15 April 2009

Robert B. Diemer Treatment Plant

It is a strange sight up on the ridge of the hills overlooking the intersection of Telegraph and Carbon canyons. Treatment plant? Could this be one of President Obama's secret reeducation centers that will force Orange County's young people into a socialist indoctrination program? Are there any teabags tossed at its doorstep? Does Rush Limbaugh know about this?

OK, OK, let's stop before it gets more ridiculous. The facility in question is one of five water treatment plants owned and operated by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in the Los Angeles area. The Robert B. Diemer Treatment Plant provides for water distribution via gravity flow to Orange and Los Angeles Counties from its 212-acre site at an 830' elevation in Yorba Linda. Opened in 1963, Diemer has a capacity of 520 million gallons, which is enough to serve 3 million persons, and currently treats about 75% of that, or 400 million gallons, each day, making the plant one of the biggest in America.

The water that is treated there comes mainly from the Colorado River through the 242-mile aqueduct that was completed in 1941, though there is some water that is brought in from northern California via the 444-mile California Aqueduct, completed during the 1960s via the State Water Project. Those with eagle eyes will note that there is property north of Carbon Canyon Road that is MWD-owned; well, the pipelines bringing this water from the north to Diemer runs through this portion of land and through easements from the aqueduct.

Through automated equipment, water level and pressure, as well as monitoring and surveillance, are carefully regulated, though the process of treating the water is fundamentally simple. Grates and screens along the distribution network keep large materials (debris, plant material, trash) out of the water. Initial treatment in the process involves coagulation, in which aluminum sulfate and other additives attach to particles in the water and then, through sedimentation tanks, the particle blocks, called flocs, settle to the bottom. Coal and sand are used to filter anything left, followed by a disinfecting with chlorine and ammonia. After this multi-stage process, the water is ready to deliver for use by consumers.

Much as landills, like Olinda Alpha (profiled last month in this blog) can use methane from buried refuse to generate power, Diemer is able to harness the forces that are created by the water speeding to the plant from the aqueduct and via pipelines for power generation. As the only one of the MWDs treatment plants to do this, Diemer's hydroelectric system creates 5.1 megawatts of power for the district's energy needs.

Incidentally, the other treatment plants operated by the district include Weymouth in La Verne, which opened in 1940 and serves Los Angeles and Orange counties; Jensen in Granada Hills, which serves West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Ventura County; Skinner in Winchester, which opened in 1976, and serves San Diego County; Mills, which opened in Riverside in 1978, and serves that county.

And, who, you might ask (or not), is Robert B. Diemer. Well, as with Weymouth, Jensen, Skinner and Mills, he was a significant figure in the MWD, starting with the district in its early days in 1929. Diemer had a background in water canals and dams from 1911. After over 20 years with the district, he became general manager and chief engineer, serving for nine years in this capacity and overseeing the expansion of the Colorado River Aqueduct, which has an overall capacity of processing 1 billion gallons of water every day. After Diemer left MWD, though he was a Pasadena representative to the district board, he was present at the facility's dedication to him in January 1964.

The MWD began with an idea by the mayor of Pasadena in 1924 to create a regional water partnership, which was called the Colorado River Aqueduct Association. In 1928, the year the district was incorporated, eleven cities joined the association, including Los Angeles, Burbank, Pasadena, Glendale, San Marino, Santa Monica, Anaheim, Colton, Santa Ana and San Bernardino. By 1931, Fullerton, Seal Beach, Torrance and Compton joined, as Colton and San Bernardino dropped out. Even though the Great Depression was underway, voters approved a bond issue for construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct, which stated in 1933 and took, as was mentioned above, eight years to complete. San Diego County joined, under some immense pressure as water supplies were in jeopardy there, in 1946, a topic I happened to hear about at a Los Angeles conference a couple of weekends ago and now there are 26 agencies in the district, which provides about 50% of the water used by over half of the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura.

Because the Colorado River passes through several western American states (as well as a portion of Mexico), the use of its water is governed by a compact hammered out by the federal government by an apportionment system to these states (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado). Major infrastructure development has been just abuot generational: with the Colorado River Aqueduct happening in the 1930s; the State Water Project in the 1960s; and the Diamond Valley Lake project in Riverside in the 1990s.

More recently and locally, the MWD's proposal to build a secondary access road to Diemer from Carbon Canyon Road and through Chino Hills State Park land caused Hills for Everyone, a local preservation organization, to file suit to block the road as fundamentally incompatible with state park uses. Recently, HFE announced that it was dropping the lawsuit because MWD agreed to transfer some its property to the state park.

Just today in major regional papers, we read that the WMD is responding to the continuation of a severe drought (human-caused global climate change, anyone?) by mandating a 10% cut in water use among its member agencies, coupled with a 20% increase in rates, the first time these measures have been enacted since the early 1990s. Agencies found to be using more water than called for face significant fines. The low rainfall prevented the mudslides feared in Carbon Canyon after November's devastating Freeway Complex Fire, but it also means the cuts in supply and raises in rates we're seeing now. Lake Mead is at about 46% of capacity, though it will increase some with Lake Powell water being released further up the Colorado River, but, across the west, reservoirs are below capacity and significantly so in most cases, even with some late rainfall and snowpack that occurred.

For most of us, a fundamental lack of understanding, awareness and appreciation for how water, the life-giving substance for all of us, gets to our taps is something that needs to change, if we are to change our habits and recognize that the supply is anything but infinte and inexhaustible. Can we keep building and developing; watering lawns, golf courses, and parks; filling seemingly endless swimming pools, shopping center fountains, Disneyland's "Rivers of America" and water-based rides, and housing tract lakes in the middle of semi-arid deserts; and supplying farmers with 80% of all water used in California?

That is hardly a rhetorical question--the answer is no, not indefinitely. As amazing as Diemer and its sister (brother?) plants are in treating massive amounts of water traveling hundreds of miles to get here and in providing clean, high-quality water to boot, we have to find some way to plan for a sea change in how we use this valuable resource. The challenge of past decades to find more water will be followed in future ones by how to make the best use of what we have, especially as supplies diminish and populations increase. We can't "drill, baby, drill" our way out of this predicament. One would like to believe that the ingenuity, intelligence and invention used to create the technologies and practices that developed and delivered Diemer could be used to plan wisely for the future. Let's hope so.

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