Where Long Beach water comes from and why it matters

Aug. 29, 2019 / By

Above, Long Beach renter Guadalupe Yañez, 46, waters her lawn and plants on Aug. 27, 2019. Photo by Crystal Niebla.


Ever wonder where your tap water comes from? Perhaps from some far away mountains or from the rare times that it rains here. Before researching for this story, I honestly didn’t know, and I walked around my 90806 neighborhood to ask if others were as clueless as me.


“No idea,” 46-year-old Guadalupe Yañez replied in Spanish when asked if she knew. 


“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” said 28-year-old Sergio, who requested his last name not be public. “Never even thought about it.”


“Yes,” said 22-year-old Nathan Sanchez, who only knew because he happens to work for the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD). The sources, he said, include snow, rivers, rainfall, main underground pipes, to name a few, as taught to him as part of a class for work. 


Nathan Sanchez, 22, washes his work uniforms on the floor of his driveway on Aug. 27, 2019. Photo by Crystal Niebla.


I chose to approach each of these residents because they all had one thing in common when I saw them: they were using gallons of water.


In California, water is becoming increasingly scarce due to climate change and overconsumption, and Long Beach, along with other SoCal cities, is preparing for future potential shortages.


Over 2,600 water shortages have impacted California counties since 2012, according to Department of Water Resources data. Los Angeles county saw 11 shortages during that time, although shortages are “undoubtedly” underreported, according to the data. 


D0 – D4 represents drought severity across California, with D1 meaning “moderate drought” and D4 representing “exceptional drought.” Image source: U.S. Drought Monitor.



As shortages increase due to rising temperatures, so does the cost of importing and pumping local water in cities in Southern California.


Long Beach draws its drinking water from three main sources that are becoming more scarce, some dramatically:


  • 60% comes from local groundwater, replenished when it rains.


  • 25% comes from the Colorado River via the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct, which gets its water from the Rocky Mountains and ventures through seven states before ending in Mexico.


  • 15% comes from Northern California’s Bay-Delta, via the 441-mile California Aqueduct. The Delta is where about half of the entire state’s snowmelt and runoff spill in from five rivers (that have their own origins) and is home to sensitive wildlife.


Water imported from the Colorado River and Northern Bay-Delta is sold by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) to 14 cities, which includes Long Beach.


Map courtesy of the Long Beach Water Department.


It also costs Long Beach millions to pump and treat groundwater.


Even just pumping groundwater from local wells is a whole process in itself. Throughout Long Beach, the Long Beach Water Department operates 30 groundwater wells. LBWD, like all other pumpers in the regional groundwater basin, pays the Watermaster, Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD), a fee that goes towards maintaining the health of the groundwater basin. Groundwater, much like fossil fuel, is a stored resource. The only difference is that groundwater basins have historically been replenished by natural rainfall.

Map Courtesy of the Long Beach Water District.


Since the demand for water is higher than natural replenishment, WRD uses the fee paid by pumpers to replenish groundwater artificially, for example, by using imported or recycled water.


“There is a decreased ability to get imported water,” said Dean Wang, manager of water resources for the LBWD, citing the “big picture” with climate change and increasing environmental restrictions, particularly during extended droughts.


MWD’s water rates have been rising steadily over the years due to smaller water supplies. Rates are charged in two tiers: Tier 1 for a basic amount supply, and then a second more expensive tier that kicks in after Tier 1 supply has been used up to promote conservation.


The 2019 rates for full-service treated water are $1,050 per acre-foot for Tier 1 and $1,136 for Tier 2. Each acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, about half the gallons of water in an olympic-sized pool. 


Because the water supply has been limited overall from California’s recent drought, there may be limits on the amount available even at the Tier-2 rate, and additional supplies may be charged at even higher rates should cities require more water. These numbers are two times the rates of a decade ago, according to a 2016 California Public Utilities Commission report.


