The highly publicized, deservedly acclaimed storage and treatment successes in central and northern OC are in part a function of the real estate adage: “Location, location, location.” The reality is “Location, storage, location, storage,” and therein lies the challenge here in South Orange County (SOC): We’re below-ground storage “poor.”

Simply put:

  • Central and northern OC have enormous amounts of deep, subterranean storage capacity in multiple aquifers.
  • They use a technique called Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR), where they pre-treat or cleanse wastewater, then inject it into those monolithic storage, convenient locations. Once the water has met State standards regarding subterranean detention time, using the ground as a medium for pollutant reduction, they then pump it back up to the surface. This is where it must be carefully purified to meet Title 17, domestic drinking water standards (potable) before distribution.

There are two types of potable water reuse:

  • Indirect potable reuse: Uses an environmental buffer, such as a lake, river, or a groundwater aquifer, before the water is treated at a drinking water treatment plant.
  • Direct potable reuse (DPR): Involves the treatment and distribution of water without an environmental buffer.”

We do have an abundance of rolling hills and large swaths of still intact, functioning native ecosystems, and yes, they’re one of the main reasons we live here in OC’s “land down under.” What we lack is sufficient, below ground, sub-surface storage for our needs. It’s nearly non-existent, so IPR isn’t an achievable or realistic option: Thus DPR and above surface storage are our portfolio building blocks now and moving forward.

A further hindrance is that our major SOC creeks are regulated as subterranean flowing streams, extensions of what’s above. They require riparian and/or appropriative water rights permit for diversions and extractions from the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). These applications go through intense review by the public trust resource and related regulatory agencies.

Allocations, i.e., portions for recovery and use, are many times calculated as a function of what’s necessary to keep the native aquatic and riparian life form populations viable.

The San Juan Basin Authority (SJBA), a joint powers consortium created in 1971, acquired significant permit volumes for a 26 square mile area in the lower reaches of the San Juan and Arroyo Trabuco Creeks. The San Juan Basin’s actually a long shallow depression just below the surface, not a totally contained aquifer, bounded above and below by confining beds.  

The SJBA basically monitor levels and agrees to not over-draft, which could cause catastrophic eco-system collapse. And full disclosure, the four (4) historical member agencies have had their internecine disputes, litigated each other, following that Mark Twain aphorism regarding water in the Wild West: “Whiskey is for drinking—water is for fighting.”

Moulton Niguel Water District (MNWD) and Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) constitute two (2) of the 4 SJBA members, but the Basin volumes can’t possibly meet their demands. They’re both pursuing above ground storage, the only game in SOC…..albeit SMWD has exponentially more opportunities due to its location (see, I told you so).

Here’s an overview of SOC breakdowns I obtained from the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), it covers a 5-year period from August of 2014—August of 2019:

Average Per Year Imported Water: 26,600,000,000 ≈ 73 million gallons/day (m/d)

Average Per Year Drinking Water Produced Locally: 6,020,000,000  ≈ 16.5 m/d

Average Per Year Recycled/Title 22 Water: 8,000,000,000  ≈  22 m/d

Total Daily Use For All Water ≈  111.5 m/d

Water districts are being increasingly pressured and required to reduce, conserve, reduce, conserve. One year it was a 25% reduction based upon 2015 usage. The districts complied, mission accomplished, some exceeded targeted goals. They only used and sold 75% of what they did before, eked by financially on overhead fumes. Then a few years later the State issues another edict: 25% more based upon that already reduced 75%. Translation: Use and sell about 56% of what you did 5 years ago.

Any private business would just fold, file bankruptcy papers and close its doors, creditors be damned. And although de facto, truth be told we’re already at “One Water” although many SOC officials avoid that phrase like the plague. Reductions are often categorical, across the board, piled together, doesn’t matter if it’s Title 17 or Title 22 irrigation/landscape usage.

Somehow, someway, they’re supposed to not only survive but thrive, budget belts increasingly tightened, including finding the fiscal wherewithal, i.e., fund future investment opportunities to sustain and expand their portfolios, ensuring safe, healthy water heritage supplies to ratepayers in an extremely regulated field.

Here’s an Executive Summary of how the City of Los Angeles has proactively responded (paraphrasing Thales the Greek philosopher) with its “All Water Is One Water” campaign. 

MNWD, compared to SMWD, is land-poor. Both are ramping up their water supply game via the gamut of treatment plants they either own or partner in; both are poised for the advent of DPR updates which are imminent. The Upper Oso Reservoir (aka Oso Lake) shown in the photo at the top of this column was completed and has been operated by SMWD since 1979, it holds 1.3 billion gallons. It features unique water storage and sharing, collaborative agreement: SMWD owns 75% and MNWD 25% of its recycled capacity.

SMWD, in a large part due to the Mission Viejo/Rancho Santa Margarita/Rancho Mission Viejo communities they service, aka The Tony Moiso Connection,” enjoys not only the locale advantages but enough open space to build reasonably large reservoirs in proximity to their customer base. All have been designed and are being engineered in anticipation of those imminent State of California DPR guideline standards I’ve mentioned. 

MNWD has been assertive, applied for and procured grant funds to help subsidize an investigation of the middle reach of Aliso Creek around Aliso Viejo. They explored pumping surplus groundwater but finally realized that there was little if any significant volumes to be had. Then too the high Totally Dissolved Solids (TDS) concentrations (salts, minerals and organic materials) precluded a cost-effective strategy. 

One interesting proposal involves MNWD buying the Laguna Niguel Lake (formerly Sulphur Creek Reservoir) property back from the County. The reservoir would be deepened and widened to increase capacity, plus converted to non-recreational use storage for future DPR at the adjacent Regional Treatment Plant on La Paz which is 99% MNWD domain already.

One acre-foot (af) is 325,851 gallons. SOC can’t possibly ever match central and north storage wealth, estimated at 500,000 af. Here in the south, we’re at ≈24,000 af and rising, but running out of open space, above ground storage availability.

Every year, we go through “The Hunt for Wet October,” and if immediate future, climatological projections are correct, we’ll be seeing less rainy fall weather. The “Game of Thirsts,” however, remains the same everywhere in drought prone, fragile California.

Roger E. Bütow is a 50-year resident of Laguna Beach CA. He’s the Founder and Executive Director of the 23-year old NGO, Clean Water Now. His professional fields of expertise are land use & regulatory compliance consultancy plus as a retired general contractor, he offers environmental & construction advisory services. He can be contacted at

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