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Guest Opinion | Tim Brick: Till the Well Runs Dry – Pasadena’s Devastating Water Plan

Published on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 | 12:14 pm

As long as people have lived in Pasadena, water has been an essential element for the life-style, health and economy of our region. Now, however, Pasadena faces a severe water crisis. This never has been an easy need to resolve, but population, growth and climate change have made the development of a sustainable or resilient water program an even greater necessity for the future.

It’s not just a challenge for Pasadena, but also for all of California, and even the nation. Recognizing that, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in 2019 calling for the establishment of a resilient water program for the future, and last year California released the Water Resilience Portfolio as a guideline.

What does resilience mean? Governor Newsom describes it as the ability “to cope with more extreme droughts and floods, rising temperatures, declining fish populations, over-reliance on groundwater and other challenges.”

Eighty years ago, Pasadena officials identified a serious decline in the groundwater levels beneath our community that had occurred in the first four decades of the last century. Groundwater levels had fallen more than one hundred feet during that period. Pasadena brought together all the local water pumpers and developed a plan to stabilize water levels based on a “safe yield” that would match pumping with natural replenishment through rainfall and stream flow. In 1944 Judge Frank Collier approved the plan, the Raymond Basin adjudication. 

That was a historic adjudication, the first of its kind in California, but since then groundwater levels have fallen an additional 250 feet on a consistent downslope. The Raymond Basin adjudication has failed to achieve its goal; the safe yield has not been recalibrated to adjust for actual conditions.

What was an urgent concern eighty year ago is now a full-fledged, though largely ignored, crisis. 

Pasadena Water & Power (PWP) has recently unveiled a plan for the next 25 years called the Water System and Resources Plan (Plan). It is a $425 million plan, though, that is not resilient. It relies heavily on continuing to drain the local Raymond Groundwater Basin, neglecting environmental stewardship and minimizing the impacts of climate change. The Plan will be considered for approval by the Pasadena City Council next month.

The fatal flaw of PWP’s plan is that it fails to address the disastrous, declining groundwater levels in the Raymond Basin, our vital local water source. After evaluating several alternative portfolios, it ends up picking the worst alternative, the one that will “Maximize Groundwater Value,” without stabilizing or replenishing the basin.

The Plan ignores the impacts of climate change, using past supply patterns that are overly-optimistic in the era of climate change;

Clearly conservation is the most practical and economical strategy, and PWP sets big goals, but with only sparse analysis and minimal funding. It projects $300 million for replacing pipes, but only $12 million for conservation. Supply enhancements like stormwater capture, recycled water, transfers and other 21st century water management programs are given short shrift, along with potential partnership opportunities with the Raymond Basin Management Board, Metropolitan Water District and other local water agencies.

The plan has largely been shielded from public review and input; it has only been shared with a small group of insiders and two poorly-attended public meetings held more than a year ago;

The plan will likely lead to the demise of the Raymond Basin, an invaluable water resource and emergency supply. 

In recent years Pasadena and the Raymond Basin Management Board have discussed a variety of approaches to arrest the decline, but none have worked. Consultants employed by PWP to study the matter in 2018 found: The most noteworthy finding is the seemingly lack of urgency regarding the basin’s state of health and implementing effective management actions.” Their report concluded: “Raymond Basin is not managed in a sustainable manner as evidenced by the decrease in basin groundwater levels over the last 118 years, and is under threat of spreading contamination. PWP and RBMB must change its course and take action to prevent permanent failure of the basin.” That should have sounded an alarm, but the basin decline and the report were not incorporated into PWP’s plan.

On Thursday, February 11 at 7 pm the Arroyo Seco Foundation will host an online meeting, entitled “Till the Well Runs Dry” to inform local residents about what’s in Pasadena’s water plan and how to fix it. To reserve your place, click here: “”. For a thorough review of Pasadena water issues, click here:

A wise old song says “You don’t miss your water till the well runs dry,” but Pasadena can no longer be complacent and take water for granted. The era of cheap water has passed, and now everyone needs to pitch in to solve the water challenge. This can be our most important local response to climate change.

Tim Brick, the Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, represented the City of Pasadena on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 28 years and served as chair of that organization from 2006-2010.

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