A man walks across a bridge at the Long Beach Water Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of the Long Beach Water District.


Imported water availability from MWD may decrease significantly by about 365,000 acre-feet next year and onward if a structure like the Delta Conveyance Project, a single-tunnel project that would convey more water to Southern California from the Bay Delta, is not built, Wang explained. If the Delta Conveyance Project is not built and other water supply project alternatives are not developed, the long term demand for water would exceed water supply and lead to shortages in Southern California, Wang said. Currently, the MWD is planning and studying changes in long-term water sources.

Now, this is the part where your wallet might hurt a bit. Both the MWD’s and WRD’s increasing rates have cost Long Beach money, and that cost may now trickle down onto Long Beach residents with a 12% water bill increase come October 1 should the city council approve the proposal. The new revenue would pay for ongoing operation, maintenance, repair and replacement of existing water and sewer systems, according to the LBWD website.


However, the proposed 12% increase has met much pushback from community members as it may burden poorer residents or misuse allotted funds, some say.


But the city says otherwise. 


“…without continued investment in the infrastructure, the costs to purchase and treat water and other operating maintenance costs would increase and could result in higher bills,” Kaylee Weatherly, LBWD public information officer, said via email.


Part of Long Beach’s plan is to become more water-independent and import less. Although the city’s goal isn’t to go 100% groundwater, Wang said they aim to increase the percentage. The city plans on adding and replacing two wells each year for the near future.


“The more we can utilize groundwater, the better it is for our rate payers,” he said. “That is our goal, regardless of whether or not there is a decrease and availability of imported water. But the fact that we are going to develop our groundwater supply helps protect us if there is a decrease in imported water in the future.”


Importing water costs about three times more than pumping groundwater. According to budget documents, the WRD’s and the MWD’s rates have also soared by 101% and 50%, respectively, since 2010, showing that the charges on Long Beach to pump local water and to import water have both increased. Although the percentage increase is higher for groundwater in recent years, the WRD’s charge is still much lower at $365 per acre-foot, compared to MWD’s $1,050 per acre-foot.


Long Beach renter Guadalupe Yañez, 46, waters grass in front of her home on Aug. 27, 2019. Photo by Crystal Niebla.


Long Beach may also turn to more recycling projects as alternatives to imported water. The city has also launched a number of water conservation programs for residents, such as paying residents to convert lawns to drought-resistant gardens or a new upcoming program, Wang revealed, called Direct Installation for Multi-Family Efficiency ‒ or DIME ‒ that would assist multi-family properties with replacing indoor fixtures like showerheads and toilets for more water-conserving ones.


Residents are doing their part, too.


Sergio said he waters his lawn once per week and has added cacti to his garden to conserve water. As for me, I’m trying to take more bucket baths at home.


A bucket of water is filled in preparation for a bath. Mobile photo by Crystal Niebla.


A public hearing on the proposed increase of water rates will take place at the Long Beach Groundwater Treatment Plant Assembly Room located at 2950 Redondo Ave. on August 29 at 7 p.m.



CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the imported water availability from MWD will decrease until next year, then level off, as the number goes back up in 2030, but that is with the assumption that the California Waterfix, a twin-tunnel project that would irrigate more water from the Bay Delta, would be built. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom formally ended the California Waterfix this year. Negotiations by the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project around the Delta Conveyance Project, a single tunnel, is taking its place. Also misstated was a Long Beach water conservation program Direct Inflation for Multi-Family Efficiency. The correct name is Direct Installation for Multi-Family Efficiency.

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Crystal Niebla

Crystal was raised in South Los Angeles and is the first college graduate in her family. She is a class of 2016 CSULB graduate who has served as an editor for her campus newspaper and freelanced for the Long Beach Post and Random Length News. Crystal is now a Report for America corps member, covering the Westside for the Long Beach Post. Follow her work @crystalniebla on Twitter and @crystalniebla_media on Instagram.