Using Conservation to Combat Pollution

Written by Meredith Meyers

We talk a lot about water quality here at Coastkeeper. We also talk a lot about water supply and conservation. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into just how those two topics are connected, and explore the science behind how wasting water leads to increased pollution in our communities.

Urban Drool

Outdoor water use in San Diego’s urban and suburban communities has significant downstream effects in our watersheds. Receiving waters (the creeks, rivers, lagoons, bays, and ocean waters that are downstream of urban areas and receive water running off concretized streets and storm drains) are exposed to variety of stressors from untreated urban runoff. Often that runoff is created not by big winter storms, but by what officials call dry-weather flows, nuisance runoff, or my personal favorite – urban drool. This wasted water from over-watered lawns, leaky pipes, hosing down driveways, and so on, not only strains our water supply but creates a chronic means for pollution to reach our local waterways.

The Pollutants

Excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizers and detergents are major contributors to a condition called eutrophication in urban receiving waters. Eutrophication occurs when naturally occurring algae are stimulated to bloom by excess nutrients in the water. Dense algal blooms reduce water clarity, limit light penetration, and choke narrow waterways. And when the algae eventually, microbes get to work decomposing the dead algae cells, creating bad odors and severely reducing dissolved oxygen levels. These conditions damage habitat quality for aquatic life and reduce aesthetic and recreational opportunities in local waterways.

The Monitoring Program

Volunteers with San Diego Coastkeeper’s water quality monitoring program have been measuring nutrient concentrations at fixed sites in local waterways since 2010. While many local streams see spikes in nutrient levels during the winter rainy season, several watersheds have sites that are chronically elevated throughout the year. Our volunteers frequently witness the signs of eutrophication when they’re out collecting samples, such as seeing the slimy green or brown sheen of dense algal growth in the water, smelling their noxious odors, and even occasionally encountering fish kills on stream banks (from rapidly depleted oxygen levels).

How You Can Make a Difference

Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that residential sources dominate nutrient inputs in urban watersheds. In fact, the study found that nitrogen loading from household lawn fertilizer exceeded the combined inputs from golf courses, parks, schools, and other non-residential vegetated areas. Check it out here.

So, upstream solutions, or individual practices that stop or limit the problems of urban runoff in the first place, are key to managing urban eutrophication. You can limit the excess water and nutrients running off your property with a few simple steps:

  • Choose landscapes that need little or no fertilizers and water to thrive. Many native, drought tolerant plants are already adapted to low nutrient soils and the dry southern California climate, and as a bonus, provide habitat for native wildlife like birds and butterflies.
  • For plants that need a little extra water, try compost or mulch to help your soil store water and replenish nutrients more slowly than chemical fertilizers.
  • Use properly installed drip- or other water-efficient irrigation systems and check them frequently for breaks or leaks.
  • Sweep debris from decks or driveways, rather than using a hose.
  • Wash vehicles at a professional car wash, which recycles water, instead of washing them in your driveway.

And there you have it. Simple choices that will save you money on your water bill, and end up protecting the waterways and wildlife downstream. 

New Year’s Resolutions for the Conscientious Homeowner

Written by Stephanie Ritter

Stephanie loves hikingWater in San Diego County

San Diego County imports over 80 percent of our drinking water from far-away sources such as the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. We use about half of that drinking water for outdoor uses, such as watering our lawns. This dependence on energy-intensive imported water and water-intensive uses is unsustainable, especially in the face of longer, more intense periods of drought and dryness.

It’s no secret that water is at the heart of San Diegans’ lifestyles. Water is a vital resource in our lives as it’s used for everything from hygiene to recreation to enhancing aesthetics. It is important for us, as community members, to be cognizant of our local environment and natural resources, and become environmental stewards by reducing our water consumption. Many of us are hungry for ways to make a difference and to take action to make our community a more sustainable one. The good news is that if you are a homeowner, there are many steps you can take to have a gentler impact on our environment, and use our precious waters more lightly. The New Year is a great time to commit to making the changes you may have been putting off.

