DISTRICT OF THE MONTH: TWENTYNINE PALMS WATER DISTRICT
GM Matt Shragge on Conservation, Sewers, Swamp Coolers and Cannabis Grows in the Hi Desert’s Only Self-Sufficient Water District
Water in the desert. Where do we get it? Who makes sure when we turn on our taps that good, clear, drinkable water flows out? Sure I pay my bill every month but how does it all get done? What if I have a leak? And how does the drought impact our water supply? Do we have to buy water like all the other Hi Desert districts do, or are we self-sufficient?
Matt Shragge, new General Manager of the Twentynine Palms Water District (TPWD), is the guy who lays awake at night worrying about all this and more.
Matt kindly spoke with The Desert Trumpet recently and told us all about it.
TPWD has been around since 1954. Matt has worked at TPWD since 2011. Under him is a staff of 22, eight of whom are continuously out in the field.
When I tell people it's eight guys that cover 86 square miles they say, "Wow, we see you guys everywhere." I'm like, "You need to see us everywhere. This is our district and this is what we represent."
This is a water district that's run by people who worked their way up in the field. Not a bunch of suits.
TPWD staff includes eight field techs constantly taking care of what they call “the distribution side” — serving customers face to face and maintaining water supply infrastructure throughout the District, including 250 miles of pipe and 8,200 service connections. There are two plant operators and two water quality techs in the District’s treatment plants. Then to maintain its truck fleet, TPWD also has its own mechanic — as Matt says, “whether people believe in having a mechanic in-house or not, we do.” Finally, the District has office staff, an office manager, a district secretary and four managers.
Where Does the Water Come From?
From groundwater, that's where:
We've always been 100% groundwater. The other three water districts [in the Hi Desert] don't do this -- they import water in from the State Water Project. We don't. We're 100% relying on groundwater.
In other words, TPWD is totally water self-sufficient.
Large water catchment areas are called "basins." Basins are divided -- either physically by faults or notionally by political boundaries -- into sub-basins. Aquifers sit within basins or sub-basins, they're layers of sediment rock which hold water like a sponge.
From a 20,000 foot flyover perspective, TPWD gets its water from two big basins -- the Twentynine Palms basin and the Joshua Tree basin.
As you zoom in, on the ground, water comes from four different sub-basins: Mesquite, Indian Cove, 49 Palms and Eastern.
To the north, at over 50 square miles, Mesquite is by far the largest sub-basin. It lies within the larger overall Twentynine Palms basin. And as you’d expect given its enormous size, Mesquite is the highest producing sub-basin in the area.
Then to the south, mainly south of Highway 62, the other three sub-basins lie within the larger Joshua Tree basin. The Indian Cove sub-basin is at the west end of the Water District, the 49 Palms sub-basin is in the middle, then the Eastern sub-basin is just like it sounds -- at the easternmost end of the Water District.
The Water District runs seven production wells. At these well sites TPWD pumps water from the sub-basin below, up to the surface to reliably produce water for customers. The District rotates pumping from the wells seasonally to balance competing needs: water production versus the need to let the different aquifers recharge. Each aquifer has its own unique personality, and the District has become adept at optimizing them to meet the area’s long-term water needs.
How do aquifers recharge? The primary way that aquifers recharge is naturally, from precipitation. But aquifers can also be artificially recharged in various ways. One way is by letting partially or fully treated water from septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants seep back into the aquifer. TPWD takes advantage of both of these recharge methods.
Another way that some water districts accomplish aquifer recharge is by injecting water obtained from elsewhere into an aquifer. TPWD has never needed to resort to this kind of additional injection because it’s fortunate enough to have decades or centuries of groundwater supply already in its aquifers.
What's That Big Tank on My Road?
TPWD maintains 12 reservoirs! These big steel storage tanks are strategically located throughout the District, including in some residential neighborhoods. Together they enable the District store up to 17 million gallons of water.
