Water heads eye water deep, deep underground

Denny Orellana and his son Michael, 9, take a look at the rain-filled Santa Clara River during a walk in Canyon Country last January. Tom Cruze/for The Signal
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While the Santa Clarita Valley was soaked by continual rain this winter, having received three times more precipitation than usual, many of SCV’s shallow wells rose to only about a quarter of their capacity.

But, that doesn’t mean the region is running out of water, say officials.

Local water heads getting ready to introduce themselves to state water regulators as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency, assembled to manage Santa Clarita Valley’s groundwater, are taking a close look at its deepest reservoir – the Saugus Formation.

Regardless of which water retailer SCV delivers your water, half of it is imported from Northern California by the Castaic Lake Water Agency and the other half comes from water flowing under the SCV.

Local groundwater is pumped from two aquifers – the alluvial aquifer which is, basically, the Santa Clara River watershed and the other much deeper aquifer, the Saugus Formation.

Despite all the rain received this year, at least a couple of wells near Agua Dulce filled to only 13 percent capacity.

And, since two thirds of the local groundwater distributed by the CLWA comes from the more shallow wells, a diminished capacity has many local water officials taking a closer look at the harder-to-get water deep underground.

Groundwater management

State water officials concerned about over-pumping across the state expect to see an SCV group assembled to manage ground water in the Santa Clara River Valley East Sub-Basin by the end of June.

Members of SCV’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency have been identified and this month each is expected to get approval from their own elected bodies – Santa Clarita City Council will be asked endorse the agency, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will be asked to do the same and so on.

Steve Cole, general manager of the Newhall County Water District and the unofficial head of the emerging local GSA agency, said the water buried deep under the SCV is not diminished.

“The Saugus Formation is the deepest aquifer in the SCV,” he told The Signal Thursday. “Specifically, there are several layers that comprise the Formation, all the way down to 8,500 feet.”

And although the water supply is a mile and a half under the earth, it can be pumped.

“Historically, the water purveyors in the valley have focused their efforts on the shallower portions of the Formation,” Cole said.

“The average existing Saugus wells in the valley, of which there are several, produce water from approximately 2,000 feet deep,” he said.

Cole was asked if drilling wells 1.5 miles under the SCV for “brackish” water was worth it. Water at the deepest parts of the aquifer are saline, or salty.

“All the Saugus wells currently in production have water quality in compliance with all Federal and State drinking water regulations,” Cole said. “Future wells are proposed to be located at similar depths within the Saugus Formation.”

Besides, he added, water officials thinking about tapping into the deeper aquifer are focusing on “the shallower depths -down to around 3,500 feet (or close to half the 1.5 mile depth) – of the Saugus Formation and (and seeing) how much water is available for potable use.”

Unlike the drought-ravaged alluvial aquifer which is easier to tap, the deeper one has the water, according to Dirk Marks, water resource manager for the CLWA.

“The Saugus formation is nowhere near empty,” Marks told The Signal. “Further, the (Santa Clara River Valley East Sub-)Basin is behaving as we would anticipate during a drought with a moderate decline in groundwater elevations.”

And while the alluvial aquifer generally underlies the Santa Clara River, areas immediately adjacent to the river and its several tributaries, the Saugus Formation underlies pretty much the entire Santa Clarita Valley.

Brackish, salty water

How big is the Saugus Formation?

According to the United States Geological Survey, it can store more than 6 million acre-feet with the very deepest portion being filled with saline water.  That’s the equivalent of 6 million football fields under one foot of water.

Rather than go looking for the “brackish” water a mile down or the salty water below that, water officials would much rather sink their straw into the shallower portions of the Saugus Formation.

“From a practical water management perspective we look at the top portions of the basin where we can readily access fresh water, down to a depth of about 2,500 feet,” Marks said.

“That portion of the basin has a volume of 1.4 million acre-feet,” he said. “During this drought, from 2013 through 2016, total extraction from the Saugus were about 31,000 acre-feet or about two percent of that portion of basin’s capacity.”

“As is documented in the Urban Water Management Plan, the groundwater basins are being managed in a sustainable manner,” Marks said.  “Groundwater levels change year to year depending on levels of precipitation and pumping but the long-term remain in balance.”

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