10 Resolutions for a Mindful New Year

  1. Transform your water-intensive lawn into a beautiful garden with native and drought-tolerant plants. This not only helps preserve the unique local beauty of our region, but provides a rich habitat for local wildlife, all while saving water.
  2. Want to keep a section of your lawn for your kids or pup? Make sure to adjust your sprinklers to water your landscape, not the pavement.
  3. Plant an edible garden and water it in the early morning since cooler morning temperatures means losing less water to evaporation. Amazingly, an edible garden generally takes less water than a lawn, and turns the water you do use into
  4. Install a rain catchment system, such as a rain barrel or cistern, in order to capture and reuse rainwater. Free what from the sky, anyone? Look to local company H2OME for San Diego’s resident experts.
  5. Identify and repair broken irrigation pipes, dripping faucets, and broken sprinkler heads. Maintenance like this can make a huge difference.
  6. Install faucet aerators, low-flow toilets, and water efficient shower heads, or appliances that have the WaterSense label.
  7. Turn off the tap while completing tasks, such as washing your dishes and brushing your teeth. It’s a simple habit worth building.
  8. Always make sure you’re doing a full load in your washing machine and dishwasher! Water isn’t doing any good washing empty space.
  9. If you need to wash your car, take it to a professional car wash – where wash water is recycled! – rather than washing at home with the hose.
  10. Teach your family, friends, and neighbors how to conserve water by setting a great example in your own life.


Thirsty for more? Find a whole plethora of other tips for lighter living here.



Water conservation, one kid at a time

Written by Sandra J. Lebron
Sandra and sea urchin

My drawing of an “animal affected by climate change” for a lesson. As sea urchin, of course!

Off to a swell start

Back in 2013, I landed myself a really swell job. At San Diego Coastkeeper, Project SWELL is the name of our K-6th environmental curriculum. SWELL stands for “Stewardship: Water Education for Lifelong Leadership.” It’s a fitting title. Through Project SWELL, Coastkeeper teaches kids about water conservation, climate science, and the environmental issues specific to their communities.

I grew up in Puerto Rico and studied marine science, but it was in grad school as I was working for Sea Grant as a marine educator that I found my passion – teaching about environmental science, ocean life, and water conservation. Today, I work with an amazing nonprofit that protects not only the ocean itself, but the rivers, creeks, and rainfall that flow through our communities and meet the ocean at the coast — isn’t that swell?

Kids are the key

Of course, I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. After spending countless hours in classrooms and reading students’ answers to the pre-lesson and post-lesson surveys they had received, we realized kids are eager and enthusiastic to help save our Earth, and willing to do what it takes to make a real difference. Learning is the critical the first step to a more aware and engaged generation, but empowering a 10-year-old to take a real-life action that helps conserve water and energy is what makes my job as an educator so fulfilling.

Water and Climate Stewards

With this in mind, San Diego Coastkeeper recently launched a new project called Water and Climate Stewards of San Diego Bay. Through this program, we educate kids on the importance of making conscious decisions about the resources they consume. One example we use is the lifecycle of the humble straw to demonstrate how harmful single-use plastics can be when discarded. Kids are shocked to hear how much  water and energy it takes to produce one straw, only for it to be used once and tossed, where it spends the rest of its days taking up space in a landfill. Improperly discarded, it may even become a fatal snack for a marine creature. It’s not just the longevity of plastic that startling, but the production as well. Did you know that it takes 22 gallons of water to make even one pound of plastic? It can take twice as much water to manufacture a plastic water bottle than the amount of water the bottle itself can hold. With some informed choices about what we buy and consume, water conservation can happen in surprising places. 

Water waste and marine debris are a big problems for an elementary school student to tackle, but after one of our engaging and empowering lessons, students come away excited to implement the “Four R’s” into their daily lives, instead of fearful about what their future holds. The mantra is — REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE.

