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Come hail or high water

Recent rains fill river, raise wells

Posted: February 10, 2009 1:36 a.m.
Updated: February 10, 2009 4:30 a.m.

College of the Canyon students make their way around campus during a wet first day of the spring 2009 semester Monday morning. More than two inches of rain fell on the Santa Clarita Valley in the past week.

 
More than two inches of rain fell on the Santa Clarita Valley in the past week and it couldn't have come at a better time, sending water tumbling through the Santa Clara River and soothing the nerves of drought-fearing water officials.

"All this rainwater goes to help recharge the aquifer," said Steve Cole, general manager of the Newhall County Water District, tempering his enthusiasm in light of the ongoing statewide drought.

"We're still running at a deficit because we've had several dry years in a row," he said. "What we need is a really large downpour or several wet years to get back our equilibrium."

Mauricio E. Guardado Jr., retail manager of the Santa Clarita Water Division, which is the retail arm of the Castaic Lake Water Agency, is also pleased.

"I don't know if I would use the word ‘ecstatic' but more like ‘grateful' of the recent rain," he said. "Rain has definitely contributed to minor increases in well water levels. ‘Ecstatic' would be the feeling if we could receive enough precipitation to get us back to normal years," he said.

A series of storms moving into the valley from the ocean last week are expected to clear by Tuesday with more rain expected before the weekend.

Precipitation dumped on the parched Santa Clarita Valley is now recharging local aquifers and bringing groundwater levels up, which in some places are at their lowest levels in 18 years.

Rain shortened the drop of most buckets into most local wells, officials reported, but much more water is needed to return levels to what they were in 2004.

"We are still facing a third consecutive dry year and encourage residents to continue to conserve and use water efficiently," Guardado said.

Dennis Swanson, who supplies the National Weather Service with data collected from his privately run operation in Canyon Country, reported seeing water levels here rise with 1.94 inches of rainfall since Feb. 2.

The National Weather Service said another half inch fell here since Sunday evening.

"It's still a little below average," Swanson said, noting a total rainfall this month of 2.37 inches and 6.14 inches this season.

The Santa Clarita Water Division presented its own water production figures Monday to members of the Castaic Lake Water Agency's Retail Operations Committee, which show a steady overall drop in water production at all of the division's wells.

Overall levels have dropped steadily since July, leaving water levels at their lowest point in the last 10 years.

The Lost Canyon well pumped 600 gallons per minute in December - its lowest level, also witnessed earlier in 2008 and in mid-2007.

Comparing last year's water numbers with those of 2007, the Santa Clarita Water Division produced 30,476 acre-feet of water last year, almost 700 acre-feet less than it did in 2007.

This drop in water supplies is enough to fill - or not fill - more than 3 million standard bath tubs.

Last year, the water division relied more on local water than the water it received from the state.

More than 65 percent of the water sold to its customers in 2007 was from the state of California, that number fell to 61 percent last year.

In June, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.

"It would help if people remember to shut off their sprinklers," Guardado said. "When you think that about 70 percent of the water our customers use is for landscaping, collectively we could save quite a bit of water."

If the average Santa Clarita Valley resident never adjusts their sprinkler system, he said, they use about 200,000 gallons of water in a year based on the average water bill.

"Enough water to fill approximately 3,300 standard bathtubs," he said.

Since conserving water at the lawn level is paramount, the Newhall County Water District secured state funding for to expand its "smart sprinkler" rebate program, Cole said.

The "smart sprinkler" rebate program, started in 2005, saves about 3 million gallons in water and enables customers to save up to $480 when they upgrade their irrigation timers to high-tech weather-based systems, he said.

What started out as a pilot program involving 19 people four years ago, has saved more than 2.9 million gallons of water.

The official name of the program is the ET (evapo-transpiration) Controller Rebate Program and is offered to single-family homeowners who have a minimum of 1,200 square feet of irrigated landscape and a working in-ground irrigation system operated by an automatic timer.

Customers can save $40 per valve for up to 12 valves, or a maximum of $480, plus the cost of standard installation for upgrading their timers, a $120 value.

The controller system detects water that is lost from soil through evaporation and transpiration from plants as part of their metabolic processes. Using continuous data from sensors and local weather stations, it automatically decreases or increases the irrigation schedule according to changes in weather, thereby reducing under- or over-watering.

"This rebate program is part of our continuing effort to help customers conserve water and lower their water bills," Cole said.

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