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.
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!
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.
On June 25, the San Diego Coastkeeper Environmental Law Clinic staff and legal interns toured the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System in Fountain Valley, CA.
The Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System began as a response to a water shortage in Orange County in 1965. At this time it was discovered that the water table had dropped so low that ocean water was seeping in and contaminating the groundwater. Since Orange County currently gets about 60 percent of its water from the ground, protecting this source is very important. To protect the groundwater, the district began a project known as Water Factory 21.
Today’s program is an expansion of the successes of Water Factory 21. Water is pumped over from the sewage treatment plant next door. Within 45 minutes it is perfectly clean water. The plant uses a three-step process to clean the water. First, the water is filtered using a microfiltration system that sucks the water through very fine filters. Then the water goes through reverse osmosis where water is forced through the molecular structure of the Reverse Osmosis membranes. After this stage the water is exposed to ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to disinfect the water and destroy trace compounds that may have passed through the Reverse Osmosis membranes.
Half of the now pure water is pumped into the seawater barrier to keep the seawater from infiltrating the groundwater basin, and half is pumped up and naturally filters into the groundwater. The system produces almost 70 million gallons of filtered water each day keeping the groundwater pure and plentiful.
After touring the entire process, we were able to taste the water. It was great. It’s so pure, and has no mineral content, so it’s practically tasteless.
Environmental groups challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant scrutinize the project because as proposed it’s the region’s most expensive and energy intensive water supply option. As one of the environmental groups leading the charge in challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, we’re clearing the air about a few misconceptions.
Truth #1 Our cases have merit.
Procedural deficiencies at every reviewing agency have marred the approval process for the plant. While some suggest we are engaging in superfluous lawsuits, this desalination plant will be the largest in the western hemisphere and may set precedent for all other projects. We must ensure it is as protective of our environment as possible. Yet, our regulatory agencies have taken an “approve first, ask questions later” approach that could lead to disastrous consequences.
Our efforts, and those of our partner organizations, have already improved the project dramatically by ensuring carbon offsets and wetlands mitigation to offset some impacts from the proposed project.
Truth # 2 We don’t oppose desalination.
We support a comprehensive water policy – prioritizing how we get and use our water based on cost, environmental and energy impacts, and reliability. First, we need to exhaust conservation and water efficiency efforts. After the City of San Diego instituted mandatory water use restrictions last year, outside water use dropped 13 percent. In a county where nearly 50 percent of our water goes to residential use (60% of that for landscape irrigation), conservation can provide huge savings.
Second, we need to aggressively pursue water reuse. The City of San Diego is currently exploring Indirect Potable Reuse, which recycles wastewater to drinking water standards above that of our current supplies. Rainwater harvesting, grey water and non-potable water reclamation provide other opportunities to access hundreds of millions of gallons of recycled water daily.
Both conservation and reuse are cheaper, more energy efficient than desalination and can dramatically reduce ocean pollution without killing fish in the process.
Truth # 3 Desalination is the most expensive way to enhance local water supplies.
Conservation saves consumers money by reducing water and energy bills. Augmenting local reservoirs with recycled water uses the same treatment technologies as desalination but at 40 percent of the cost. And while Poseidon continues to claim on its website that its project will be developed at no expense to taxpayers, the truth is the project will receive $350 million over the next 25 years in public Metropolitan Water District subsidies and has a pending $530 million request in tax-free Private Activity Bonds to finance the project.
Truth # 4 Desalination is also the most energy intensive water option for San Diego.
Estimates show that 19 percent of California’s energy usage is for the treatment, movement and delivery of water. Between 3 and 5 percent of the state’s energy is used simply to move water from northern to Southern California, but desalination requires more. It also uses one third more energy than recycling wastewater.
Truth #5 If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
We’ve been asked to stand aside and support public opinion. However few important battles (civil rights, environmental protection, etc.) have been won without taking unpopular positions. The project’s popularity is based on the allure of a seemingly inexhaustible ocean resource and the small fortune Poseidon has paid in public relations and lobbying efforts to promise everything to everybody: for San Diegans, an endless supply of cheap water; for taxpayer/consumer groups, a guarantee of no subsidies; for organized labor, good union jobs; and for environmental groups, full environmental mitigation (the company claims the plant will be a net benefit for wetlands and ocean habitat). Poseidon is San Diego’s real-life Santa Claus!
So, if you are asking yourself, “how does this add up?” you’re ahead of the folks that have approved the project to date. A better question may be, “why did so many appointed officials approve this project (almost always overruling staff recommendations) without asking these tough questions in the face of such obvious contradictions?”
This is the question we are trying to resolve through our challenges.
We all want the same thing for our region—a dependable, affordable and sustainable water supply. Rather than make decisions in a crisis, we’d like to see our region make strategic decisions that protect our citizens and environment from unnecessary costs and harm. That’s why we need to develop a more thoughtful, comprehensive water policy for the region that prioritizes lower-cost, lower-impact alternatives like conservation and efficiency and reclamation. Desalination should be a last resort in our water portfolio.
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.
Indirect potable reuse sounds technical, doesn’t it? Referred to as IPR, it a process that recycles wastewater into water so clean that it can augment our reservoirs and help increase our drinking water supplies.
This means that in non-technical terms, it’s recycling water we’ve already used.
At San Diego Coastkeeper, we believe in the old adage “reduce, reuse, then recycle,” and that’s how IPR fits into the equation of where we get our water. First, the less water we use in San Diego, means the less water we have to import. Given that more than half of the residential water use goes to landscapes, watering your lawn less can make a difference.
Reusing will also help decrease demand for water that currently travels more than 400 miles to get to your tap. Simple steps like installing rain barrels at your home and capturing shower water to give to your plants, reuses water in a second application and decreases the amount of water the region needs to import (currently, we import more than 80 percent of our water).
Then we should recycle water. IPR in San Diego means taking wastewater that would be discharged into the ocean through the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Facility and treating it to drinking water standards before it is used to recharge our local reservoirs. If your first reaction to this concept is “yuck,” you’re not alone. But most people aren’t aware that we safely drink “toilet to tap” presently, as 400 million gallons of treated sewage are discharged into the Colorado River before it becomes our drinking water. And numerous cities already use similar projects, including Orange County, which currently produces 70 millions gallons of IPR water daily, enough for 500,000 residents.
In late 2008, the San Diego City Council approved a water rate increase to fund a pilot project demonstration facility to test whether IPR can successfully augment our water supplies. Already paid for, this pilot project is currently underway, and if successful, will ultimately provide up to 16 million gallons of advanced treated water per day from the city’s existing reclamation facilities that currently provide water for non-drinking uses like irrigation. A second study is also underway exploring opportunities to build new plants that could reclaim 50 or 100 million gallons or more of water daily, which could meet half of the city’s water needs!
In addition to providing much needed water supplies to our region, IRP has many more benefits such as:
- Protecting the ocean from more than 150 million gallons of treated wastewater that the Point Loma Treatment Facility currently pumps into it.
- Saving residents money because IPR is less expensive than importing water, which utilizes up to five percent of the state’s energy just to move supplies from Northern California to Southern California, or desalination, which requires a huge amount of energy to remove the salt from the water.
- Creating cleaner and safer water than what is currently imported into our region due to the treatment process and the stringent review and monitoring by the California Department of Health services and other regulatory agencies.
The two-year pilot project and regional assessment are expected to come to completion in 2011. In the mean time, learn more about recycling wastewater into drinking water and how you can help make it a reality for all of San Diego.