LA VERNE WATER: It’s Going to Cost More to Brush and Flush

August 30, 2009
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La Verne Public Works Director inside the Amherst treatment facility control room.

La Verne Public Works Director inside the Amherst treatment facility control room.

In these parched, glass-half-empty times, La Verne Public Works Director Dan Keesey is a good guy to know. He’s in charge of maintaining not only the city’s streets, street lights, storm drains, refuse, recycling and graffiti abatement programs, but also La Verne’s extensive water systems.

More than anyone in the city, he knows where the city’s reservoirs, wells and pumping stations are and how efficiently they’re operating. It is his department that prepared the staff reports on which the City Council based its unanimous decision on Aug. 17 to increase residential water rates by an average of $12 a month or $25 per bi-monthly billing cycle.

Based on water use per 1,000 gallons, rates increased from $2.38 to $2.69 in Zone 1 (all residences below Foothill Blvd.), from $2.46 to $2.79 in Zone 2, from $2.57 to $2.98 in Zone 3, from $2.66 to $3.19 in Zone 4, and from $2.76 to $3.30 in Zone 5. The increases will be reflected in bills that go out after Oct. 1.

In response to the current drought, less certain deliveries of water from Northern California due to increasing environmental restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the city’s own shrinking groundwater supplies, his department also advised the Council to move from its position of encouraging voluntary water conservation measures (Phase I) to ordering mandatory or Phase III water use limits, a resolution the City unanimously passed on July 20.

As a result, surcharges are now in effect for any customer who exceeds the baseline allowance of 34,000 gallons, which is roughly 10% less (the minimum reduction the City hopes to achieve) than the roughly 37,000 gallons the average customer in La Verne has been using.

The surcharges break down as follows:

Level A: 0 – 34,000 gallons = no surcharge

Level B: 34,001 – 44,000 gallons = 0.18 per 1,000 gallons

Level C: 44,001 – 64,000 gallons = 0.60 per 1,000 gallons

Level D: 64,001 – 94,000 gallons = 0.98 per 1,000 gallons

Level E: 94,001 gallons or greater = $2.61 per 1,000 gallons

Outside the Amherst treatment facility whose ranch-style, barn construction blends well with the surrounding community.

Outside the Amherst treatment facility whose ranch-style, barn construction blends well with the surrounding community.

The surcharges appear more onerous than they actually are. In the example of a resident who consumes 50,000 gallons, or an excess of 16,000 gallons, the surcharge would be $5.40.

In effect, for the privilege of living in the semi-arid Southern California basin, La Verne residents will be paying more to use less water.

The City is sensitive to the financial hardship many customers will experience with the increase in rates plus any surcharges they may have to pay, but city coffers aren’t exactly overflowing either. Wholesale water increases from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), through which the City indirectly purchases roughly 70% of it water via the Three Valleys Water Municipal District, have escalated 42% since 2006. For roughly the other 30% the city produces through its own groundwater supplies, pumping costs to bring that water to the surface and to La Verne homes also have almost doubled.

The MWD also cut its La Verne water allocation by a little more than 10%. Should the city exceed its allocation, the city’s roughly $700 per-acre foot cost to purchase water could easily triple or quadruple.

“The MWD basically said, ‘Here’s what you get, you go over it, and you’re going to pay through the nose,’” Keesey said.

Just as La Verne residents are water customers, so too is the City.

“The surcharge serves two purposes,” Keesey said. “Obviously, it’s to provide incentive to conserve, because you don’t want to pay more as a customer. And No. 2, it’s to earn enough money for the City should it receive a penalty from Three Valleys Municipal Water District for exceeding our allocation.”

Despite the rising tide of rates and surcharges, water is still a pretty good deal.

“I’ll sell you a thousand gallons for $3, or you can go to Seven-Eleven or Costco, and they’ll sell you one bottle for $3,” Keesey said.

That said, the price of city-supplied water will be less of a bargain in the future, owing to the natural laws of simple supply and demand.

“I will bet you a dollar that things are really going to change from here on out,” Keesey said. “We’re going to really be a desert community again. The supplies just aren’t there.”

