GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Helix Water District looks to diversify water supply

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 22, 2010

When it comes to water “trade deficits” (i.e., importing too much water), all of San Diego County’s water agencies know they should be less reliant on distant sources. Depending on which of the 24 water agencies in the county you look at, some 80-90% of their water supplies are imported from Northern California and the Colorado River.

It has been painfully obvious that such a high degree of reliance on distant water sources places the county in a dangerously vulnerable position and our water managers continually struggle to find ways to reduce that dependence. One agency, the Helix Water District — San Diego County’s second-largest water agency — imports water on the higher end of the scale mentioned above, and they may finally get to change that.

Although water conservation efforts inside the Helix district have resulted in a reduction to about 112 gallons per capita per day as of June 2010, and even more is hoped for, conservation alone won’t resolve supply and reliability issues. With that in mind, Helix has announced the beginning of an environmental review process for a new venture, the El Monte Valley Project.

El Monte Valley looking east. El Capitan Dam is around the bend. The ribbon of green trees in the valley center marks the San Diego River Bed. On the right you can make out where the flume used to be (built in the 1880s to bring water 33 miles from Cuyamaca Dam).

El Monte Valley is located in Lakeside just west of El Capitan Dam, north of Lake Jennings, and east from Mapleview St (near where the freeway segment of Highway 67 begins).

The multi-faceted El Monte Valley Project aims to generate an additional 5 million gallons of water per day (that much can supply up to 15,000 families in their service area, which means about 15% of the district’s needs). That’s a big improvement over the 3.3% that local sources now provide.

In addition to producing a supplemental water supply, the Helix plan envisions extensive riverbed restoration with native plants, public recreational space for hiking and equestrian use, and wildlife habitat. A portion of the valley previously zoned for mining will be tapped for sand and gravel which will be sold to help defray project expenses and to help re-contour the riverbed for the restoration.

The new water source is beneath El Monte Valley. An existing groundwater aquifer in the valley is currently being pumped by residents and the Helix District, but only a very limited amount can be withdrawn without seriously lowering the water table — in fact, the district has observed the water table dropping since the 80s. Although it is responsive after rains, the general trend is a subsiding water table. The groundwater is becoming saltier and other contaminants are appearing as well.

The El Monte Valley Project would add new clean water to the underground aquifer, raise the water table, and permit the water district to add more wells for large withdrawals.

The new water would come from the Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) process.

The IPR process takes wastewater that has been previously treated to tertiary standards for recycled water, and puts it through an advanced treatment facility where it is purified by microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and UV + peroxide conditioning.

[Orange County already has such an operation in place, the City of San Diego is pursuing a major IPR project, and Singapore has successfully used the process for years under the moniker NEWater and even sells it in bottles]

San Diego’s North City Water Reclamation Plant was considered as a possible source of the purified water, but San Diego’s demonstration project is lagging and its advanced IPR purification facility hasn’t been approved yet, so its timeline looked well beyond the time Helix thinks it might take for its own project. However, an advanced IPR treatment facility is being built at Santee Lakes by the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, so Helix is negotiating with them for the water.

R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant

The purified water will go into large recharge ponds on the north side of El Monte Valley, percolate into the soil, mix with existing groundwater, and raise the water table (some water might also be directly injected into the aquifer). Over about six months the underground water will make its way to the southern side of the valley, where it will be pumped out and routed to the R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant in Lakeside (which uses a cutting-edge ozonation purification process) before delivery to customers.

As already mentioned, there are two other parts to the project. One part is riverbed restoration, and one part is a limited duration (ten year) sand mining operation. The sand mining operation would re-contour the riverbed for the restoration project, and sales of sand and gravel (in short supply in the San Diego area) would generate funding to help defray project expenses.

The project will be reviewed, approved, and permitted by the California Department of Health Services, the California Regional Water Quality Resources Board to ensure compliance with drinking water standards, and an independent National Water Research Institute panel will provide oversight.

To coincide with beginning the environmental review process, a stakeholders meeting was held yesterday at the Lakeside Christian Church on El Monte Rd. to introduce the project to residents of the valley. Mark Weston, General Manager of Helix Water District, made the presentation. A number of other directors and staff members were present to mingle and help answer questions.