One step (or straw) at a time

As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Or, in this case, save it. The ultimate goal of our education programs is to build the next generation of water and climate stewards, one kid, one teacher, one parent and one fewer plastic item at a time. Water conservation at home can start with one empowered, passionate kid saying no to one plastic straw. And it can grow from there!

What are San Diego Businesses Doing to Conserve Water?

Written by Kristin Kuhn

Still reeling after our most recent multi-year drought, many San Diegans have decided to carry their water-saving practices forward, for good. During the drought, what used to be a mundane, taken-for-granted resource was now frequently front-page news. As a result, many of us felt a fundamental shift in the way we think about, talk about, and use, water. So, our showers are still shorter, our yards are now more richly landscaped with vibrant, hearty native plants, and we still care about what else is being done to conserve.

Residential water use makes up just over half our region’s overall consumption. That said, there are still many other areas where conservation can play an impactful role. Here at Coastkeeper, we found ourselves wondering, what are some of our local commercial and other non-residential spaces doing? Conservation practices on the commercial level can make a big impact on our region’s overall water use. Here are some examples of businesses and other organizations taking the lead.

  1. Hotel Indigo
    San Diego’s first LEED-certified boutique hotel, Hotel Indigo has a number of practices in place that enhance the sustainability of its operations. Those that help save water – and benefit water quality – include the use of drought-tolerant native plants and high-efficiency irrigation in their landscaping, and green roofs that help filter urban runoff. Learn more about their sustainable practices

  2. Stone Brewing
    From landscaping their famous beer gardens with low-water plants, to featuring a comprehensive and thoughtful
    Meatless Monday menu once a week, to using an on-site water reclamation system to reuse wastewater, Stone is a regional leader in putting commercial conservation practices in place.

  3. Balboa Park
    The green heart of our city recently underwent some major efficiency upgrades that will reduce the park’s water consumption by about 2.4 million gallons a year. The changes made included the installation of hundreds of more efficient water fixtures across park restrooms, and upgrading the kitchens in nine historic buildings. Learn more about the overhaul

  4. Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
    This Denver-based brunch spot has three locations in our neck of the woods (La Jolla, Del Mar, and Hillcrest). They might be most popular for their pineapple upside down pancakes, but behind the scenes, Snooze has a number of environmental initiatives in practice, and even dedicates the whole month of June each year to educating their patrons about water conservation. Learn more

  5. Napizza Little Italy
    At this location, Napizza conserves water by using a low-flow pre-rinse sprayer on their dishes, before popping them into an Energy Star dishwashing machine. Aerators on handwashing and prep sinks reduce use further, making Napizza a great place to grab a slice. Did we mention they use local veggies on their pies, too? Yum. Learn more

So, next time you need a staycation, consider checking into the Hotel Indigo, then taking a nice picnic of beer, pizza, and pancakes into Balboa Park.


Here’s Your December Drought Update

Written by Matt O'Malley

The numbers are in. California is conserving less water than it needs to. San Diego is doing even worse.

  • California conserved less water this year than last year. In October 2015, California conserved 22.5 percent more than 2013. This year, California only conserved 19.5 percent.
  • In October 2016, San Diego County conserved 12 percent more water than in 2013 — is this good? Not really. In October 2015 we conserved 22 percent more water than 2013. We can — and need — to do better.
  • All local water agencies in San Diego County used more water this October than they did last October.
  • Olivenhain Municipal Water District went from a commendable 25 percent water savings last year to a paltry five percent water savings this year.

Why are we wasting so much water? This is what happens when water agencies stop giving meaningful effort towards conservation. Almost 75 percent of the state is still in drought conditions. 100 percent of Southern California. We need to be doubling down on conservation, not giving up on it.

Drought Rages On, San Diego Uses More Water

Our water authorities rely upon wasteful water use. The more water we waste, the more money they receive. It’s no surprise that, after the state allowed our local water authorities to regulate themselves, they nixed conservation targets and water use steadily increased.