Keesey’s forecast is all dry.

“If we don’t have sufficient rainfall in our local area, we just don’t have anything to recharge our groundwater basins,” Keesey explained. “If we don’t have rainfall and snowpack in Northern California, we don’t have anything to recharge our water conveyance facilities. We’re just not seeing the weather that we’d like to see to replenish our water supplies.”

Modern wells look nothing like the storybook wishing wells popularized in children's literature.

Modern wells look nothing like the storybook wishing wells popularized in children's literature.

Adding to the shortage are tightening environmental and legal restrictions on delta-supplied water, which limits the amount of water that can flow south. “It’s kind of a perfect storm, all these things coming together,” Keesey noted.

Though La Verne doesn’t draw water from the Colorado, it wouldn’t much help if it did.

“The Colorado has a seven-year drought on it,” Keesey said. “Lake Mead and Lake Powell, I think are both down close to 100 feet. It’ll take years and years for them to recover and get back to normal levels.”

So, the new normal is less, more expensive water.

Working overtime to keep the water flowing in La Verne are 13 reservoirs, some above ground, some below, which hold from between 500,000 gallons to 5 million gallons each. Ironically, the large Live Oak reservoir that probably most La Verne residents are familiar with is not City-owned. “That’s the MWD’s,” Keesey said. “It is one of several that service its Weymouth treatment plant (off Wheeler, south of Foothill).”

The city has acquired up to 30 wells over the past century from small mutual companies and agricultural interests as citrus orchards were taken out of production and replaced with housing and shopping centers. “A lot of the stuff we acquired was built for agricultural purposes, distributing water to limited areas, so we had to take those and adapt them. I think it’s worked out pretty well.”

Seven wells are active in the City today.

The tanks (reservoirs) and wells typically have a service life of 70 to 100 years, “so we’re nearing that,” Keesey said. Many have to be abandoned because of poor water quality or shrinking production.

“We recently abandoned one built in the ‘20s,” Keesey noted. “It just finally collapsed like a straw. You suck so hard, it just collapses.”

Part of La Verne’s charm is its rich citrus history, but the dark side of that legacy is the reliance on fertilizers by ranchers to grow their crops. Fertilizers contain nitrates, which help plants flourish, but can also contaminate the water supply by leaching into the groundwater supply.

“Our biggest contaminate of concern in La Verne is nitrate,” Keesey explained.

Another local contaminant is perchlorate, most often associated with the production of rocket fuels and fireworks, Keesey said, adding that the contaminant has also been found in cheaper Chilean fertilizers.

“So, there may have been Chilean fertilizers used around here,” he surmised.

Whatever doesn’t belong in the water is the job of Keesey’s department to remove so that people can drink water safely and reliably. The more water has to be treated, however, the more it costs.

“If I’m just doing a local blending operation, which is simply pumping out our local groundwater and blending it with the imported supply (Northern California water held in the Silverlake Reservoir) to achieve the water quality standard needed, that’s relatively inexpensive.

“If I have to apply other treatment, such as stripping off the nitrate and not blending it, that probably costs closer to $400 to maybe $500 an acre foot. That’s still cheaper than buying imported water at nearly $700 an acre foot.

“The water is free,” Keesey further noted. “It’s the cost of getting it to you and cleaning it up to the standards that we have to meet before serving it to you, that costs money.”

It cost several million dollars to bring the Amherst groundwater treatment facility on line more than a year ago, but it’s been doing yeoman work treating groundwater from four different wells, removing first the perchlorates and then the nitrates before pumping the cleansed water into an on-site reservoir. A large flat-screen display panel inside a control room graphically shows what’s occurring. Workers on location seven days a week monitor the high-tech system’s various gauges, valves and pressure points.

In addition, Keesey’s workers are sampling, testing and analyzing the water supply some 100 times or more a week to confirm La Verne’s water quality and that the systems are performing as designed.

“We do a lot of testing, which is kind of unusual for a city our size,” Keesey said, standing in the sampling room that’s no bigger than your average lunch room.

