• Email
  • Print

Water Department History

On May 8, 1905, in accordance with the city charter, the Mayor and Common Council appointed the first Board of Water Commissioners of the San Bernardino Municipal Water Department. The Commission met for the first time on May 16, 1905, and set in motion the events that led to today's Water Department and our role as stewards of our valuable water resources. The Water Department's mission is to meet our customer's needs by providing high-quality service in water supply, water reclamation and geothermal heating in the most professional and cost-effective manner possible.



San Bernardino's first water distribution system, valued at $160,000 in 1905, had to cover just one square mile and serve a population of only 6,000 people. Today, the Water Department delivers water to over 40,000 service connections using 550 miles of water mains. In 2000, the Water Department's distribution system was valued at about $65 million and distributed 2.2 billion cubic feet of water (about 51,000 acre-feet or about 16.66 billion gallons).

San Bernardino gets its water from an underground aquifer called the Bunker Hill Basin. The aquifer, similar to a very large underground lake, is filled from rain and snows that percolate, or filter down through our local mountains. Some of our wells reach down 1200 feet into the earth to draw the water up. Getting water from our own local aquifer means two things to our customers: First, our water is very high quality and second, it is very inexpensive.

Water Quality

Every year the Water Department provides the public with a "Consumer Confidence Report." This report covers the results of all the tests we do to measure water quality. We take over 6,000 samples of our water throughout the year and from these sample we have labs do 30,000 tests for more than 130 possible contaminants. The San Bernardino Municipal Water Department is very proud that the quality of our water is very high compared to the standards we are required to meet. The most important factor contributing to the high quality of our water is that we get it locally from a natural underground aquifer. Many cities must import most or all of their drinking water from distant sources like the Colorado River or Northern California. Much of this imported water is transported in canals and stored in lakes, exposing the water to a greater variety and greater volume of natural and man-made contaminants, making the water more difficult to treat, lowering its natural quality and raising its cost.

Our water distribution system is also very safe because of its decentralized structure. Instead of using a few very large reservoirs, the Water Department uses many smaller ones. This means that any natural or man-made disasters will affect only a small portion of the water system at one time. Each portion of the distribution system is monitored by an advanced system of sensors and computers (called the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System, or SCADA) that reports from moment to moment on critical water quality factors, such as water pressure and chlorine content, and on the system's integrity. We can quickly isolate any problems in the system and take water from other parts of the system to replace what we take off-line. The people that monitor this system are all certified to meet State of California Department of Health Services requirements. The different levels of certification these workers have are awarded based on college-level course work, work experience and state-administered tests.

Water Costs

Because we get our water from our own local aquifer, we are able to get it for a much lower cost than many other water utilities can. And because our water is underground it is not exposed to the levels of contamination that water transported or stored in open canals and reservoirs are exposed to, making it easier and less expensive to treat. What this means to our customers is that they pay rates among the lowest in Southern California for some of the best water available.

San Bernardino Municipal Water Department customers pay only $1.05 for 748 gallons of water (after the fixed minimum monthly service charge based on the size of the water meter). Compare that to a gallon of bottled water sold at the local supermarket for between $.89 and $1.29. And even with its high price, bottled water's quality and safety isn't even controlled by the same stringent government regulations! The Food and Drug Administrations sets the standards for bottled water while the Department of Health Services sets the much more stringent standards for the water you get from your tap. The water you get at home is the best deal around.

Our Current Concerns

The San Bernardino Municipal Water Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are partnered in a Superfund Project to repair damage done to the Bunker Hill Basin. In the 1940's, chemicals used in dry cleaning and engine degreasing were dumped on to the ground. The contaminants, trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) have seeped into a portion of our water supply. Using very effective cleaning processes, the contaminants are removed from the water before it is served. After the cleaning process, the water is very safe, very clean and completely ready for use.