When Governor Brown mandated water conservation, the average goal of local water agencies was a 21 percent reduction in water use. Now that water agencies are allowed to set their own goals, 330 out of California’s 395 water agencies (including all the agencies in San Diego) have nixed conservation goals entirely, dropping the state average to two percent.

Don’t let the recent rains fool you. Drought is our new normal and the future will only be hotter and drier. Using less water is as important as ever to ensure reliable and affordable water for all.

The Latest Drought Stories
New Study: Conservation Saves Energy and Money

The Journal of Environmental Management studied two Australian regions facing water shortages, Southeast Queensland and Perth.

  • Strategy of Using Less: Southeast Queensland invested in conservation and efficiency. They saved big on lower energy costs and achieved a dramatic, permanent drop in water use per capita. Hooray!
  • Strategy of Creating More: Perth invested in a desalination plant. Per capita water use dropped only slightly and Perth paid heavily in higher energy costs. Yikes.

Long term reductions in water use is the cheapest and most environmentally sound way to address California’s water management problems.

How Much Does a New Water Supply Cost?

The Pacific Institute released an in-depth analysis on the costs of the different alternative water supply options available to California. The results:

  • Cheapest: Stormwater capture at an average of $530 per acre foot of water.
  • Most expensive: Seawater desalination at an average of $2,100 per acre foot. (San Diego County ratepayers pay $2,140 per acre foot from Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad)
  • Middle ground: Water recycling projects, that turn wastewater into drinking water, fall somewhere in between. (City of San Diego’s approved Pure Water project will create 83 million gallons per day of drinking water by 2035)
Couple Grows Fruit Trees and Lush Yard with Zero City Water

Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, tend to hear their neighbors gossiping quietly as they walk by their front yard, “Don’t they know we’re in a drought?!” Jo Ann and Ted do, that’s why their yard, packed with fruit trees and a jungle of colorful plants doesn’t use a single drop of extra municipal water.

Read about the simple, low-cost techniques, available to nearly all San Diegans, they use to grow a zero-water landscape without any gravel or cactus. It’s actually pretty easy.

Coming Soon: Mega Drought

Scientific study says that if carbon emissions continue unabated, the risk of a mega-drought could exceed 99 percent. Cornell Professor of Earth Science Toby Ault tells the Atlantic,

“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this—we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions.”

San Francisco Bay and Delta Are Quickly Dying

Thanks to transfers of river water from San Francisco’s Delta and Bay to farmland and urban centers in Southern California, scientists report many species in the San Francisco ecosystem are in their “sixth extinction,” environmental science’s most-dire definition of ecosystem collapse.

For the last two decades, the State Water Resources Control Board has attempted to reach an agreement that would protect the ecosystem by diverting less water, but also not upset anybody who doesn’t want to use less water. This has been impossible. The agreement remains stalled while the San Francisco ecosystems near collapse.

You made it through the headlines. Enjoy a GIF.

Sandra explaining urban runoff

Be Like Jo Ann And Ted: Create an Oasis and Save Water at the Same Time

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Guest Author is Brook Sarson, H2OME

True Water Conservation requires an integrated approach and taking the initiative to be part of the solution. Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, were reluctant to get rid of their front lawn because they did not know what it could turn into, did not want to put something in that required a lot of water and did not like the cactus and gravel look. But, we found a solution that worked.

We arrived at a design including fruit trees, natives and pollinating plants. We installed a 420-gallon rainwater tank that overflows into a basin in the front yard for passive water collection during the rainy season. We put in a simple Laundry-to-Landscape system to provide a consistent supply of water to fruit trees every week. This yard is augmented by good soil and mulch to create better absorption of water and prevent evaporation. In just a year, Jo Ann and Ted have a thriving oasis and more wildlife than ever before (lizards, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees). They have told me that they are amused to overhear their neighbors remark, “Don’t they know we are in a drought?” even as they watch their apples ripen without any municipal water.

Save water and create an oasis by planting drought-tolerant and native plants.

Save water and create an oasis by planting drought-tolerant and native plants.

Generally, with the right combination of strategies, people are seeing reductions by half in their water use. Here are some tips to help you get started at your own home.

  1. Start by REDUCING your water use.
    Get rid of your thirsty landscape so you don’t need water in the first place. This doesn’t mean artificial turf, gravel and cactus, or hardscaping. It also doesn’t mean investing a ton of money in re-landscaping, tanks, or greywater plumbing. Property value can be preserved with the right plants in the right places and some well directed rainwater. Notice a return of butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees to our neighborhoods!
    If you are preparing your landscape for redevelopment and you want to make the best use of your water resources, before you decided on plants and a design, figure out what greywater and rainwater potential you have. Create a water budget. Design your plantings to use the the easiest water to access and at the volumes that are plant appropriate.
    Sometimes, if you can imagine changing some personal habits a little or altering your routines, your water distribution will be more effective! Like changing your shower from a 2GPM shower head to a 1.5GPM shower head. With 20 minutes of showering a day you end up saving 10 gallons a day! That’s 3600 gallons for the year! Not to mention getting the water budget right for your landscape. 40 gallons a day might be too much for a drought tolerant landscape. Better yet, create an outdoor shower to avoid expensive retrofits and let the water go directly to the plants that need them, ending your need for irrigation.
    This can look like many things, but often looks like a 205-gallon tank instead of a 55-gallon barrel. Did you know that a 1000-square-foot roof will shed 600 gallons in just one inch of rain? With 10 inches of rain on average in San Diego, that adds up to a lot of water. Think big for your water storage needs.
    Getting your neighbors and friends involved can make short work out of a greywater or rainwater installation. Host a workshop for your friends and neighbors.
    You just have to learn what your resources are, and make sure you get it done right! Connect with a local expert for a consultation, take their recommendations, and use them as your resource along the way. Buy a good book and follow the instructions. Learn about water budgeting. Take a class and make a friend to skill-share with to get the job done. You can find tons of good resources at
    Sometimes your neighbors don’t want to do what you are doing, but you’d be surprised how they can contribute if you just ask! Like one family who is borrowing their neighbor’s downspout to help fill their 1320 gallon rainwater tank.
    In our community we have some amazing resources. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and often times we all benefit from working together. Bring a friend to a workshop so you each can internalize the parts of the information that you are best at. Get consultations from local experts in creating a water plan, developing a landscape plan, creating good soil, growing food, growing natives. Likely, if we all rely on people who are really skilled at what they do, we can create something far more abundant than if we try to do everything ourselves.
    Did you know that your water footprint takes into account the food you eat? If your food is grown outside of San Diego, your water footprint is higher. Growing food in your own backyard with onsite water (rainwater for veggies, and greywater for fruit trees) means that you aren’t wasting oil to bring the food to San Diego and water, usually imported, to grow your food.
  10. We are ALL part of the solution to creating local water in San Diego.
    If all homeowners in San Diego reduced landscape irrigation by 50% using an integrated approach to onsite water management, we would decrease our imported water needs by 20%, more than twice what the Carlsbad desalination provides for our county by much more energy intensive methods! Plus by rerouting our rainwater into our gardens, we offset storm drain pollution and by rerouting our greywater into our soil, we offset costly infrastructure upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities! If you don’t own your home, talk to your landlord, or your friends who own their homes. Turn the conversation up and the water use down! Join the movement.

How Less Water Can Make Your Garden More Beautiful

Written by Stephanie Ritter

Photo Credit Glen Schmidt

We’re so used to planting green lawns in our yards that it may seem like “going brown” is the only way to turn off the garden hose and save water. But you don’t need to put up with a prickly dead lawn in order to be California-friendly. San Diego has tons of green, flowering, vibrant plants that have evolved to survive and thrive in our region. And they don’t need a ton of water or maintenance to stay healthy.

