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Orange County (OC) covers almost 800 square miles and within its boundaries 3.1 million people reside.   Throughout the 800 sq. miles for all OC residents, water is delivered by a simple turn of a tap.   Since almost all of OC is classified as a desert, where does all the water come from to support a county of 3.1 million people?

The short answer is through a combination of importing water from outside the county and from groundwater located in a large aquifer under the county.  The county is expected to add another 500,000 residents by 2020, thus increasing the demand for water and making the management and actual delivery of water more challenging, complex and costly.   Yet despite the increasing cost of water, it remains for now, one of the most cost-efficient utilities in California.

Water delivery for our county starts with water wholesalers, who secure enough imported and groundwater to meet the needs of the county’s water retailers who purchase the water and deliver it to all users (business, agriculture, residents, etc.).  The county has three water wholesalers and 31 water retailers.

The primary wholesaler of imported water for the county is the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), who is responsible for insuring a reliable supply of high quality imported water to 28 OC water (retail) districts.

The remaining water that is imported for the county comes from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) which provides imported water to the other three water (retail) districts of Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton.

In both cases the imported water comes from the Northern California State Water Project and from the Colorado River combining to make-up about 50% of the water used in the county.  The other 50% of the county’s water supply comes from a vast underground aquifer located below central and north Orange County, as well as from recycled wastewater and a few smaller underground aquifers.  These groundwater operations are managed by the Orange County Water District (OCWD).

The MWDOC and the OCWD work cooperatively on all water issues with much of their focus being on the four options for increasing water supply.  The four options are to increase the amount of reuse/recycling, increase water storage, conserve more water or create a new source.  As to new sources, most of OC’s efforts have concentrated on the Huntington Beach Desalination Project, also known as the Poseidon Project, which is expected to produce 50 million gallons of fresh water per day beginning in 2018.

The OCWD was formed by the State Legislature in 1933 to protect the OC’s water rights to the Santa Ana River.  OCWD’s primary responsibility is managing this vast groundwater basin that supplies water to more than 20 water (retail) districts that serve more than 2.3 million residents.  Since 1933, OCWD has recharged and kept the groundwater basin’s fresh water safe while increasing the basin’s annual yield by more than 100%. This critical source of water provides 60% of the county with a reliable supply of high-quality water.

The OCWD has a highly-respected leadership reputation for groundwater and water reuse/purification within the global water market.  Among the innovations that have earned their leadership reputation is the implementation in January 2008 of their innovative Groundwater Replenishment System, this prevents seawater intrusion into the groundwater basin.  In addition, in 2009 they launched a state-of-the-art Advanced Water Quality Assurance Laboratory as a means to insure clean and high quality water.  Each year, the OCWD has hundreds of engineers, scientists and water leaders from all over the globe come learn from their expertise.


Some prominent climatologists are forecasting an extremely wet winter and a heavy snowpack in the mountains.  If it happens it would lessen the effects of our current four year drought, but it would not end it.  But no matter how much precipitation we get this winter, OC residents can take solace that some of the most innovative and skilled water professionals in the world live and work right here.

Ian’s weekly column covers regional, state and national issues. His 40 year media career includes 20 years as Publisher & CEO of various media companies.  He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached at