History of El Toro Water District

Building of the Regional Reservoir

The Founding of El Toro Water District

On August 12, 1959, a group of local landowners gathered around the kitchen table of Raymond Prothero, Sr., at 23572 South Prothero Drive in the community of El Toro (known today as Cornelius Drive in the city of Lake Forest) to discuss their concerns about the water supply.

Water for both agricultural and domestic use was pumped from wells, and landowners feared that the existing supply would not support an increased population or an expanded agricultural area. They wanted to find a more reliable, predictable source of water.

One year later, in September 1960, the El Toro Water District (ETWD) was formed as a special district under the laws applicable to California water districts (Sections 34000 Et Seq of the Water Code of the State of California). Governed by a seven-member Board of Directors elected by landowners, the District’s charge was to develop and implement policies that would meet the short and long range economic, water resource and environmental goals of the community. While the immediate need was to provide for its customers, ETWD had the wisdom and foresight to consider the greater Orange County area in their planning as well.

At the time of its inception, the total population of the District was only 125 people, and it encompassed 4,750 acres. Of that, 750 acres were devoted to citrus groves and other agricultural uses.

Expansion Includes Aqueduct, Water Recycling Plant and El Toro Reservoir

Shortly after formation, District leadership began to prepare for the anticipated growth of south Orange County. Given the lack of sustainable groundwater, ETWD knew they would have to maintain a critical dependence on imported water that originated hundreds of miles away.

ETWD became a constituent agency of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), which entitled the district to receive imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California.

In addition, ETWD joined with a neighboring water district to form the Santiago Aqueduct Commission in order to secure imported water from the Colorado River. The commission obtained permission from the water supplier, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, to build an aqueduct. The aqueduct would carry water from a pipeline adjacent to Irvine Park to the El Toro community.

In 1961, exercising tremendous foresight and good planning, ETWD authorized a bond issue of $1.9 million to finance its share of the construction costs for the aqueduct, a water filtration plant, a 232 mg reservoir, and expansion of the distribution system within the District.

ETWD established itself as a water-recycling pioneer in 1963 with the completion of the Water Recycling Treatment Plant in Laguna Woods. The plant was designed to treat approximately 1.5 million gallons of domestic wastewater each day. A small laboratory was situated inside the plant to analyze wastewater operations.

Leisure World

In 1963, Ross Cortese, president of the Rossmoor Corporation, identified about 3,500 acres of the Moulton Ranch to fulfill his vision to build a retirement community and call it Leisure World. Except for scattered dwellings and barns, the ranch was devoted largely to dry farming and cattle grazing. Those who lived in the homes on the ranch relied on water from deep wells and cesspools for sanitation. If Leisure World was to become a reality, Cortese knew he had to meet the requirements for water and sanitation.

Initially, the ETWD Directors, who were also ranchers, didn’t share Cortese’s vision for a large residential development. However, by January 1963 the Directors changed their minds when they learned that bond programs to bring MWD water into the area had boosted property tax bills to about $18 for each $100 assessed valuation – far higher than citrus growers or cattle ranchers could afford to pay.

ETWD and Rossmoor agreed that the District would continue to serve the ranchers by providing irrigation service for agriculture. Since ETWD was not interested in providing domestic water service, the Rossmoor Water Company was formed to serve domestic customers.

El Toro Reservoir

In 1967 the construction of the 233-million gallon El Toro Reservoir was complete. The reservoir served many important needs, including meeting high water demand during hot summer days and wildfires, and emergency backup in the event of a pipeline break or other interruptions in water supplies. ETWD established a policy to maintain a 14-day emergency storage reserve to meet customer demands and fire flow requirements.

Constructing a Regional Sewer System

By 1970 the need for a regional sewer system to dispose of treated effluent to the ocean was becoming increasingly evident. Around the same time, the California Clean Water Program was enacted which allowed certain public agencies to be eligible for joint federal-state construction grants.

Laguna Hills Sanitation, Inc., had been disposing of its treated effluent by irrigating the Leisure World golf course and by spraying vacant land. This latter option was becoming increasingly difficult as the amount of vacant land decreased. Unfortunately since Laguna Hills Sanitation, Inc. was a private corporation, it was ineligible for federal-state grants to provide other methods of effluent disposal.

In 1972, the District joined five other public water districts and the City of Laguna Beach to form the Aliso Water Management Agency (AWMA). ETWD believed that it was in the best interest of the community to form a partnership to build a sewage sludge treatment and disposal facility.

Approximately three years later ETWD sold $6.14 million of wastewater bonds to finance the District’s share of the AWMA Regional Treatment Plant and an ocean outfall system. The AWMA Regional Treatment Plant is located near the Laguna Niguel Regional Park (currently known as the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, SOCWA). The Aliso Creek Ocean Outfall is located in Laguna Beach.  The construction of the plant was complete in 1982.

The Transition from Wholesale to Retail

The Laguna Hills Utility Company, the parent company of the operating utilities, Laguna Hills Water Company (LHWC) and Laguna Hills Sanitation, Inc. (LHSI) approached the ETWD Board of Directors in August 1982 with a proposal that ETWD acquire the utility operations of LHWC and LHSI. If approved, this acquisition would transform ETWD from a water wholesaler to a retail water company.

The Board of Directors carefully considered the proposal. They concluded that the residents of the District would benefit from this transition, providing that the assets of the utilities could be acquired at a fair price.

On September 12, 1983, ETWD signed the agreement to purchase both Laguna Hills Water Company and Laguna Hills Sanitation, Inc. for a sum of $10.5 million. The amount would be paid with interest, in installments over a 30-year period. After approximately 24 years, ETWD had become a fully integrated water, sewer and recycled water retail operation.

