Chino Valley At Forefront In Redressing & Disputing California’s Declared Water Crisis

The Chino Valley finds itself at the forefront of California’s water crisis, in terms of the joint effort by several of its local agencies in response to threats to water purity and availability and the tough line its municipal governments are taking with those deemed irresponsible in their use of water as well as the controversy one of its civic leaders has generated by suggesting his community is not actually plagued by a water shortage.
Indeed, for nearly a century, as the Chino Valley became host to a variety of agricultural operations, water came to be a highly valued commodity in San Bernardino County’s extreme southwest corner. Because the valley is blessed with fertile soil, the presence of the nearby Santa Ana River and an abundant aquifer, farmers were drawn to the area. They raised a wide variety of crops and horticulture and agriculture became a way of life.
In the 1950s, as dairy farmers in north Orange County and Southeast Los Angeles County were displaced by urbanization, the Chino Valley became a haven to their operations. In 1968, the Chino Agricultural Preserve was formed under the auspices of California’s Williamson Act — a 1965 law that was intended to preserve California farmland and to serve as a hedge against urban sprawl. The law granted substantial tax breaks to property owners agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses for at least 10 years. By 1970, the Chino Valley was the source for most of Southern California’s milk as well as a major supplier of cheese for a much larger geographical area.
In short order, the Chino Agricultural Preserve became the most intensive milk-producing area in the world. Within its 17,000 acre confines were just under 400 dairies and 400,000 cows. With $800 million in annual dairy production in 1976, the relatively compact Chino Valley region alone was within the entire state of California a close third in milk output behind the much more expansive Tulare and Merced counties.
Milk production is a water intensive undertaking. A cow must drink four gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk; beyond that, however, dairy farming utilizes massive amounts of water so that in total, it requires close to 1,500 gallons of water for each gallon of milk produced.
By the mid-1980s, growing numbers of dairy farmers in the preserve wanted out, as the local industry was itself being subjected to the same pressures that had been brought to bear on dairyman who had been forced to pull up the stakes of their Los Angeles County and Orange County operations two and three decades before. Coinciding with the conversion of portions of the Chino Valley’s agricultural land into housing and commercial subdivisions was the realization that decades of dairy farming had created a situation in which excessive amounts of nitrates were leaching into the water table. The dairies made a massive exodus from the ag preserve over the next two decades to the point where today there are now some 60 dairies operating in the Chino Valley.
Well before the current water crisis, a joint powers agency, the Chino Basin Desalter Authority, was formed to deal with the nitrate contamination and to manage the production, treatment, and distribution of highly treated potable water to cities and water agencies utilizing the Chino Valley water table. The Chino Basin Desalter Authority counts as its members the cities of Chino, Chino Hills, Norco and Ontario, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, the Jurupa Community Services District, the Santa Ana River Water Company and the Western Municipal Water District.
The Chino Basin Desalter Authority operates facilities which purify brackish groundwater extracted from the lower Chino Basin and distributes the drinking water to its member agencies. Those facilities consist of what are dubbed the Chino I and II desalters.
According to the Chino Basin Desalter Authority’s website, the authority “serve[s] the dual purpose of providing a reliable water supply and managing groundwater quantity and quality in the region. Chino Basin groundwater is the only water source for the Chino Desalter Authority. Chino Basin is one of the largest groundwater basins in Southern California.”
In addition to purchasing potable water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Chino Basin Desalter Authority’s member agencies have contracts with the Chino Desalter Authority for the purchase of 24,600 acre feet per year of water from the desalters. The more water the desalters produce, the less the member agencies buy from the Metropolitan Water District.
By desalinating and treating the groundwater in the southern portion of the Chino Basin, the desalters also filter out nitrates from the groundwater basin and assist in achieving “hydraulic control” of the basin to stop the flow of contaminated groundwater into the Santa Ana River. The Chino I Desalter commenced operation in 2001, and was expanded in 2005. The Chino II Desalter became operational in 2006, and was expanded in 2010 to add an extra 10.5-million gallons per day capacity, which will be fully operational with the completion of soon-to-be-completed components of the project.
On April 1, after three years of drought and a measurement of snowpack that showed the thinnest amount of snowpack in more than 60 years of record-keeping in the Sierra Nevada, Governor Jerry Brown mandated that cities throughout the state cut back on potable urban water usage by at least 25 percent.
On May 26, the Chino Hills City Council passed an urgency ordinance vesting in the city code enforcement division the authority to ferret out wasteful use of water and cite the offenders, using a series of escalating fines and other means, to discourage the casual overuse of water. The inducements to save water ranged from a non-monetary assessment written warning to a $100 fine, $200 fine, third and fourth offenses assessments of $500 and ultimately a misdemeanor citation, conviction on which carries with it a six-month jail sentence. Not to be outdone, the Chino City Council on June 2 passed an urgency ordinance authorizing citing first- and second-time offenders within 12 months with written warnings, a relatively mild punishment of a $50 fine attached to the offender’s water bill on a third offense, with $100 and $150 fines triggered by fourth and fifth violations. Beyond that, the city manager is authorized to employ a flow restrictor. If that does not cure the problem, offenders will be hit with a $1,000 fine. After that, the ordinance authorizes seeking to send offenders to jail.
Low-growth and no- growth advocates in Chino Hills seized upon their city’s move to criminalize profligate water use to propound the need to impose a building moratorium that would prevent further demands on the city’s water supply. Further construction, they reasoned, would increase the city’s use of water, thus undercutting the city’s goal of meeting Governor Brown’s 25 percent water use reduction mandate. At that point, Chino Hills City Manager Konradt Bartlam leapt into the breach, serving up what many saw as a paradoxical and highly problematic assertion that there is no water shortage in Chino Hills.
“The city does not have a water emergency,” Bartlam propounded. “Our water comes from sources not affected by the snowpack or rain problems.”
In explaining why the city has given itself the authority to jail its citizens for wasting water, Bartlam said the action was taken essentially to placate the governor. “The city is following a state edict to conserve water,” he said.
Despite the mandate, he suggested the city could allow construction of new housing, in particular apartment complexes, and would not be likely to run afoul of Brown’s ire. He said approval already given to residential projects could not be legally withdrawn.
Bartlam acknowledged that the state could punish the city – in the form of $1,000 per day fines – if it does not meet the water reduction goal set my Brown.
“If we don’t show any reduction we could be fined,” Bartlam said. But that was unlikely, he said, suggesting that the state would probably take into consideration that the residents who lived in the city on April 1 will have reduced their water consumption and any new construction, in particular the apartment complexes which the low-growth and no- growth advocates are so animated about, will be less water use intensive than single family residences, since multi-family projects use less water overall per person than tract homes because of the reduced need for yard and landscape irrigation.
Without stating so directly, Bartlam seemed to imply that allowing higher density/lesser landscape intensive residential development would meet with the spirit, if not the letter, of the governor’s mandate.
Meanwhile, Chino Hills reduced its water consumption in May by 21 percent over what it had used two years previously, while the city of Chino achieved the water reduction goals set for it in May, having reduced its average water consumption by 26 percent for the month. Those figures were provided by the State Water Resources Control Board. Though those rates of reduction were significant, they both lagged behind the average for the entire state, which saw its consumers utilize 29 percent less water in May than in the same month of 2013.
In Chino, the average residential water consumption per person per day was 84.7 gallons in May, according to the state. In more affluent Chino Hills, each person used 115.7 gallons on average.
Chino residents were actually slightly below the average water usage per person throughout the state, which stood at 87.5 gallons per day.

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