San Diego Water Supply (47)
The most important number to San Diego Coastkeeper is the power of one—you. Every day, we pursue more fishable, swimmable, drinkable water throughout San Diego County. And none of it happens without your passion, dedication and support.
In 2014, our staff of seven brought science, education and advocacy to bear on pressing water issues. Our negotiation, data and education efforts:
- Convinced the City of San Diego to unanimously approve a plan for Pure Water, a wastewater-recycling project that creates a new local drinking water source and stops polluted discharges to the ocean.
- Trained our 1,000th water quality monitor and launched a bio assessment program that measures ecosystem health by digging up bugs from rivers.
- Passed statewide legislation to allow rapid beach water quality tests that will let us know if water is safe to swim in less than four hours instead of 24 hours.
- Trained 44 teachers and taught 1,140 students with Project SWELL environmental education curriculum, helping them meet new Common Core requirements.
- Helped San Diegans do their part to address the historic drought by activating mandatory drought restrictions, in part thanks to the 10 legal and policy interns mentored through our Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.
Year in and year out, you are the support and inspiration that keeps us strong. We proudly share with you our 2014 annual report: an infographic that quantifies the “power of one” and an infographic about you and our goals for 2015.
We invite you to count the ways our team, along with you, improved fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County this year. And imagine what we will continue to accomplish, thanks to the power of one.
Happy fishing, swimming and drinking,
|Megan Baehrens||Liz Taylor|
|Executive Director||President, Board of Directors|
Though the State Water Board has had water use restrictions in place since August 2014--and they seem to be working, the Monterey Herald quoted Governor Jerry Brown recently saying he's not ready to add to the restrictions statewide: "I'm reluctant to expand the coercive power of state authority," Brown said. "In a democracy, it is fundamental that citizens be the driving force." This is good news for those who think that regulation is not the answer. It is also a call to action; a time for individual residents and business to prove that we understand the gravity of the situation and will take care of our water, whether to protect habitat, to ensure enough supply for our growing tech industry or to keep rate increases under control.
San Diego County used 27% less water in December 2014 than it did last December. That's even better than the statewide reduction of 22%. That's right, the governor called for 20% reduction in use, and we did it. That figure includes residential use, industrial, agriculture...all the water. It's a reason to celebrate. But how did we get there, and can we sustain it over the long term, which we must do to ensure continued environmental and economic health in the region?
When the governor declared a drought state of emergency in January 2014, our now four years of drought became national news. Despite cases of extreme need in other areas of California, in San Diego the message was particularly hard to swallow because our reservoirs were relatively full and regional agencies told us not to worry. After a few months of hot weather, a period when our region actually increased water consumption, and strong conservation advocacy by San Diego Coastkeeper, agencies and individuals responded by slowly adjusting their use. In part, this happened in response to regional mandatory restrictions.
What can we do? Think about using less and creating more. San Diego County is at the end of two very important pipelines. Our water comes primarily from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta in the north and the Colorado River to the east. Our region just approved Pure Water to generate 83 million gallons a day of clean local water to replace imports; and coalitions in North and South Counties are discussing similar efforts. With state drought funds being offered for large-scale projects, we need to focus on new and expanded potable reuse projects.
About half of our water use is outside the home. In addition to permanently adjusting our use so that this 27% decrease (and more) becomes the new normal, our personal choices and those of the building and landscape industry must turn to drought tolerant and edible landscaping, and we need governments to support that change. We live in a Mediterranean climate and should create beautiful landscapes that survive and thrive with little water. That means out with the turf and in with beautiful drought-tolerant plants (toyon stays green all year and bougainvillea comes in a palette of colors), or food crops that convert water into foods that nourish the body (and reduce your food's carbon footprint).
"We need to treat water as the precious resource that it is. We need to be sensitive to the fact that many Californians don't have or barely have enough water to drink, cook and bathe," said State Water Board chair Felicia Marcus. "Hundreds of thousands of acres of agriculture have been fallowed, thousands of people are out of work, and fish and wildlife are struggling. Each individual act of conservation – such as letting the lawn go brown or fixing leaks – can add up to huge savings if enough people act."