San Diego Coastkeeper fully supports lawns in areas where they are actually being used, like sporting fields or public parks. But we can’t support using water-intensive grass as a default landscape in non-functional areas. Turfgrass lawns generally take between 52-78 inches of water a year to stay alive, but San Diego only gets 5-10 inches of rain annually. When we make up the difference by running the sprinklers, we are wasting our precious water resources. It’s time to rethink what our default landscape looks like.

San Diego Coastkeeper has long been working to promote water conservation by supporting mandatory restrictions, advocating for water conservation in the media, and hosting workshops and events designed to connect San Diego residents with the tools and resources needed to make more effective, efficient use of our limited resources. We also worked with California Coastkeeper Alliance to design and implement “Back to our Roots,” a campaign promoting water savings by helping to instill pride in our beautiful native California landscape.

Water conservation is the smartest, most accessible way to ensure that we have enough water for the future and that we use it efficiently, but our region must work to improve conservation efforts. In our region, over half of residential water use is irrigation of outdoor, ornamental landscaping. You can help us return San Diego to its natural beauty and save water in the process. Not sure where to start? You can read the top ten ways to landscape responsibly, or you can support San Diego Coastkeeper today with a generous donation.

In Response to Water Authority’s “There’s More to Drought-Proofing Than Water Mandates”

Written by Travis Pritchard

When we need it most, the San Diego County Water Authority has slashed our mandatory conservation targets from 25 percent to zero. Why? The Water Authority is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water.

We called them out in the Voice of San Diego, detailing why mandatory conservation measures are imperative for our future, and why the Water Authority is working against the region’s best interest. You can read the full piece here, “San Diego Water Authority Is Pretending The Drought Is Over; It’s Not.

The San Diego County Water Authority published a response.

First, the Water Authority claims that, thanks to its work pushing voluntary conservation, not mandatory, San Diego County has lowered our water use significantly, “nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.” While these are great strides we’ve made as a region, it’s more useful to look at our water savings in times of greatest need.

Does Voluntary Conservation Work? Not nearly enough.

What about the time when it really matters? Did voluntary conservation measures in our last drought lower water use?

As the Equinox Center points out in its February 2015 H20verview, “between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 (the study period), San Diego County Water Authority’s (SDCWA) member agencies experienced a four percent (4%) increase in annual average residential water consumption on a per resident basis. …  A SDCWA-wide decrease in overall water consumption per resident only surfaced one year during the study period: FY 2011. This was also the same year within the study period with the highest annual precipitation, as measured at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.”

Water agencies love to highlight that water use since 1990 has gone down, but water use increased during the drought. It wasn’t until the Governor forced mandatory restrictions did we see significant water savings.

Now the Water Authority, with its move back to a zero percent conservation target, has put us back in the voluntary conservation measures that lasted from June 2014 to June 2015. These voluntary restrictions did not achieve significant savings. It’s the reason why the state of California forced us into mandatory conservation. See the graph below for the difference between voluntary and mandatory Gallons Per Capita per day for the water authority member agencies. Mandatory water conservation began in June of 2015.

Water Use Before and After Mandatory Conservation Measures

Also, let’s not forget how in 2014 and early 2015, before the mandatory restrictions, we had to beg the cities to do real enforcement of existing rules. Remember the “water vigilante” stories? We made international headlines when the City’s complete lack of enforcement drove us to travel the streets recording evidence of water waste ourselves.

The Water Authority also touts the “diversification” and drought-resilience of San Diego County Water Authority’s supply portfolio as reason for letting go of mandatory conservation, specifically Poseidon’s desalination plant and the “conservation-and-transfer” agreements with Imperial County. But desalination is by far the most expensive, energy-inefficient water supply option available. Why have we spent $1 billion on a last-resort option when conservation offers so much more for so much less. The water transfers the Water Authority celebrates as “landmark” haven’t increased the diversity of our water supply, it’s the same water from our dwindling Colorado River supply, but from a different middle-man. You can’t stick two straws in the same glass and call it diverse.

