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A Brief History of the Santa Margarita Conjunctive Use Project

A Recap of OCWA’s November 2021 Industry Insight Presentation

By Tim Hogan
OCWA Communications

It was a classic American tale: Citizens engaged in a legal struggle with an uncompromising federal authority. At one point, it became so rancorous the world’s foremost film maker of the day, multi-Academy Award winner Frank Capra, produced a short film to tell the citizens’ story.

The Fallbrook Story (1952), told a tale as old as the West, the struggle for water in arid California. Ranchers and farmers in Fallbrook had banded together to build a dam to secure control of the area’s water rights. But downstream, U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton laid claim to the river. They’d moved their training facility to this location from San Diego in part because of the water, and they had every intention to hold it.

The legal battle between these two determined forces would drag out over 70 years, finally reaching a happy ending this year. To help explain its intricacies, Jack Bebee, General Manager, Fallbrook Public Utility District, joined us last November for a well-attended webinar on “A Brief History of the Santa Margarita Conjunctive Use Project.”

When the legal conflict began, the Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD) had been incorporated some 30 years. What had been a somewhat sleepy town had blossomed in those years, with thousands of ranchers and farmers drawn to the fertile lands around the Santa Margarita River. In the 1940s, there’d been a boom of development, with water-intensive avocado orchards filling the hills and valleys.

The Marines had also landed in 1942. Eager to expand training facilities as World War II broke out, the Leathernecks had literally marched out of San Diego to build a new home 40 miles north in Oceanside, on 125,000 acres along the Santa Margarita River below Fallbrook.

The initial skirmish was won by the Federal government. Water in the river, a federal judge decreed, was the Marines’, and Fallbrook would need to find theirs elsewhere.

Fallbrook appealed, and in 1966 secured a modified ruling, as a Federal Court ordered the two parties to develop a solution to share the river’s water.

Over the next 55 years, a variety of plans would be tried, each defeated by a variety of obstacles. Fallbrook initially sought to build two dams upstream, to better control the flow of water. Over 1,400 riparian acres were acquired for the plan. But the 1972 Endangered Species Act killed it when the Least Bell’s Vireo, a small bird threatened by loss of its riparian breeding lands, caused the project to be abandoned.

A second plan, the Four Party Agreement, which sought to increase downriver waters through disposal of upriver waste water, gave promise of over 34,000 AFY that could be stored for use by both parties in the aquifer below Camp Pendleton. It was killed when the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board set near-impossible-to-meet standards for nitrogen and phosphorous.

Despite these setbacks, however, the beginning of the end was at hand. In 2011, FPUD, in conjunction with the Department of the Navy and aided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, began negotiations on what ultimately became known as the Santa Margarita River Conjunctive Use Project. It would be six years before the Navy and FPUD Board approved the settlement, and two more years before a Federal judge would sign off on it, but the solution was finally at hand.

Under the agreement, the River will flow through the City and into the Camp. However, an elaborate diversion structure was put in place at the base, the recharge facilities for the aquifer were upgraded, and additional capacity for storage expanded. Because the aquifer is rather small, during times of heavy flow water will be diverted to FPUD, to make room for additional storage. This will add a yield of about 4,000 AF to the project.

Getting water to the City is a big part of the agreement. As the Marines built their facilities, they also ran a pipeline to the City’s boundary where it connected with the City’s pipeline.

On the City’s side, FPUD constructed a groundwater treatment facility with a multi-fold process: Greensand filters to remove iron and manganese, and Reverse Osmosis (RO) to reduce TDS levels. The main focus was to reduce the chloride level, for no one wanted to build a new facility that caused the area’s avocados to turn brown. “That,” Bebee explained, “would be sort of a 60 Minutes story, and not a good one.” Finally, because of concerns about pending PFAS regulations, along with some other issues, Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) vessels were installed to filter organic contaminants. After treatment, the water is piped to a storage tank, where it’s held for later use.

Now, with the Conjunctive Use Project complete, FPUD and Camp Pendleton can see and appreciate substantial benefits from their mutual efforts.

This new, local supply provides a buffer for FPUD against cutbacks of its imported supplies. And because the Marine base is now connected to the City’s system, it can draw upon those imported supplies during periods of extended drought. Prior to this, the Camp had not been connected to outside sources of water.

With locally available groundwater, the energy required to bring water to the area has been substantially reduced. It has also reduced demand on the Delta. And best of all, it resolved the longstanding water rights litigation over the river.

It has also had a wholly beneficial impact on the environment. The original 1,400 acres the District acquired for the Two Dams Project in the mid-’60s have been permanently preserved as open space habitat. This, Bebee said, has created “some of the best hiking and horseback riding in the area.” A modified diversion dam helps facilitate the river’s passage. This maintains the flow and groundwater levels essential for riparian habitat and the species that live there.

And as the project was developed, changes were implemented to reduce the environmental impact. Among these were a reduced maximum diversion rate, to assure a steady flow all the way to the estuary. In addition, fish passage facilities were incorporated, to encourage spawning of steelhead trout.

For Camp Pendleton, in addition to providing a resolution to a vexing litigation issue that had not been beneficial to its community standing, the Project provided substantial revenue from water sales, enough to offset its operating costs. And best of all, it provides an incentive for the Marines to maximize both their supplies and its reuse.

A sore point for all concerned had finally been resolved, some 70 years after it began. For Fallbrook, it had been a long, steady slog, a fight of frequent frustration that had, at last, been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. When the new project came on line in November, 2021, it promised to provide up to 50% of the District’s water supply. This would have a salutary effect on water costs, reducing them substantially. And with all the new infrastructure in place, future projects to increase yield are all within easy sight.

Best of all, FPUD’s Santa Margarita water deliveries have resumed for the first time since 1969.


•    •     •

OCWA was proud to host this very informative talk by Jack Bebee. At the end of a year of exceptionally well-received Industry Insight presentations, Mr Bebee helped conclude the year’s string of well-received programs. This fulfilled the Board of Director’s commitment to provide quality, timely information for the its members and the entire Orange County water community.

For those interested, a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation is available for download by OCWA’s members only. Yet another great reason to consider becoming a member if you aren’t one already.

In January, we’ll kick off another year of quality programs when Tetra Tech’s Jason Fussel joins us to discuss Stormwater Capture! The City of Lakewood’s Project to Divert Runoff for Use in Bolivar Park.

Register Now to Ensure You Don’t Forget!
OCWA Members: Free. Non Members: $10.00

Make plans now to attend. For as the possibility of drought continues to hang above us all, knowledge of these mitigation measures will become increasingly useful.

See you January 19, 2022!

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