By thinking ahead, this can be a relatively painless process. Establishing new landscape requires an upfront investment of water, so timing is everything. Spend upcoming warm, dry months planning, then plant new growth during the cooler, wetter months. And, while you are at it, go ahead and turn the irrigation off to the grassy areas that are going to be replaced.
We’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news: California has found itself in the worst drought in recorded history. More bad news: Climate change and drought are trapped in a vicious cycle. As one gets worse, so does the other. This vicious cycle is called the “Water-Energy Nexus.”
But here’s the good news: If we do small things, the whole cycle can reverse and there’s enough water for everybody. Allow us to explain.
The 5 Steps of the Water Energy Nexus:
- Water Use=Energy Use
Water requires energy to extract, convey, treat, deliver and heat. Turning on the tap uses water as well as energy; nearly 20 percent of all the energy used by the state of California is spent on water use.
- Energy Use=Greenhouse Gasses=Rising Temperatures
This energy use creates greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change. What’s one of the worst effects of climate change? Rising temperatures.
- Rising Temperatures=More Water Use
When it’s hot outside, keeping lawns alive, pools filled and crops growing all require more water.
- More Water Use=Way More Energy Use
As we put more demand on our water supply, we primarily rely on getting water from places further away, such as Northern California and the Colorado River Basin. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get water from other sources and bring that to San Diego.
- Vicious Cycle Engaged
As you can see, the more water we use, the more energy we use, the more we contribute to climate change and the whole process repeats, but at a faster rate than before. Staying trapped in this cycle is how we will continue our water supply crisis.
Breaking the Cycle
It sounds pretty bad, but here’s the good news I mentioned earlier: we can get out of this mess just as easily as we got into it.
The fact that water, energy, and climate change are intertwined can be just as big of an advantage as it is a problem. If we find the weakest part of the cycle and break it, the whole cycle reverses, our world begins to heal and things start to get better.
The weakest link: Lawns (and other simple stuff)
Research shows that our wasteful water use is by far the easiest part of the cycle to change. It requires the smallest changes in infrastructure and has the lowest impacts on our current lifestyle. And, over half of San Diego's water usage goes towards outdoor purposes like watering lawns and keeping pools filled.
Our Australian neighbors with much hotter average temperatures use less than half of the water we do. Recent research from the Pacific Institute and the NRDC indicate that San Diego residents could lower their water use by 40 to 60 percent without any major impacts on their normal lifestyle. The study also indicates that businesses could lower their water use by 30-60 percent while maintaining business as usual. That kind of simple change could transform this vicious cycle into an awesome cycle of an increasingly sustainable society.
But history tells us that announcing the solution as “use less water” won’t get nearly enough people on board. Luckily, there are a few state and local policy and infrastructure changes that can help us all make the transition faster and with much less effort.
Here are three tricks and policies to help us end the cycle:
- Localized landscape subsidies or mandates
There are thousands of beautiful plant species native to San Diego. They all have evolved to thrive with the exact amount of rain and sunlight San Diego provides naturally. Landscaping with native species drastically reduces the amount of extra irrigation that non-native plants require to survive in our ecosystem. Both subsidies for native landscaping as well as mandates are good approaches depending on the situation. Our friends at the California Native Plant Society and great local landscaping companies like Schmidt Design, Revolution Landscape and others can offer advice on beautiful, productive landscaping.
- Water Lawns Less Often
San Diego is currently (as of November 2014) in Level 2 Drought alert, meaning we have temporary regulations on our water use until the drought is over. However, many municipalities have restrictions like these all year long. If we make our temporary restrictions permanent, we can build responsible water use into our lifestyle and our city’s infrastructure.
- Pricing that incentivizes conservation and discourages water waste
We think rewards and consequences that are actually important to us grownups, like cash, would encourage people to be more water conscious. By advocating for pricing structures tied to water usage, we hope to cut down on waste, increase conservation, and help keep the costs of our water down, all at the same time.