This is what happens when a public agency, who survives off the sale of water, is tasked with setting water conservation mandates.

In Washington Post’s, “Why California’s local governments can’t manage their water — and why Jerry Brown’s proposal could helpMegan Mullin sums up the Water Authority’s response perfectly.

“… pursuing conservation is at odds with the traditional outlook of water resource management agencies. According to a study of agencies in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C., water managers measure success by their ability to deliver safe, affordable drinking water in as much quantity as people demand. Absent a mandate from above, these managers may perceive conservation efforts as a failure to perform their job.”  

San Diego Water Authority Is Pretending the Drought Is Over; It’s Not

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

dry colorado

Our executive director, Tracie Barham, wrote this op-ed for Voice of San Diego. Tracie calls out the Water Authority for cutting mandatory conservation measures when we need them most. 

Without mandatory conservation, San Diego is positioning itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.

For decades, the San Diego region inched closer and closer to a drought crisis, pumping more water for more lawns from the ever-dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin and the Bay Delta. We were addicted, concerned with getting more water today, not the drought tomorrow.

Then we hit rock bottom. In 2015, after we failed to respond to voluntary conservation calls to action, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Finally, the state had a moment of truth: It was time to wean off the formerly sacrosanct approach of piping in more water and adopt the common-sense approach of using less. The state and region brought out an arsenal of incentives to encourage conservation, and in under a year we realized life was just as good when we used an average of 50 fewer gallons per person, per day. We lowered energy use, transformed our neighborhoods to reflect the region’s natural beauty and upgraded our technology. Since June 2015, San Diego had lowered its water use by a whopping 21 percent.

Meanwhile, the San Diego County Water Authority was fighting hard to get us hooked again. Why? It is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water. It led the charge of water dealers across the state to successfully lobby the California State Water Board to weaken conservation regulations. Now, water agencies can set their own conservation targets and, unsurprisingly, the Water Authority is seeking to set ours quite low. At zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. From a 25 percent conservation goal to no need to conserve water anymore.

The message: “The drought is over. Use as much as you want.” But the drought, and the consequences of our dependence on imported water, are as severe as ever. Eighty-four  percent of the state remains in drought condition. The Sierra snowpack, the state’s largest water storage, is currently at 8 percent. Lake Mead is about 50 feet away from provoking a federal level 1 water shortage declaration, which could cut off water to Arizona and Nevada.

The Salton Sea, the biggest lake in California, is on track to go completely dry because of water transfers that San Diego takes from the farmers. When it does, lakebed toxins like arsenic and selenium could be blown into the air, creating a poisonous, apocalyptic dust storm. Would this be our state’s newest environmental injustice, poisoning Imperial Valley farmworkers and increasing childhood asthma as the toxic plume creeps as far as Los Angeles, just so we can keep lawns green?

Despite the successes of conservation, the Water Authority would rather go back to business as usual, leave the hose running and cash in. This is what happens when regulatory powers roll over from lobbying pressure and legal threats of water agencies. The focus of water supply shifts from the ever-receding water line to the financial bottom line.

Supposedly, the Water Authority is a big proponent of encouraging conservation. But lots of organizations encouraged conservation over the last 50 years. The change that finally pulled us out of our water binge wasn’t an encouraging pat on the head and a reminder to do the right thing. It was cash. Fines for wasting and rewards for conserving. We were poised to show the world what is possible when you embrace a smarter future instead of burying your head in a lush, green lawn.

Now without mandatory conservation, San Diego positioned itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.

But there is another way. We must completely adapt to the new landscape of water scarcity and continuing drought. We’ll need more than empty words; we’ll need more conservation incentives like turf rebates for water-wise landscaping and more conservation education for the public. We’ll need major investments for more wastewater recycling and stormwater capture and to continue water conservation programs that were already working.

