How Sierra Madre’s water issues went from bad to worse due to the drought

by Claudia Palma, originally posted on December 27, 2015


SIERRA MADRE >> While cities across California are struggling to get by in the drought, some are having a tougher time than others.

Sierra Madre is one of them. Not only is the small town of about 11,000 residents unique in its Mayberry-esque charm, but its water woes are like no other. Since the drought began several years ago, the city has seen its water-related problems snowball.

The city is already one of a handful of cities facing a hefty fine for failing to meet its state-mandated water conservation targets, including neighboring Arcadia.

But unlike its neighbor to the south, with triple the residents, Sierra Madre was 11 percentage points short of its target in October versus only 6 points short for Arcadia.

“I’m hoping that very soon we’ll start turning around and moving in the right direction,” said Sierra Madre Mayor John Capoccia.

The city, which always relied exclusively on groundwater from its side of the Raymond Groundwater Basin, saw water levels there drastically drop over the last three years. The city shares the Basin with Arcadia, though Arcadia’s wells are on a much deeper end of the basin, whereas Sierra Madre’s wells are in a much shallower end, limiting its pumping ability.

In 2013, Sierra Madre was forced to begin importing water from the Metropolitan Water District. That led to a new problem. The water source has a different chemistry, temperature and disinfecting agent than the groundwater supply. That started taking a toll on the city’s aging infrastructure.

Residents began to see yellow, foul-smelling water coming from their taps ‑ the result of iron oxide being released from the inside of old pipes.

Residents began running their faucets a few minutes longer, until the water ran clear. And the city also began to increase its flushing of hydrants to help with the discoloration. Both practices used up more water just as the city was expected to be conserving.

Since then, the city has spent more than $50,000 on water testing, and different treatments to try and clear up the yellow water, reducing but not completely eliminating the problem.

Earlier this month, the city council took a unique step in hopes of eventually eliminating the yellow water. Sometime later this month, the city plans to pump the imported water through its own wells. The hope is that by recharging the groundwater and placing the imported water through the spreading grounds, it will eliminate the chloramine causing the yellow water.

But it comes at a cost ‑ three times what it cost to pump the water before the drought.

Even with clearer water, the damage may have already been done to much of the city’s water infrastructure. The introduction of imported water may have accelerated the aging of some of the city’s 80-plus-year-old water mains. Over three months this summer, the city saw a more than 600 percent increase in water main leaks, compared to the same time two years ago.

The council decided in October that it’s time to start replacing some of the city’s worst mains ‑ something that was not possible earlier because of lack of funds, which hasn’t changed much, but now there is an urgency.

“It’s just not cost-effective to temporarily repair a (water main) that is deteriorating rapidly,” said Capoccia.

The mains under Skyland Drive and Idle Hour Lane will be among the first to be replaced starting in January at a cost of $384,110. As of Dec. 8, there is about $2 million in water reserves. The council hopes to find funds to replace others soon, or may consider borrowing from the general fund.

Capoccia hopes the project will help the city reach its target water conservation goal by reducing leaks.

Public works director Bruce Inman said there is not an easy or quick way to quantify how much water is lost due to the leaks to see how much that is affecting their conservation efforts. The city is split when meters are measured and both numbers are not gathered in the same month, noted Inman.

Despite the community’s extensive outreach and conservation efforts that began long before the state enacted new strict regulations, the city faces a fine from the State Water Resources Control Board for not meeting its target reduction of 32 percent for the last three months.

The city is working with state officials regarding the target and fine, but no final decisions have been made.

“We’re serious about meeting the target rate,” Capoccia said.

About 77 percent of residents met their conservation targets between July and October, according to city manager Elaine Aguilar.

Now the city plans to work with those who haven’t, though no meeting date has been set yet.

“First thing is to find out what’s keeping them from meeting the target. There could be something that we’re just unaware of,” Capoccia said. “We want to call them, find out what the problem is and work with them.”

The council also increased its penalty fees for excessive water use, though it will offer a one-time penalty waiver for customers with water leaks, once those leaks are fixed. It also recently voted to add unpaid administrative fines to customer’s water bills for incidents such as watering outside of allowed days.

The city has billed about $155,000 in penalties as of October, but not all have been collected. Capoccia hopes those monies will go toward fixing the city’s infrastructure, not the state fine.

“The state should understand too, every dollar we pay them in fines, is a dollar we can’t use to fix our problem,” he said. “Fines would be counterproductive.”

On top of facing the fine, spending three times more money on pumping their wells with imported water, and urgently fixing its aging infrastructure, the city is facing a revenue deficit of about $1 million when its Utility User’s Tax goes from 8 percent, currently, to 6 percent in July. An increase of the UUT to 10 percent is expected to go before voters next April.

Capoccia said he now sees things the city could have done years ago to help fix the infrastructure and better educate residents.

“The biggest problem for me is we don’t get enough information,” longtime resident James Foster said. “It worries me. Where are we going to come up with the money (to fix the water mains). I wish the city would just ask us for the money.”

Foster, who said he remodeled his house a few years ago to be more water-efficient, said he would be willing to give the city money through a tax or something similar and count it as a tax write-off.

“It’s an affluent town, people would contribute,” he said.

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