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Antelope Valley Water Shortage Slows Growth, Raises Questions

In combination with the housing market crash, a water shortage has brought construction nearly to a halt in the Antelope Valley. Even if the market were to bounce back in the next year or two, it's unclear that water providers could serve a substantial number of new homes and businesses.

The largest retail water provider in the area has been unwilling to guarantee water to new development since November 2007, stalling Lancaster's ambitious downtown redevelopment plan and jeopardizing proposed commercial projects and housing tracts. Meanwhile, a nine-year-old groundwater adjudication process grinds on, delaying potential groundwater banking projects.

That's the bad news. The good news is that 11 local agencies have adopted the Antelope Valley integrated regional water management plan, which spells out ways that locals may stabilize, increase and make the best use of the water supply. Implementation of the plan has already begun. No one is saying, however, that carrying out the plan will solve all of the valley's problems.

"The biggest challenge we have had is to try to see collaboration between local agencies and the water providers to not step on each other's toes," said Laurie Lile, Palmdale assistant city manager. "It's been difficult to come to a consensus as to what we should be doing."

Added Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County Planning Department special projects division chief, "Nobody planned for the fact that the State Water Project was not going to turn on the spigot."

Located in the high desert of Northern Los Angeles and Eastern Kern counties, the Antelope Valley has been one of California's fastest growing areas. Driven largely by Los Angeles commuters seeking affordable single-family homes, the population has increased from about 100,000 people in 1970 to about 450,000 today. But the Antelope Valley is a dry place that gets only 7 inches of rainfall in an average year.

The regional water plan is blunt about the situation: "The demand for water clearly exceeds even the higher estimates of currently available supplies. By 2010, the demand for water in an average year will be 274,000 acre-feet a year and by 2035 could be 447,000 AFY. This means demand could exceed supply by 73,600 AFY in 2010 and by 236,800 AFY in 2035. The expected imbalance between supply and demand in 2035 is about the same as currently available supplies."

How did the situation become so dire? The answers are multi-faceted but stem largely from a misapprehension about water supply and from a lack of cooperation among the numerous stakeholders. As a result, banking of water in aquifers during water years a common practice in the San Joaquin Valley and parts of Southern California has not begun in Antelope Valley. The Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency (AVEK), the area's largest water wholesaler, estimates the area could have captured 300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water from the State Water Project since 1992 had water banking facilities been available.

In 1999, Diamond Farming filed a lawsuit asserting its rights to pump groundwater from under its East Antelope Valley fields. Bolthouse Farms, which combined with Diamond provides about 90% of the country's carrots, followed up with its own suit, as did other farmers, water suppliers, special districts, cities and landowners. The litigation is now in one large adjudication proceeding in Los Angeles County Superior Court that could ultimately result in specific allocations for specific entities. However, adjudication proceedings can last for decades a proceeding for the Mojave River Valley took about 40 years so some people are hoping a settlement is possible.

Rosamond Community Services District (CSD) General Manager Jack Stewart is not hopeful, though. "There is major disagreement between the water pumpers and the agricultural interests. They are very far apart," he said.

Agricultural interests, government agencies and individual property owners have been pulling about 150,000 acre-feet of water out of the ground every year, according to recent estimates. The sustained yield is often cited as 70,000 to 80,000 acre-feet. Farmers, however, reject the sustained yield figures and say they have the right to continue pumping at historic levels; some even argue they should be able to sell their "excess" water to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, land subsidence has started occurring in parts of the valley.

The contentious groundwater situation has created reluctance over water banking because the agencies fear they might not be able to draw back all of the water they put into the ground. Still, creation of a groundwater bank is a high priority in the regional water plan, and the Rosamond CSD, Los Angeles County and other entities are prepared to start banking water just as soon as some becomes available. That might not be anytime soon, as deliveries from the State Water Project continue to shrink.

