumping plants, water flows downstream until it comes to the next steep climb. Altogether, the five pumping plants lift water a total of 1,617 feet during its journey.”

The West Basin official said most of the water in the aqueduct travels to reservoirs in the Los Angeles area—a journey of more than 242 miles where the Colorado water is stored in the reservoirs until it is transferred to a nearby treatment plant.

“Before any water is safe for drinking, it must go through several steps in a treatment process which begins and ends with disinfection,” the Board member said. “Ultimately the water travels through underground pipes to the local retail water agencies including WWD 29 and into your tap.”

 

COST AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Naturally, all of this water doesn’t come cheap and since Topanga’s current water infrastructure was built in the 1940s and 1950s, it now needs major upgrades.

According to a report commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors in May 2011, engineers estimated that replacing dilapidated pipes and other equipment in District 29 would cost $266.5 million (2012 dollars). In order to pay for all of these upgrades, the water rates were increased to fund some of the priority improvements.

Due to the topography of the region, one of the most complex in the Southern California area, keeping that system running is challenging for the District 29 crews. Some of these challenges are earth movement, including landslides, that frequently damage the facilities, which may require installing above-ground pipes that must accommodate the movement in order to provide uninterrupted water service to the customers.

Which is why District 29 has undertaken a comprehensive effort to upgrade the facilities over time. Twelve projects have been prioritized for implementation based on operational imperatives and importance to overall system and capacity. These priority projects are estimated to cost $60 million, $30 million of which will be borrowed from the State Revolving Fund Loan and repaid from future WWD 29 proceeds over 20 years.

Two of the 12 priority projects are in Topanga and have a combined estimated cost of $7.4 million. An environmental impact report is being prepared for the priority projects and will be available for public review this summer.n

For more information on conservation, water usage, or drought mitigation, go to dpw.lacounty.gov.

 

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