The power to solve our water crisis is in all of our hands. Luckily, the solutions are simple and based in common sense. Check out these easy tips for drastically reducing your water consumption at home.
What do you do to help conserve water? Tell us in the comments.
With the worst drought in recorded history parching the state, water and water sourcing options are hot topics. In this two part series (read part one), we chat with our Waterkeeper Matt O'Malley, who discusses the Colorado River, future water prospects and much more.
70 percent of California’s precipitation occurs north of Sacramento, yet 75 percent of California’s urban/agricultural water demands are to the south. Please explain this disparity.
Cadillac Desert, and I’d urge anyone interested in history and complexity of California water issues to read that book. Twice.The climate of Southern California is ideal for growing year round, but, rainwater is severely lacking. There is a long and complicated history of fights over water and water rights between Northern and Southern California. The defining book on this subject is
The majority of our water (about 80 percent) in California goes to agriculture. How can more efficient irrigation practices help our current water crisis?
There are a couple of common sense and practical things that could be done right now to improve irrigation practices. We could use less water and/or grow more climate-appropriate crops. Low-flow irrigation techniques rather than flood irrigation, or capture and reuse of irrigated water when and where possible, are a great solution when irrigation is needed.
What is water reclamation and how does San Diego currently utilize this process?
Reclaimed water is wastewater that is treated to different standards, depending on its intended use. That standard could be appropriate for irrigation or for drinking water.
The current process in getting this wastewater treated is similar to desalination technology, where water is forced through membrane filters and then further cleaned. This occurs in what is called “purple pipe," or reclaimed water system, which is what is most commonly used for golf courses or other industrial or commercial activities.
The problem with this is that it is expensive to treat that water for irrigation purposes, when in practice we should be seeking ways to drastically reduce irrigation needs and develop drinkable water supplies – and we likely won’t have enough water long-term to do both.
California has been utilizing recycled water for many years, yet over one million acre-feet/year is unused. How can increased water reuse/reclamation greatly benefit our local supply?
San Diego Coastkeeper supports large-scale wastewater recycling for drinkable reuse. We believe recycling for irrigation is not the most efficient or environmentally friendly use and would like to see more drought-tolerate or native species planted that require far less watering than lawns, and thus free up any water for potable reuse for our community.
What will it take to get support from the general public for using purified wastewater?
According to the newest polls, the public is already there. Not too many years ago many in the public were opposed to potable reuse, but I think now that they understand the technology involved and the need.
Many are quickly coming around to the idea and supporting potable reuse projects. As potable reuse projects pop up from Orange County to Texas, people realize that all water is recycled water. Even the water we drink is subject to use and reuse upstream over and over again.
How much will conservation help us meet our water needs?
Conservation can make a marked difference in helping us meet our current and long-term water need. Currently, San Diego uses as much as 70 percent of our potable water outside the home (irrigation/pools/etc).
By localizing our landscapes, planting drought tolerant species and just being much more conscious of our outdoor water use, we can drastically cut our use. Some parts of Australia use 40 gallons per day, where in San Diego we’re more like 140 gallons per day, and they have a similar standard of living and landscapes. We can likely cut our use by half, if not more.
What can the general public do to conserve water?
The first step is to be aware of your water use, in particular outdoor use. As a community we need to be cognizant of our environment and adapt to it, rather than try to have it adapt to us. With even less rainfall likely in the future, this is of critical importance.
The good news is that there are lots of incentives and rebates offered to help us do this. Take advantage of rebates offered by local agencies to improve efficiencies and remove lawns for localized landscapes that require far less water and irrigation, as this is the biggest use of water by far.
Desalination is one of the ways we can build a local water supply. What are some of the challenges with this technology?
Desalination presents a few challenges. For one, is not very efficient and a great deal of water is wasted in the process. Moreover, the process destroys habitats and kills marine life, along with the fact that brine discharges are concentrated and can impair beneficial uses and water quality objectives. Lastly, it uses a tremendous amount of energy to process and treat sea water into potable water, further leading to climate change and associated negative impacts. If desalination is going to be used, these issues need to be figured out before it becomes a legitimate part of our water portfolio.