We can stay on track toward a better future, despite the fact that the Water Authority is calling for zero percent conservation measures. But to continue on a path toward finally breaking our crippling, lifelong addiction to wasteful use of imported water, the Water Authority must stop saying, “I encourage you to conserve,” while it hands us a brand new, shiny garden hose.

You can read the op-ed on the Voice of San Diego here.

There is a cheaper, better way to manage our water supply

Written by Matt O'Malley

Despite December’s onslaught of El Niño rains, the vast majority of our region’s water suppliers missed state-mandated conservation targets–for a second month in a row. In this new year, still firmly gripped by the worst drought in our state’s history, we cannot settle for this indifference and lose the progress we made in meeting conservation targets. Rather than viewing this drought as a temporary emergency – something to be survived until things return to “normal” – we must treat it as a transformative catalyst that pushes us to seek a more sustainable relationship with water.

A paradigm shift is long overdue.

When we conserve, water agencies make less money

The impacts of this drought, born from climate change and environmental variation, have been accelerated by laws and agency models designed for water acquisition and consumption rather than smart use and conservation.

A few years ago, in order to move forward with desalination, the San Diego County Water Authority signed a “take or pay” contract with Poseidon Resources, the developer of the Carlsbad desalination plant. That contract essentially stuck us with paying for the most expensive type of water supply currently in existence, whether the region could use it or not. Water agencies already have few real incentives to conserve, as it lowers their profits, and as we’ve recently seen in San Diego their reaction is to raise rates. With a bunch of expensive desalinated water coming down the pipes and an order from the governor to use less water, San Diego County water agencies in a tricky place, and they are looking for a tricky way out.

Water agencies are lobbying to save face

Colorado Delta PeterMcBride

Our water supply imports stress the health of the Colorado River. Photo Peter McBride

A more sustainable water future can be achieved by prioritizing and incentivizing conservation; embracing San Diego’s unique natural beauty through locally appropriate landscapes; and, supporting multi-benefit projects that reduce polluted discharges while producing new clean drinking water. Not coincidentally, multi-benefit solutions also minimize the use of and dependence on imported water and often reduce the costs to upgrade, add to, and maintain existing infrastructure.

Which brings us back to the tricky way out. Despite the responsible solutions listed above, San Diego water agencies continue to lobby Sacramento for exemptions from statewide conservation requirements — they want to continue the wasteful, yet lucrative, practices of the past, and save face for committing their ratepayers to unnecessary, expensive desalinated water. They have argued that because they have already invested in various energy-intensive, infrastructure-heavy water supply projects, San Diego shouldn’t have to conserve as much as other regions. As a result of this lobbying, the State Water Resources Control Board announced earlier this week that it would allow the San Diego region to use more water during the drought. This, despite the fact that we can meet our conservation goals and our quality of life here in San Diego is as good as ever.
The water agencies offer no good justification for these credits, and any move to allow our region to use more water will only benefit Southern California water suppliers. It hurts us, the taxpayers, who are saddled with higher prices for expensive water supply projects that we don’t need, while slowing our region’s ability to shift to a new normal based on a water conservation ethic.

Water agencies want to reward water use

san diego drinking waterWith the State Board’s approval of the new regulations, San Diego is poised to use more water, while other communities have to tighten their belts even more to offset our increased water use– so that the state can still meet the governor’s required 25 percent reduction. A situation that rewards water use and punishes water frugality is the antithesis of what we must work towards. A true reward system built on equity would give the greatest recognition to those communities that have reduced demand and made investments in long-term conservation measures.

Water agencies are ignoring the opportunity

We must consider, fundamentally, how we’ll change our relationship with water going forward. We cannot, from an environmental or an economic standpoint, build costly desalination plants to continue feeding growth while maintaining lush tropical landscapes and ornamental lawns. The drought is a catalyst for change, but that change shouldn’t be a slew of new water acquisition projects, but instead a spark that ignites a new conservation ethic built upon smart and responsible water use, capture, and recycling. Our way of life depends on it, and the Constitution of California requires it.