Lake Jennings is southwest of El Monte Valley

About 40 property owners in the valley have wells drawing water for domestic and ranching needs (and it looked like most of them were at the meeting) and they will definitely be impacted. With this project, they will no longer be permitted to use their well water for potable purposes (no rule against any other use, including water for animals). That’s because even though IPR water is technically pure, California Dept. of Public Health regulations mandate a minimum six-month detention time before it may be used for drinking.

For a suitable layout, the District will place the recharge ponds in northern sections of the valley, and extraction pumps on the south side to ensure a six-month migration. That means that residents with wells on the north side or who are otherwise inside the “6-month boundary” will only be able to use their well water for irrigation, but no longer for drinking.

Mr. Weston had not even gotten to that part of the presentation, though, before people started peppering him with questions and comments.

From the residents viewpoint, they now get water from their wells for free, why should their groundwater be taken away and sold back to them? Weston replied that the District proposes to pay all costs of hooking up their homes to new distribution pipelines, as well as negotiate with them on the price for indoor potable water. An arrangement on water pricing could range from a significant discount to no charge over a specified period of time.

Many people asked other questions, some with strong feelings, and a few had water complaints unrelated to the project.

“I’m bothered that our simple way of life is going to be ruined.”
“It’s not going to be good water.”
“We’re going to lose all our wells.”
“I read that the process will make all frogs turn into females.”
“Why won’t you install a fire hydrant in my neighborhood?”
“I’m a science teacher and I know some Nobel Laureates who are very concerned so naturally I’m worried.”
“What about water constituents that don’t get filtered out?”
“After the last heavy rains we had 6 feet of flooding in some places. If you raise the water table, won’t that mean worse flooding?”
“Before, if a rainstorm eroded sand and land from my property, we could go down to the riverbed and get some back. Now we can’t do that any more.”
“There’s going to be trucks, machinery, noise, dust, traffic, it’s going to be a big mess.”
“What about Valley Fever?”
“If there’s more water available, won’t that stimulate lots of new development?”
“We’re being assaulted by PowerLink on one side, and this project on the other.”
“What will prevent you from taking out more water than you’re putting in?”
“Would YOU drink that water?”

For nearly two hours Weston fielded such questions and comments while an aide recorded them on a flipchart. I’m paraphrasing some answers here:

I HAVE drunk that water and it tastes just fine…We’re hoping the riverbed restoration and other elements of the project will result in a valley that is even more lovely and enjoyable than it is now…The water is definitely going to be better than the water you’re pumping now (which, by the way, lies below all your septic systems)…We’re looking to reduce the need to import water for existing users, not for the new water to encourage new development…We’ll strictly enforce rules to minimize traffic, dust, and noise during the construction phases…There’s no reason to believe that rainy season flooding would be worsened by the project…The advanced water treatment eliminates virtually all contaminants (at least those for which there are tests) and meets or exceeds regulatory standards…Nobody’s wells will be taken away, you can still pump water and use it for everything except your own drinking…Although we believe this area is at low risk for Valley Fever, we’re going to be very careful to control dust, which is a primary method by which it can be spread, and we’ll be monitoring the situation closely.

Last question: “I understand everything you’re talking about, the project is well-intentioned, it is for the good of the many, but really, when you look at everything in perspective, just how good a chance is there that this project will ever happen?” All grow silent.

Weston smiled, paused, hesitated, and then replied: “Probably about 75%.” (general laughter)

On that optimistic note, after noting that regular meetings to keep everyone informed will be scheduled, the meeting ended amicably.


Additional information:

  • El Monte Valley Project fact sheet
  • Questions and Answers
  • Last April, the East County Magazine published this story about the project. I’m told the meeting was actually about SDG&E PowerLink issues in the valley, but with the water project in the same place there was no avoiding the subject.
  • The Helix Water District covers an area of nearly 50 square miles, serving the cities of La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, and parts of Spring Valley and Lakeside. The R.M. Levy Water Treatment plant also treats some water for the Otay and Padre Dam districts.


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