We try to keep our reservoirs pretty full. Our rough allocation is that a third of our water storage is for regular supply, a third we keep on hand for fire, then the last third we keep as a reserve on top of that. And we always try to keep the reservoirs full because everything's based off the elevation of those reservoirs, to keep pressure in the system.
But water storage has to be carefully managed due to the need to let aquifers seasonally recharge, as well as to maintain redundancy.
We try to let the other aquifers [the Indian Cove, 49 Palms and Eastern sub-basins] take a rest during the winter so that they can recharge. In winter we pump only from the Mesquite sub-basin and it suffices for the whole district. Whereas during summer we run all our wells in order to keep pace with demand.
The good thing about our district is we're a blended district [a district able to tap various wells as needed] so we can get always water from the lowest hydraulic gradient throughout the whole district. If I’m not producing in the Indian Cove or 49 Palms basin, like we don't in the winter, we can pump all of our water from Mesquite and we can get it throughout the whole district.
What About Water Quality?
The water that comes out of your tap is good, pure and ready to drink, but that doesn't happen by itself. In TWPD there are four main concerns around quality: fluoride, arsenic, chromium-6 and appearance.
Fluoride occurs naturally in area groundwater. Many water companies fluoridate their water -- community water fluoridation is recommended by nearly all public health, medical, and dental organizations. But water from some of the wells around Twentynine Palms contains an excess of fluoride. To meet this challenge, TPWD has become a nationally recognized leader in defluoridation.
One of the things I don't think people know about TPWD is that we're widely recognized in the world of water. Up until two years ago we had the largest fluoride removal plant in the country. We process 5 million gallons a day! We've had people from all over the country come visit our plant to see what we're doing.
For 18 years TPWD has been successfully using an "activated alumina with pH control" process to filter out excess fluoride from a number of its wells, especially in the Mesquite sub-basin. This has enabled TPWD to keep pace with water demand and helped the District avoid any need to purchase out-of-area water.
Arsenic is another element common in groundwater. Unlike fluoride, arsenic serves no useful purpose in drinking water. It's considered a contaminant, and California's arsenic limit is 10 micrograms per liter. Fortunately, wells in TPWD contain no more than trace amounts of arsenic. The same process used to defluoridate water also effectively removes arsenic. In addition, the District performs additional specialized arsenic treatment -- thanks to the District's extensive experience with defluoridation, the US EPA chose TPWD to do a model arsenic removal program.
Chromium-6 often occurs naturally in groundwater. Like arsenic, chromium-6 serves no useful purpose and it's considered a contaminant. Further west in the Morongo Basin, for example around Joshua Tree, chromium-6 naturally occurs in much higher concentrations, making chromium-6 a real groundwater issue in these areas. But fortunately, water from TPWD's wells contains only trace quantities of chromium-6, so TPWD can blend water to remain well below the 50 microgram per liter standard.
Finally there are water appearance issues:
Sometimes a customer calls in and says, "Hey, my water looks lousy." I say, "Okay, walk me through your house and tell me where the issue is." So they start showing me, and often it's their house plumbing. We explain to them, this could be a really old water heater, that's why you're getting a rotten egg smell, or your water’s brown because you have rust in your pipes, or there's air in the water so your water looks like milk.
We have to take every concern, especially a customer complaint, seriously because we have to report that to the state. But we're never afraid to get out there and help the public.
For the lowdown on water quality, local residents can also check TPWD's yearly Consumer Confidence Report.
Drought, Water Conservation, Swamp Coolers and Cannabis Grows
Twentynine Palms is now effectively under the same drought water restrictions which apply statewide. At their June 22nd, 2022 meeting the District Board of Directors adopted a measure declaring a Stage 2 water shortage and mandating local water conservation measures.
But water conservation is a challenge here in Twentynine Palms, which has lots of swamp coolers and very little grass to get rid of.
We've been up in Sacramento with the Community Water Systems Alliance1. What happens with water regulations is they lump everyone together. They're yelling about giving up turf, getting rid of the lawns. For drought regulations, the state could definitely save water by getting rid of lawns. But here in Twentynine Palms there's not a lot of grass and lawns except at the parks.
