Reconnecting to healthy waters: an uphill battle



I remember the first time I saw water flowing uphill – no, this was not an optical illusion like Magnetic Hill. it was in fact one of the many conduits of the State Water Project, snaking its way hundreds of miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. I had been driving dusty roads out of Bakersfield west towards the coast after a backpacking trip. Of course, I had read about the massive canals and pipes that pushed melted snowpack from the Sierra mountains to Southern California; I had seen the figures of how much energy (average net use, 5.1 Billion kWh) it takes to pump that water over those mountains, among other things.

But I had to actually see the size of the pipes and how far uphill they had to move water, defying gravity every step of the way, before I could really fathom how crazy, fantastic and scary the California water supply really is.

With these concrete behemoths at the back of my mind, I was not that surprised to read that globally, water security and freshwater biodiversity are critically threatened. A recent report in Nature co-led by Peter McIntyre and Charles Vörösmarty analyzed simultaneously the effects of multiple stressors like pollution, dam building, agricultural runoff, wetland loss and introduced species on the health of the world’s freshwater systems. While some aspects of what they determined are not surprising (wherever there are too many people, watersheds get degraded; in developing nations, access to safe water is tenuous at best) – one finding was particularly striking to me: that even in highly developed nations like the U.S., water security and biodiversity were deemed to be highly threatened. It is only reliance on massive technological solutions – like California’s water infrastructure – that holds our water security in place. To people reading the thoughts and insights about water on Blog Action Day, the conclusions drawn by McIntyre and Vörösmarty will likely hit home – we need to rethink how we manage water.

Consider this – that for everything it gives (drinking water on demand, emerald lawns, swimming pools, playing fields; generally, our high quality of life), California’s vast water infrastructure takes away as well. Our reliance on imported water helps us to disconnect from problems in our local waters – polluted runoff, channelization, habitat destruction – we don’t think too much about our local creeks and rivers because we don’t have to.

At San Diego Coastkeeper, we are working to turn the tide on that disconnect. By doing things like training local residents to go out into their watersheds and monitor water quality and getting people out into their creeks and beaches to clean them up we are working to help people understand the true value of water.

My “brief” debrief on our legislative summit


Summit kickoff breakfast, including an overview of the state of water in San Diego. Photo credit

Now that I’ve had 24 hours to decompress from Coastkeeper’s Inaugural Legislative Summit on the “State of Water in San Diego,” it’s time to do a brief (for me!) debrief of the event. First, a huge thanks to our Co-Chairs Senator Kehoe and Assemblymember Fletcher, our many sponsors, elected officials and 100 environmental, business, labor, community and academic leaders who filled the UCSD Faculty Club to discuss the critical issues of the San Diego region’s water future.

I am happy to report that the event was a tremendous success – not only because of the good information shared about water supply options for the region, but more importantly because of the sense from a broad array of stakeholders in the room that we need to work collaboratively to solve our water issues in a way that will also strengthen our economy, provide needed green-collar jobs and enhance local communities.

Also critical was the event’s solution-oriented focus – brainstorming about possible legislation or regulatory approaches to address the region’s water issues. While much work is still needed to flesh out these ideas, many kernels of solutions germinated from our discussions.

First, it was clear from our very first panel on water supply options that agencies are using different cost numbers based on different assumptions, which makes informed decision-making impossible. Legislators discussed directing a statewide independent cost-analysis for various water supply options, such as conservation and efficiency, harvesting, potable and non-potable reclamation, desalination and additional water transfers. Such an assessment is needed so we all – decision-makers and the public alike – have consistent numbers. In fact, this may have been the most important outcome of the summit, as we simply cannot make the best management decisions if we can’t agree on the underlying numbers or assumptions.


Members of San Diego’s state delegation sign a resolution to make San DIego the nation’s Clean Water Capital.

Additional ideas centered around an increased local focus on conservation and Low Impact Development projects and pursuing water pricing strategies to incentivize conservation – and disincentivize waste – among consumers (through tiered rate structure) and at the water agency level (through decoupling of water utility revenues from quantity of water delivered so more money is made when less water is used).

Overall, while exhausting for the organizers (us!), it was also energizing to see so many people representing diverse constituencies coming together to delve into an issue that is so critical for our region’s residents and businesses, and for the long-term health and sustainability of San Diego. This is just the beginning of a dialogue, and Coastkeeper remains committed to leading these discussions to develop real solutions for our region.  