Water Recycling Pioneer

After three decades of service, and multiple expansion projects, portions of the Water Recycling Plant had reached the end of its useful life. ETWD embarked on a reconstruction and replacement project. The new plant was completed in 1998 at a cost of nearly $14,000,000.

The reconstruction project renewed the useful life of the plant for another 30 years and brought ETWD into compliance with applicable regulatory and environmental requirements. A new expanded laboratory was now equipped to perform sophisticated analysis of wastewater and drinking water, and the overall capacity of the plant increased to 6 million gallons per day.

In 1999 the Water Recycling Plant was recognized by the industry as “Plant of the Year.”

Expansion Continues at El Toro Reservoir

In an effort to expand emergency storage in south Orange County and reduce operating cost for ETWD, the District entered into agreement in 2002 with neighboring water districts for joint use of the El Toro Reservoir.

ETWD began a four phase project to expand the El Toro Reservoir capacity to 275 million gallons and enhance the ability of ETWD and neighboring agencies to meet their emergency storage requirements. By increasing the capacity by 52 million gallons, the enlarged reservoir would provide 124.5 million gallons to ETWD, 137.5 million gallons to Santa Margarita Water District and 13 million gallons to Moulton Niguel Water District.

The expanded reservoir would serve more than 300,000 customers in the cities of Laguna Woods, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel, Dana Point, Rancho Santa Margarita, Ladera Ranch, Las Flores, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. The total water surface area expanded to approximately 20 acres.

In addition to laying 4,500 feet of pipeline to allow increased water use by the three partner agencies at once, the reservoir was enlarged to increase supply for regional use. The final phase of the project was to add a new floating cover and liner to the reservoir. The cover continues to assist ETWD in preserving the quality of the imported supply.

New Emergency Operations Center to Serve South Orange County

The opening of the new Education, Training and Operations Center in August of 2008 was a very proud moment for the ETWD Board of Directors and staff. The new facility has provided ETWD with an ideal location to offer on-going training in emergency management practices, such as the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

The facility also houses an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) equipped with state-of-the-art communications technology. In an emergency, ETWD’s mission is to preserve infrastructure to maintain a quality water supply to all customers under any circumstances.

The new EOC easily accommodates enough staff to maintain essential operations, along with critical maps, communications equipment and other pertinent emergency information. The advanced communications technology allows all personnel to be ably connected throughout the District as well as to other public agencies.

Water Conservation and Supply Shortage Ordinance and Permanent Mandatory Water Conservation Measures

In 2009, in response to drought conditions and to achieve a 20 percent per capita reduction in water demand by 2020, the District adopted a Water Conservation and Supply Shortage Ordinance and Permanent Mandatory Water Conservation Measures. The measures included the following:

• Water your lawn and landscape before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m. when wind and evaporation are at a minimum.
• Limit outside watering duration to no more than 15 minutes per day per valve.
• Turn your sprinklers off while it is raining.
• Prevent excessive water flow or runoff.
• Fix leaks, breaks or malfunctions in lines and fixtures promptly.
• Do not hose or wash down hard or paved surfaces such as sidewalks, driveways and patios.
• Wash down your vehicles with a bucket and/or hose with a positive shut off hose nozzle.

In June 2009, the District implemented a Water Allocation Program in response to cutbacks and rationing by the District’s water supplier, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The District created an allocation methodology that divided water resources fairly and equitably with the first priority for water use for health, safety and sanitary purposes.

Water bills were modified to include a water budget and usage graph to assist customers in tracking and managing their monthly use during the allocation period (July 2009 to June 2010).

Effective July 1, 2009, the District declared a Level One Water Supply Shortage Alert, which included mandatory conservation measures, water allocations and limits on outside watering. Customers were assigned three watering days per week.

Water Budget-Based Tiered Conservation Rate Structure

In an on-going effort to encourage water efficiency and promote fairness, the District implemented new Water Budget-Based Tiered Conservation Rate Structure in August 2010.

The Water Budget-Based Tiered Conservation Rate Structure rewards customers who use water efficiently and discourages waste. It encourages conservation and provides each customer with a unique indoor and outdoor water budget that is designed to meet efficient water needs.

Indoor water budgets are calculated based on the number of people living in the home and an average use of 60 gallons of water per person, per day. Outdoor water budgets are calculated based on each customer’s estimated irrigation area, county parcel data for lot size, and historical weather data.

Recycled Water Expansion Project

In 2012, the District began a comprehensive multi-phase Recycled Water Expansion Project that will increase the amount of recycled water produced for local irrigation. The project is estimated to for completion in mid-2016.  By producing more recycled water, the District will save precious imported drinking water (potable) for household consumption and sanitary uses.

The Recycled Water Expansion Project included two components:

  • The District expanded its existing Water Recycling Plant to increase the treatment and delivery of recycled water for irrigation to approximately 1,400 acre feet per year. That’s the equivalent of covering the entire footprint of Laguna Woods Village with five inches of water or filling Angel Stadium nineteen times.
  • Simultaneously, the District built a new recycled water distribution system for irrigation. Approximately 100,000 feet or 19 miles of recycled water pipeline was constructed beneath the roadways in portions of Laguna Woods and the northwest corner of Laguna Hills. This new distribution system will be completely separate from the drinking water distribution system and used for irrigation only.

The District utilized a variety of innovative funding sources to pay for the project, including a state grant, low interest state revolving loan fund, Metropolitan Water District rebate program and District’s restricted reserves. The project infused approximately $35 million into the local economy.

In addition to the economic benefits, the project also supports the environment by reserving drinking water resources for use inside homes and businesses, and provide environmentally responsible recycled water for outdoor use. The expanded Water Recycling Plant will produce a higher quality of treated water, diminish the amount of treated water discharged into the ocean and will help to reduce the greenhouse gases that results from pumping imported water into the region.

Revised April 2015