Especially given how common swamp coolers are in the District, the state water conservation targets could be tough for us to meet during summer:
There’s a big difference between the high and the low [water use seasons]. California wanted us to get down to 55 gallons per person per day. We've gotten as low as 60-something. But in our high months, we're significantly over that. Are their conservation numbers even representative of what we can actually hit?
On the other hand, now that the County Sheriff has succeeded in almost completely eliminating local illegal cannabis farms — a significant quantity of water is now being conserved versus just a year earlier:
In [water] production last month, we were negative 5%! The big difference we're seeing is that the MET [the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team] has really gotten rid of all of these marijuana farms.
What If There's a Leak?
Now that TPWD has upgraded almost all its water meters so they report water use hourly, the District can use this new functionality to detect leaks and to proactively notify customers. So if you notice TPWD calling you, be sure to take that call:
We're already doing customer leak alerts. Our new meter reading system has a function called “continual usage” where if a meter doesn't shut off for a full day, it sends us an email. It's a huge difference in how we're able to help the customer.
We want you to use the water efficiently. We want to prove to you that it isn't about us making money. It's about us conserving water, having a better service and conserving a valuable resource.
How Much Water is Left?
Nobody knows how much groundwater is in the basins the District draws from, because particularly in the Mesquite basin, no one has ever drilled deep enough to hit bedrock. This being the case, hydrologists who've analyzed the local basins frame estimates of years of water remaining in terms of minimums — not a maximums. Some studies say at least 400 years, but there may be much more.
We don't know how deep the [aquifer] is. So, just to give you an example, at TPWD water well TP-1, we hit water at 50 feet. But it's drilled to 1,010 feet and we never hit bedrock. So if we're at 50 feet and let's say in 18 years the water level dropped a foot or two. That alone is telling you that the water quantity in that aquifer is ridiculous.
As part of preparation for a possible sewer system for Twentynine Palms, the District and the City are now engaging the USGS (US Geological Survey) to perform testing and analysis which could, among other things, more definitively answer the question of how much water is in the local aquifers:
Now, the USGS study that we're pushing for the sewer project could give us some of that information. Where's the bottom of the aquifer? How long do you think projections could be?
The Next Ten Years
When Matt looks out at the upcoming ten years he's primarily concerned about three things: a sewer and wastewater project for Twentynine Palms; a second treatment plant for wells in the Mesquite sub-basin; and potential new, unfunded state water regulations and mandates.
Matt looks forward to collaborating with the City of Twentynine Palms on a new sewer system:
Wastewater in Twentynine Palms is definitely going to be on the list so that we can protect our aquifers and our groundwater. Is the US Geological Survey study completed, that says we definitely need a sewer system today? No. But again, anybody that we can get off of a septic tank and put onto a sewer, is going to be better off for the long haul.
Then there's a second treatment plant to serve as backup treatment for wells in the Mesquite sub-basin.
I will see, in my time here at the district, a second treatment plant built for the Mesquite aquifer water. Because if you don't have redundancy and something goes down, you're not serving the community. Redundancy is going to be key.
And then there's unfunded mandates coming down from the state level:
You don't know where the state's gonna go with the next regulation. And when they throw unfunded regulations out there, they're not giving you the money to fix whatever you must do. I [appreciate] the fact that California wants to be the most stringent in the country. Okay, we get it. But if California is going to do that to every water district, when are you guys going to start paying for the unfunded things that are coming down the pike?
A Very Special Special District
One point Matt emphasizes is that TPWD is a special district. It has only one purpose — to deliver water reliably and for many years to come to its customers, the local residents in and around Twentynine Palms. TPWD has an Board of Directors to whom Matt answers. The Board is in turn elected by the local community, the District’s customers.
Last month the feisty District managed to maintain its independence from the City of Twentynine Palms by demonstrating to LAFCO, who assesses these matters, that TWPD does its job cost-effectively and well.
One can’t help but be impressed by all that’s going on in TPWD. As water customers and as local citizens, we’re in good hands.