I will blog more about the summit and its outcomes as a legislative and regulatory agenda are refined and as Coastkeeper continues to develop its vision for water policy in the region. Until then, remember what Michelangelo said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Let’s aim for a truly water independent and secure region!



Some of our event sponsors with Assemblymember Fletcher. Photo credit



Our Legislative Summit co-hosts Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher and Senator Christine Kehoe. Photo credit

Ancient Mayans legacy goes beyond chocolate and predicting the world’s end in 2012


Photo credit Proyecto Arqueológico Uxul

Water – how to get it when you want it, keep it until you need it and survive on what you have is one of the oldest and most fundamental challenges of human civilizations.  In San Diego, many of us probably don’t think about the vast network of pipes, canals, and reservoirs that snake out behind our taps to move water hundreds of miles – crossing mountain ranges, the Central Valley, and several large urban areas before flowing out of our taps. But the certainty of our water supply is increasingly being called into question.

Clearly, we are not the first group of people to face these troubles. Our neighbors to the south apparently figured it out a long time ago. Recently, archeologists working in Mexico discovered a 1,500-year-old water reservoir the size of a soccer field in the middle of the Mexican rainforest. While large ancient reservoirs have been found before in Mexico, the Mayans who built this one apparently figured out a clever way to help ensure that the water lasted – the floor of this reservoir was lined with ceramic shards, which helped seal the reservoir. In this way, the ancient Mayans managed to locally capture and store water for a population of at least 2,000 through the 3-month dry season.

Now, most of us are not going to run out to convert our backyard swimming pools into our own local water supplies. But, we can capture water on a smaller scale right in our own backyard. Backyard rain barrels or cisterns are a great way to help reduce our reliance on imported water and help reduce the impacts of urban runoff at the same time. And now the County of San Diego will help you do it! On September 26, the County of San Diego will host a Rain Barrel Outreach and Sales event at the Fallbrook Village Square from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.   For more information, check out our Green In San Diego calendar. 

Check out beach water quality before you jump in

The Fourth of July weekend brings tons of visitors to San Diego’s coastline. And San Diego Coastkeeper is helping beachgoers know what’s in the water before they dive in. On its water quality monitoring page, Coastkeeper posts the latest warnings and data from the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health (DEH), so that revelers can empower themselves with knowledge about their favorite beach spots. The website URL is

The page contains the status (Open, Advisory, or Closed) for 56 locations where the county collects weekly water quality samples. Web browsers can learn more about their beach destination by clicking through to check out the bacterial monitoring data. The higher use beaches on the page also have links to graphs showing the history of bacterial levels at those beaches.

San Diego Coastkeeper updates the site daily, including over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Ocean Protection Council Sets Statewide Environmental Precedence, Part 1

San Diego recently hosted the California Ocean Protection Council (COPC), a committee we haven’t seen in this region since 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger created the COPC to regulate ocean health in California, and the commissioners represent the state’s leading elected and appointed officials. As the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest water quality non-profit, I was pleased to see the council include panels addressing both the desalination issue as well as the growing threats from marine trash.

The desalination discussion, which included a distinguished panel of experts, focused on understanding the role of desalination in California’s future water supply. It is no surprise that Coastkeeper takes issue with the Poseidon plant planned for Carlsbad, but I agree with several of the COPC experts who advocated for the desalination dialogue to take place as part of a holistic and cohesive discussion that will define our water supply goals, vision and strategy for a diversified portfolio. The issue is not a yes or no vote for desalination, rather a conversation regarding conservation and water reuse as our first steps and environmentally friendly desalination in appropriate locations as a last option.

It is important for San Diegans to explore these other options first because we can make major impacts by more efficiently using what we already have. For instance, after initial mandatory water use restrictions instituted in the City of San Diego in 2009, outside water use dropped by 13 percent. This helped the city save almost 11,000 acre-feet of water.  The Carlsbad desalination facility is planned to produce 56,000 acre-feet of water per year.  With minor restrictions in outdoor water use, we’ve already matched 1/5 of the plant’s output in conservation, without impacting a single fish or emitting any greenhouse gasses.

Did it impact your quality of life? My guess is that it did not.

The panel also discussed how technological advancements have helped desal improve during the last decade (though it is still among the most expensive, energy intensive and environmentally damaging alternatives). Panel experts expressed concerns that we have come to the end of an era with these improvements, which were simply “low-hanging fruit,” and we shouldn’t expect the desal process to continue improving. As one panelist said, “it just takes a certain amount of energy to push salt through membranes.” In fact, in Southern California, desalination is the only option that requires more energy usage than the current most energy intensive water supply, importing water into the area.