The Future

As stewards of a valuable water resource and distribution system, the San Bernardino Municipal Water Department is constantly looking forward to anticipate the future needs of the city and to ensure the proper use of our customers' water resources. We are always concerned about how to keep water costs down and about how to ensure the quality of our water.

The Geothermal Opportunity

Water Department workers at a geothermal well in San Bernardino

San Bernardino has areas where natural hot springs occur. Water from such hot springs comes naturally heated from the well, making it an economical asset to firms that need hot or warm water, such as commercial laundries or green houses. Because the water is already very warm, it costs much less to heat it to higher temperatures.

Recycled Water

Much of the Water Department's recycled water is discharged into the Santa Ana River where it contributes to the habitat for several kinds of fish and birds.

The Water Department's Water Reclamation Plant and Rapid Infiltration and Extraction (RIX) Facility reclaims millions of gallons of water a day that are ideal for many commercial and agricultural uses. This water can be used for things like industrial cooling systems, watering crops and large scale landscaping such as at golf courses. Like the Department's geothermal assets, reclaimed water is a valuable economic resource for the City. The Water Department is always looking for ways to better utilize this asset. The reclaimed water is currently discharged into the Santa Ana River where it contributes to other existing water flows and adds to the habitat for several kinds of fish and birds. The Water Department sees this water as a commodity that can be used to the economic benefit of the Inland Empire and the City of San Bernardino in industry, agriculture and landscaping.

Water Costs

There are several factors that affect the cost of water. The biggest three are the costs of drawing it up from the aquifer, ensuring that the water meets stringent government standards and maintaining the distribution system, or infrastructure, needed to deliver the water to each service connection.

Utility Costs

The Water Department uses over 40 electrically powered pumps to draw our drinking water up from the aquifer, making electricity one of our greatest expenses. The cost of electricity to operate these pumps makes up about 24% of our operating budget, or almost $4.1 million. Just like most businesses in San Bernardino, we buy our electricity from Southern California Edison. Because of this, the Water Department is just as concerned about the cost of electricity as the other residents and businesses of San Bernardino.

Water Quality

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health Services set the standards for drinking water that the Water Department must meet. According to these standards and regulations, the Water Department must monitor and measure for over 130 different possible water contaminants or characteristics. In some cases, the testing demands the highest levels of technology to measure the contaminants at the levels required by regulation, which can make this testing expensive. Treating our drinking water to reduce the contaminants, if they are found, to levels below those set by regulations can also be costly. The San Bernardino Municipal Water Department is very proud of the fact that we deliver water that is always highest quality by any measure.

The challenges faced by both consumers and the Water Department are some of the proposed changes in water quality, both in drinking water and treated waste water, demanded by various environmental and public health action groups. In some cases, these groups demand treatment that is very expensive but that has little effect on the quality of either drinking water or treated wastewater. In other cases, the limits of certain contaminants are proposed below what even the most advanced technology can detect, making it virtually impossible to measure or treat our water to meet the proposed requirements.


Modern Digging equipment at work for the Water Department in 1928.

One of the greatest challenges facing water utilities across the nation is the replacement of aging water distribution systems. In 1990, the Water Department addressed this issue with a Water System Master Plan that prioritized the water lines that needed replacement and identified areas of the City that need additional wells, reservoirs and boosting capacity. Since then we have replaced 48 miles of water line and added 8.5 million gallons of storage capacity, built ten new wells and replaced 2,500 customer water services. We still plan on replacing at least 70,000 feet of large-diameter pipeline and adding another 24 million gallons of additional water storage to meet future demands.

The San Bernardino Municipal Water Department is truly an environmentally conscious organization. We stand at the forefront of environmental action to protect your valuable natural resources in a way that also protects the local economy. We are not the only water utility to use the Bunker Hill Basin, but we are the primary caretakers and stewards of this valuable natural resource. We take this role very seriously. We are always concerned about protecting the quality of the water we provide to our customers, now and in the future.

And digging equipment in 1994