January 20, 2022

Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water


It’s an epic journey from snowmelt to tap water in Topanga.


Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water

Lake Oroville as seen from the Oroville Dam spillway that flows into the Feather River northeast of Sacramento. It is the starting point of the State Water Project that provides water to more than 10 million people in Southern California.

As California enters its fourth official year of severe drought, it is worth noting that Topanga has not always had a steady supply of fresh water.

In the early days, farmers, ranchers and homesteaders used the creek, dug wells or tapped into natural mountain springs.

In the 1920s, Fernwood subdivisions were advertised with a brochure proclaiming, “Pure mountain water under pressure is accessible to each lot.”

Brochures for Topanga Oaks advertised one share of stock per lot of “pure mountain water, piped to every lot in the tract.”

Depending on where you lived, water could be sourced from local private agencies who would charge residents accordingly. In the 1920s, mutual water companies sprang up for Old Topanga, Sylvia Park and the Post Office Tract advertising clean mountain water until after WWII, when the Los Angeles County Health Department permitted distributing only chlorinated water from the creek.

Over time, the wells decreased in quantity and quality, leaving homeowners and ranchers without a reliable source of water.

Shortages were common and, in some cases, when there was no water they would have to truck it in from the outside. To save water many Topangans shared baths and still used outhouses into the 1940s.

In fact, by the late 1940s, the main question to new residents was not “where do you live,” but “what water system are you on?”


Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water

The Sacramento River flows from the Sacramento Delta into the California Aqueduct that will then get pumped over the Tehachapi Mountains through pipes and tunnels into Southern California.

In spite of the ready access to L.A. County water dating from 1935, there was always a small, yet vocal opposition to “tapping into the County water” by those who wanted to keep Topanga small and retain its rural nature,

Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1950s, terrible “water wars” ensued involving nearly every resident of Topanga including a skirmish between Old Canyon and the Post Office tract “as they fought for the same source of water.”

(For the full account of Topanga’s colorful water history, see “The Topanga Story,” on sale at Topanga Homegrown and the Topanga Historical Societyin Pine Tree Circle.)

After WWII, most Topangans felt the need to find permanent solutions to their chronic water shortages.

Disappointed with the “lack of progress” made by the local water companies, the Chamber of Commerce formed the Topanga Permanent Water Committee in the early 1950s while local companies still supplied the majority of the water from springs, wells and Topanga Creek.

In fact, in the spirit of Topanga, benevolent water owners would sometimes provide faucets near the road on Old Canyon and Circle Trail to catch the overflow from private wells and springs.

In 1954, according to the “Topanga Story,” Topanga voted with Malibu to become part of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), thus making water available “on paper” only to find charges showing up on water bills for water residents didn’t receive.

Actually, getting the water into Topanga’s hills and canyons proved a more daunting task than anyone expected, as a unified delivery system had not yet been built and the wells were running dry.

Locals petitioned the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1955 “requesting the formation of a County Water District to improve existing water resources and to procure outside water from the MWD only when needed,” thus reducing costs.

The plan, however, was soundly defeated by local residents.

In 1956, Topanga joined with Malibu to form Malibu-Topanga Water Research, Inc., to draft plans to bring water to the two communities. The committee’s final report in 1959 recommended the formation of a local County Water District to be governed by a locally elected five-person board.



Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water

Repairs and maintenance on the mainline pipe in Culver City are ongoing and disrupt traffic. The 30-inch pipe pumps water 35 miles north up PCH to serve the populations of Topanga and Malibu.

Topanga’s and Malibu’s District No. 29 was established on September 29, 1959, by a public election and later added more than a dozen separate substandard water systems from former water purveyors.

Indeed, old-timers will remember that some of the acquired facilities were originally constructed in the 1940s and 1950s. The 30-inch diameter transmission pipeline on Pacific Coast Highway was finally built during the 1960s.

To get water to Topanga and Malibu, District 29 has one source of water supplied by the MWD, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that imports water from the State Water Project (SWP) and Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA) to supply drinking water to most of Southern California.

Topanga’s water is pumped through West Basin MWD, with small emergency connections to the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Las Virgenes Municipal Water District (LVMWD).


Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water

Pumps at Topanga Beach bring the water from PCH up through approximately 48 miles of pipes and pumps located throughout the Canyon. Currently, District 29 serves more than 22,000 customers in Southern California and purchases about 2.8 billion gallons per year. Topanga’s portion is about 920 million gallons a year on average.

Currently, District 29 serves more than 22,000 customers in Southern California and purchases about 2.8 billion gallons per year. Topanga’s portion is about 920 million gallons a year on average.

The water is initially treated to drinking water standards at one of MWD’s water treatment plants. To supply Topanga and Malibu directly, District 29 has a connection with MWD located at the corner of Venice and Sawtelle Blvd. in Culver City that pipes millions of gallons 35 miles up Pacific Coast Highway and through more than 48 miles of pipes, pumps and holding tanks where it is then delivered to more than 7,500 people with one-third going to Topanga, or about 2,500 properties.


In order to pump water to Topanga and Malibu, much of Southern California’s water actually comes from Northern California.

The largest water delivery project of its kind, the State Water Project (SWP) is a system of reservoirs, pump stations, storage facilities, power plants and 660 miles of pipes and canals that span two-thirds the length of California.

To serve Topanga and other areas of Los Angeles County, water flows south from High Sierra snowmelt through the Sacramento Delta, is stored in reservoirs such as Oroville Dam, and then released to flow south through the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.

From the rivers, the water moves to the California Aqueduct where it flows down through Central California until it is pumped over the Tehachapi Mountains into pipes owned by the MWD to provide water for more than 10 million people.