The Antelope Valley-East Kern agency supplies water to a number of retailers and also to agricultural and industrial users. AVEK's biggest customer is Los Angeles County Waterworks District No. 40,which serves portions of the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, as well as unincorporated territories. AVEK owns rights to 141,400 acre-feet from the State Water Project. According to the agency's 2005 urban water management plan, AVEK expects to receive about 70% of that allocation most years. However, consecutive dry years in Northern California combined with a court-ordered reduction in pumping from the Bay Delta to protect the endangered Delta smelt are drastically cutting into State Water Project deliveries (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2008). Russell Fuller, AVEK general manager, recently predicted the agency would receive only 10% of its allocation in 2009.

Recognizing the situation, Waterworks District No. 40 last November stopped issuing "will-serve" letters to builders, and large projects that must prove a long-term water supply, whether from District No. 40 or elsewhere, have stalled.

"There is no one," said Rosamond CSD's Stewart, "that is issuing will-serve letters in the Antelope Valley currently because no one knows whether they will have enough water."

"We have been severely hurt in the building industry in the housing and the retail and the commercial sectors," said Gretchen Gutierrez, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of Southern California's Antelope Valley Chapter. "We have no water in the valley. For nearly a year, we have been shut down. It's having an economic impact."

The connection between land use planning and water management in the Antelope Valley has not always been strong, in part because the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster which collectively house about two-thirds of the valley's 450,000 residents do not provide water service. But the cities were eager participants in the regional water planning process and appear willing to assume larger roles in solving the water shortage.

Palmdale has begun reconsidering its design standards, building codes and site layout requirements, Lile explained. The city, for example, may soon prohibit the installation of turf in the front yard of new houses. The city also cut its own water use by 31% this past summer. Officials are willing to reconsider the city's predominately low-density land use pattern. But it did not help, she said, when the Southern California Association of Governments directed Palmdale to plan for 17,000 units during the 2006 to 2014 regional housing needs allocation period (see CP&DR, September 2007).

"The water situation may require that that we look more closely at the land use densities," Lile said.

Lancaster Public Works Director Randy Williams, who has become Lancaster's point man on water, said his city is starting to have the same discussion. "People are beginning to realize that the higher density is not just an infrastructure efficiency issue, it's a water efficiency issue," he said.

Lancaster is completing a water recycling system that will provide non-potable water to customers for irrigation. The city also is working on a pilot project for recharging groundwater with treated wastewater. Assuming the test project goes well, the city could put as much as 30,000 acre-feet a year of treated wastewater into the groundwater basin, Williams said.

Palmdale and Lancaster officials and dozens of other stakeholders are putting their faith, and even their money, into the regional water management plan that was completed in late 2007. It calls for groundwater banking, recycled water projects, water reclamation, infrastructure improvements, riparian habitat restoration and even preparation of a coordinated land use management plan by Palmdale, Lancaster, Los Angeles and Kern counties, and the Antelope Valley Conservancy. The water management group composed of 11 public agencies is seeking state grants for the seven highest priority projects, although the application was passed over in May for a round of grants from Proposition 84.

"We have space available for growth, and yet we are being slowed down because of something like this [water]," said Gutierrez, reflecting a common opinion in the Antelope Valley. "Some of it we can control locally, but we don't control the Delta."

Antelope Valley water providers are not the only ones reconsidering long-term supplies. The Eastern Municipal Water District, which serves Western Riverside County south of Riverside, earlier this year approved water assessments for nine large projects only after demanding project modifications to reduce water usage. The district, which had delayed taking action for months, also insisted it could revisit the assessments as more information becomes available.

Contacts:
Randy Williams, City of Lancaster, (661) 723-6044.
Laurie Lile, City of Palmdale, (661) 267-5100.
Jack Stewart, Rosamond Community Services District, ((661) 256-3411.
Gretchen Gutierrez, Antelope Valley Chapter, Building Industry Association of Southern California, (661) 949-6857.
Antelope Valley Integrate Regional Water Management Plan: www.avwaterplan.org

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