Moreover, the testers have all been certified and licensed by the state in water treatment and/or water distribution. For example, the Amherst facilities is a level 3 facility, so employees have to hold level 3 licenses or higher to work there.

The Amherst facility also boasts a well, but it’s not a well you can drop a coin in and wait to hear it hit the bottom. It’s capped and runs some 550 feet deep. At about 165 feet below the surface, pumps work to lift the water to the surface for delivery to the treatment system. Currently, the well produces about 500 gallons a minute.

“In the water business, it’s a really small well,” Keesey notes. “That’s typically all we see in this area of La Verne. If you were to go farther west in the San Gabriel Valley, there are 3,000- and 4,000 gallon- a-minute wells. If we can get 500 gallons a minute, I’m feeling good; if we can 1,000 gallons, I’m feeling really good.”

Nature and physics what they are, Keesey understands that wells plug up eventually with rock, sand and other growth, a hardening of the arteries if you will, that can only be unclogged by blowing the debris out of the wells’ filters. “It’s like un-jamming a clogged filter on your vacuum cleaner; only our process is much more specialized and costly.”

The Lincoln well, the city’s biggest-producer at about 1,000 gallons a minute, is located at 6th and White. It was built in 1932 in what was then the city yard. The city yard now resides on 1st Street in La Verne while the 6th and White facility now serves as the hub for the city’s entire water operations. Besides monitoring and tracking the city’s complete water system, it treats water from two wells, the Lincoln and Mills Track wells. A third well, the Cartwright, was abandoned.

At the 6th and White facility, the treatment process strips out nitrates and volatile organic compounds, the biggest offender of which is trichloroethylene, a cleaning solvent. “We strip the TCE off the water molecule, creating an inert gas that just flies off,” Keesey noted. The cleansed water is then blended with waters from the Three Rivers Municipal Water District in compliance with all safe drinking water standards. Huge electric pumps move the water from station to station.

Moving La Verne’s electrically pumped water from rivers, lakes and underground water systems to our taps, toilets and hoses is a complex process many people take for granted.

“People simply expect the water to turn on and their toilets to flush,” Keesey said. “The utilities and infrastructure we manage and support is just very costly.”

And the next time residents receive their water bills, it’s going to get a little more costly.

3 Responses to “LA VERNE WATER: It’s Going to Cost More to Brush and Flush”

  1. I have lived in LaVerne for 26 yrs. I received my water bill and have seen the signs all over town requesting a 10% reduction in water usage. This is not asking much I thought. Then I started researching what my baseline was so that I would have an idea of how much I had to cut, and the easiest way to do so. Then I found out my baseline was the same if I lived in an apartment, home, or even a shed. I calculated and have figured out you are not asking me to cut my usage by 10% but 40%. Not only is this unreasonable it more than likely is impossible. All this is doing is gouging the home owner and not teaching the apartment renters to conserve as they will not have to change their lifestyles to stay under the “Baseline” limits. It is just a way to collect more money and money doesn’t make water appear.
    If you were really trying to teach everyone to conserve water usage you would have taken a totally different approach. One way would have been to take my last year water usage, divide it by 12 and find out on an average how much a month I used and create a baseline amount on that. This should be done for homeowners, apartment dwellers, etc. Then ask everyone to use 10% less. This would then teach conservation. You have not taught anything the way it is set up now. Also if water if so short why are we allowing new dwellings, apartments, etc to be built. Bottom line is its all about more money not conservation.

  2. While I have a very clear understanding of the So.Cal water business I am particularly bothered that all So. Cal cities, including La Verne have been so bullied by MWD. I agree with the above comment – my allocated baseline amount is for someone without any yard. I am not pro- wasting water, but come on. Is this increase amount really justified?

    Also – I would specifically request that the City Council comment on the pension increases proposed by the MWD Board for its employees. The 25% incease-when most people are just trying to get by – is deplorable. Everyone is sacrificing right now – both public and private employees.

  3. Interesting. My next door neighbor has 2 occupants. I have 6 occupants in the same square footage yet we both have the same baseline? Fair?

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