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By Breeana Greenberg

Orange County needs a unified approach to water conservation and drought as California faces the driest 22-year period in over a thousand years, the Orange County Grand Jury recommended in a new report published late last month.

The June 22 Grand Jury report stated that Orange County water providers need to “consolidate their resources and establish a unified voice to lead the County more efficiently in its water policies and planning.”

Orange County has two water supply agencies: Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) and Orange County Water District (OCWD).

The report explained that South Orange County relies primarily on imported water purchased through MWDOC whereas North and Central Orange County rely primarily on groundwater supplied by OCWD.

MWDOC sells imported water to its 27-member agencies, while OCWD “manages the groundwater basin in the north and central part of the County” and provides local retailers with a “reliable, adequate, and high-quality supply of water,” the report said.

There are 29 retail water providers such as water districts and cities throughout Orange County that supply water from supply agencies to ratepayers.

The OC Grand Jury found that “all sources of water are interconnected and would be best administered by one governmental entity.”

The report states that “reliable sources shared opinions with the OCGJ that the current OC wholesale structure is ‘dysfunctional’, ‘prevents speaking with one voice for all of Orange County water interests’ involving the aquifer and imported water sources, and ‘currently provides redundant services with redundant costs.’”

The “dual structure” of the county’s water supply agencies “has resulted in missed opportunities” for collaboration across agencies. It’s also resulted in missed opportunities for “increased operating efficiency, decreased reliance on imported water, and the creation of a more reliable water supply,” according to the report.

The Grand Jury found that the creation of a single wholesale water agency would be the most effective in coordinating infrastructure investments and policies, as well as increased influence at local, state and federal levels, and centralized planning for emergency water supply interruptions.

However, the report also raised concerns related to creating a singular, wholesale agency, including staff reductions and the complicated nature of either consolidating the two existing wholesale water districts or the formation of a new agency.

Creating a new governing board structure may also “cause a loss of representation of the unique water needs of different parts of the County” and “imported versus groundwater requires specialized knowledge and a unique operational approach and should not be combined.”

By January 2023, the report recommended that the county’s wholesale water agencies should “formally begin analysis and collaboration towards forming a single wholesale water authority or comparable agency to operate and represent wholesale water operations and interests of all imported and ground water supplies.”

Additionally, any consolidated wholesale water authority “should have Directors that examine and vote on issues considering the unique needs of all water districts,” according to the report.

The Grand Jury Report notes that the “consolidation of OCWD and MWDOC has been explored in the past, debated by wholesale and retail water agencies, but ultimately never accomplished.”

However, the report concludes that “now is the time to have a single wholesale water supply agency in Orange County.”

The OCWD and MWDOC are required to respond to the Grand Jury findings and recommendations by Sept. 20. The Grand Jury also requested responses from the 18 water districts and cities that manage their own water including the South Coast Water District, Moulton Niguel Water District and Santa Margarita Water District.

SCWD, MNWD and SMWD were not prepared to comment on the report.

As of this posting, the City of San Clemente’s utilities director did not respond to a request for comment.

Breeana Greenberg

Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at bgreenberg@picketfencemedia.com

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