Located at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains, the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant is the largest pumping plant in the SWP. According to Director Glenn Peterson of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the pumping plant raises water from the California Aqueduct nearly 2,000 feet up the Tehachapi mountains where it crosses the mountain range through a series of tunnels.

After years of planning, construction of the Edmonston pumping plant began in 1965 and in 1971, Southern California received its first deliveries of Project water.

According to state water engineers, while the source water is very pure, it collects sediments and organics along the way and must be treated before it is delivered for human consumption.

The imported water is generally treated using conventional treatment methods including coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection.

There is still another source of water but the supply is becoming increasingly scarce.


The Colorado River Aqueduct stretches 240 miles from Lake Havasu on the California-Arizona border to Lake Mathews in Riverside County.

According to state water engineers, California has been taking more than 5 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River even though they are only entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet.

(An acre-foot is approximately the amount of water that would fill a football field one foot deep.)

“In areas where local groundwater is available, West Basin Municipal Water District owns and operates groundwater production wells, which are used to pump groundwater to the surface,” said Scott Houston, a member of the Board of Directors for the West Basin MWD. “The groundwater is then disinfected and pumped into the distribution system.”

According to Houston, because Northern California water is now limited due to the drought, we have been receiving most of our water from the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The Colorado River Aqueduct begins at Parker Dam, which is located on the California-Arizona border. This dam forms a reservoir (where our water is stored), Lake Havasu.

Located on Lake Havasu is the first huge intake pumping plant of the Colorado River Aqueduct. It uses a great amount of force to take water from the lake and start its journey to Southern California.

“The Colorado River Aqueduct to Southern California is a man-made river formed by open concrete channels and large pipes, which carry water through mountains and deserts,” Houston said. “In addition to the intake pumping plant at Parker Dam, four more pumping plants are located along the aqueduct route to Southern California. Each continues to push water up steep hills.

“Between the pumping plants, water flows downstream until it comes to the next steep climb. Altogether, the five pumping plants lift water a total of 1,617 feet during its journey.”

Houston said most of the water in the aqueduct travels to reservoirs in the Los Angeles area—a journey of more than 242 miles where the Colorado water is stored in the reservoirs until it is transferred to a nearby treatment plant.

“Before any water is safe for drinking, it must go through several steps in a treatment process which begins and ends with disinfection,” Houston said. “Ultimately the water travels through underground pipes to the local retail water agencies including District 29 and into your tap.”


Naturally, all of this water doesn’t come cheap and since Topanga’s current water infrastructure was built in the 1940s and 1950s, it now needs major upgrades.

According to a report commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors in May 2011, engineers estimated that replacing dilapidated pipes and other equipment in District 29 would cost $266.5 million.

A majority of the cost, $209 million, would go toward overhauling Malibu’s water system.

According to DPW engineers, Topanga’s overhaul is estimated at $52 million, with $5.5 million covering “miscellaneous” costs.

In order to pay for all of these upgrades, the water rates have been increasing five percent over five years, beginning in 2013.

“The Topanga Water System is one of the most complex in the Southern California area,” said Shawn Danaei, senior civil engineer in charge of the Waterworks Project Management section for District 29.

“Due to the topography of the region, one of the most complex in the Southern California area, keeping that system running is challenging for the crews. The challenge is earth movement, landslides that frequently endanger the facilities, so we install above-ground pipes that must accommodate to the movement in order to provide uninterrupted water service to the customers.”

Which is why District 29 has undertaken an ambitious project called The Master Plan to upgrade the facilities over time.



Water: The Epic Journey from Snowmelt to Tap Water

The Fernwood Tanks are just part of an elaborate system of tanks, pumps and pipes that distribute water in Topanga. Prior to 1959, there were 7 to 8 local municipal water agencies in the Canyon often fighting for the same source of water. Now, all of the water is piped in from the State Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct.

According to Danaei, The Master Plan addresses existing system deficiencies and new facility requirements to meet future demands totaling approximately $266 million.

Danaei said the District 29 Master Plan was completed in November 2012 and evaluated the District's potable water system under current and future demand conditions through year 2035.

“Phase I, based on the highest priority projects—improving water quality; system reliability; and fire flow needs—is estimated at $56 million,” Danaei said “The total estimated costs of projects in Topanga Canyon is approximately $52 million; Phase I is approximately $12 million.”

The Master Plan has also identified approximately $60 million in high priority Improvements (Phase I), to be addressed within the first 5 to 7 years.

These Phase I improvements include five above-ground tank reservoirs to be constructed at existing reservoir sites; 29 pipeline segments; an emergency connection to the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District at Encinal Canyon Road; and water quality improvements in multiple zones.

To start the process, District 29 is in the process of preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for the District Master Plan.

“Our environmental consultant, MWH Americas Inc., distributed a Notice of Preparation (NOP) in November 2014 and held a Public Scoping Meeting on December 9, 2014, at the Malibu City Hall,” Danaei said. “Our consultant is currently addressing comments received during the NOP public review period and preparing the draft PEIR which will be circulated for public review in the fall of 2015. The PEIR is scheduled to be finalized in mid-2016.”

In addition to upgrading existing facilities, the Master Plan will address upgrading pipeline diameters to improve fire flow needs specific to the Canyon.

“The fact is that the systems that the county took over back then were deficient,” Danaei said. “In order to serve customers and provide fire flow, the undersized pipes that also vary in diameter need to be upgraded.

“Typically, pipes for fire flow need to be of a larger diameter. Currently we don’t meet sufficient fire flow demands, but this will really improve fire safety for the community,” said Danaei.