With the future of the Colorado River and the amount of water it will be able to deliver to Southern California in question, the Long Beach Utilities Department is looking at investing $157 million into its groundwater system, which could reduce the city’s reliance on expensive and diminishing imported water.

Groundwater accounts for about 60% of the water that Long Beach residents use each year, and the Colorado provides about 25% of the city’s supply, with the rest coming from the State Water Project, both of which can fluctuate with precipitation patterns.

Earlier this year, federal regulators laid out scenarios for steep cuts on how much water can be taken out of the river, which could affect agriculture and residents in the Southwest United States including Nevada, Arizona and California, which receives the largest share of water from the Colorado.

Long Beach is now looking at expanding its groundwater rights in the region and expanding its capacity to distribute it across the city with a new water treatment plant in West Long Beach and new wells in areas of the city that currently don’t have potable water wells.

“Previously we didn’t always look at providing groundwater to the full network because it wasn’t historically possible,” said Dean Wang, the department’s manager of water resources.

But that could soon change.

The West Coast Basin 

The city sits atop two water basins, the West Coast and Central, but has only historically pumped from the Central Basin, which covers the northeast half of the city, where Long Beach has rights to pump larger volumes of water out of the ground.

Water is pumped from the city’s network of wells into a water treatment plant in East Long Beach and stored in tanks near the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Redondo Avenue, where gravity helps distribute it to residents and businesses.

North and West Long Beach are not connected to this grid due to physical barriers like the Los Angeles River and hills in Bixby Knolls, and those areas are more reliant on imported water. Water from the Metropolitan Water District is piped to the J. Will Johnson Reservoir in Compton before being distributed to those residents.

However, a new $90 million water treatment plant the department could build in Compton near the J. Will Johnson site would allow for those residents to be connected to the city’s groundwater network. Similar to the setup in East Long Beach, the plant would store water at the Will Johnson reservoir.

It’s part of a proposed $157 million project that would connect the new plant and new wells in the West Coast Basin to the existing city network while expanding the city’s capacity to treat and transport groundwater.

The projected cost of the project could be offset by savings seen from importing less water from the Colorado or Northern California, which is generally more expensive, department officials said.

But first, the city would have to purchase more water rights to the West Coast Basin than it has right now. Long Beach has about 0.7 acre-feet of water rights in that basin, compared to the 33,000 acre-feet it can pump from the Central Basin.

Earlier this month, the Utilities Commission approved a deal to license excess water rights from Manhattan Beach at no cost, which will allow the city to pump about 40 acre-feet from an exploratory well in the West Coast Basin so the water quality can be assessed over the next several months.

However, the department says it intends to pursue purchasing rights in the basin so it can continue to pump water if this project comes online, something that could happen by 2032, Wang said.

A presentation given to the commission Thursday showed the department’s goals for investing in groundwater over the next few decades. The department hopes to boost its groundwater supply to 75% while reducing the imported number from about 30% to 7%.

The plan still needs to be approved by the commission, and it’s unclear how the price of the project would be factored into customers’ bills, but the department believes that it could end up saving customers in the end because of the lower cost of groundwater.

While the city could build out its network to provide Central Basin water to other parts of the city, it would require a lot of energy to move the water, and it could lead to water quality issues.

“When you have water traveling further distances, the water age goes up and you could get quality issues,” said Heather Rhee, a civil engineer with the department working on the project.

‘Pure Water’

A separate project being proposed by the MWD could help recharge the groundwater in the two basins the city is hoping to pump from in the future and help offset industrial water usage by diverting wastewater from a plant in Carson from going to the ocean.

The “Pure Water” project would divert wastewater from a plant in Carson to a new water purification facility, where water would be treated with a series of membranes, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light processes and then piped up to injection wells from Carson to West Covina and eventually back down to north Orange County.

John Bednarski, the chief engineer for the MWD, said the plant produces about 150 million gallons of water per day or enough for 1.5 million people.

“Of course, we want to reuse a resource so important instead of having it go to the ocean,” Bednarski said Thursday.

The $3.5 billion project would be paid for by the MWD, and it’s currently in its early environmental review phase. If it does move forward, the district believes it could be online and producing water for reuse by 2032, or sooner.

What that will mean for Long Beach—apart from additional water being injected into groundwater aquifers and industrial businesses having access to non-potable sources of water—is street work that would affect traffic.

It would require about 60 miles of 7-foot-wide pipe being laid to connect all of the facilities where the water will be injected into the ground and cleaned and treated before being sent out to consumers.

Stretches of Del Amo Boulevard, Paramount Boulevard, South Street and Palo Verde Avenue in North Long Beach could have one lane of traffic closed so the large pipe could be installed under city streets.

Bednarski said that the intersections of the proposed path of the pipe would not be cut open; instead, the district would microtunnel or use other methods that would leave the intersections undisturbed.

Long Beach looks to shore up vital groundwater supply as state sinks deeper into drought

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.