According to a 2010 report by the Equinox Center, “Water is likely to be the most critical resource challenge that the San Diego region will face during the next two decades." What will happen if extra measures aren’t taken to maintain a reliable water supply as population growth continues?
We will need to ration and regulate more, which is likely to happen anyway. We may need additional infrastructure, which costs a great deal.
By conserving, we’re saving money on that end, and we’re reducing our dependence on outside supplies. We don’t have an option but to meet these new challenges if we plan on succeeding and surviving as a community.
Will water be the “liquid gold” of the future?
It’s far too important to be compared to gold. It is essential to all life, and when it is unavailable, life no longer exists. Gold we can live without. It is, by far, the most important thing in the world. Think about when we look for planets that may harbor life, the first thing we ask is whether there is water in any form. The same can be said for our Southwest communities.
Ultimately why should the public be so concerned about our limited water supply in the Southwest? Why is reliable water so important?
It is essential to all life. Without water, life does not exist and our communities are more dependent on a clean water supply than anything else in the world. A reliable water supply means a stable economy, which is ultimately required for a stable environment.
With the worst drought in recorded history parching the state, water and water sourcing options are hot topics. In this two part series (read part two), we chat with our Waterkeeper Matt O'Malley, who discusses the Colorado River, future water prospects and more.
Part 1 of 2
Why is water considered the lifeblood of the Southwestern US?
Colorado River is vital to our everyday existence. The reality is that most of the Southwest is desert, but we don’t live as though it is. Instead we try to make it look and live like regions that get much more rainfall – such as Hawaii or Florida. Water is vital to almost everything we do, in particular the
Without water our communities would not exist as they do. San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and the rest of the Southwest, including our agricultural communities, would look much different than they do today. The major population centers of the Southwest, including Los Angeles and San Diego, are home to about 1/10 of the U.S. population.
Please explain why there is a current water crisis in the Southwest.
There is a drought throughout the west, with California and Nevada feeling the largest impacts. In addition to the significant impacts of drought, the Southwest has received less rainfall than average, and has for the last several years. This reality has lead to a severe shortage of water, both locally and in the sources available for importation to our region from other parts of the southwest.
How has the perception of water as a valued resource changed in this region over the last few decades?
To paraphrase John Steinbeck in East of Eden, during the dry years, people forget about the lush years, and during the wet years they lose all memory of the dry years. That seems a constant and definitely rings true today.
Luckily, an increasing number of individuals and agencies are becoming aware of just how valuable and necessary a resource water is, in both wet and dry years and taking steps to preserve this invaluable commodity. It is heartening to see people are conserving more and doing more with less, but we can do much better. We have to do better. While I know there are also those who are oblivious to the water crisis, I feel confident they will become acutely aware of it sooner rather than later. With longer and more frequent droughts likely (the results from climate change) and with rising water prices, it will be hard to ignore.
A recent study projects that by 2050, climate change will reduce the flow of the Colorado River by 10 - 30 percent. How much will climate change impact our water supply?
Tremendously. With climate change we could very well experience prolonged periods of drought and inconsistent precipitation. There are studies that show our current drought crisis is linked with climate change. Water scarcity could easily become the “new normal” for the southwest and California. It’s important for us to adapt to this new normal and develop conservation and recycling methods to deal with it, and that’s something we’re working on at San Diego Coastkeeper.
The demand for water has historically exceeded the local supply in Los Angeles and San Diego since the inception of these cities. Why has the Colorado River become such a vital resource for Southern California?
I am not certain on all the motivations to use the Colorado River as source, but I can guess that at the time this seemed like an choice full of abundance in resource. Today the reality is that we haven’t come close to meeting our maximum conservation potential, and we haven’t yet developed ways to capture much of the rainfall that does occur here. Historically, rather than treat rainwater as an asset, we’ve treated it as a nuisance, something to be diverted from properties and into stormwater systems.
The Colorado is our main source of imported water in Southern California because of this gap, based on long-standing water rights and adjudications. If we can find ways to truly integrate our systems, we can supply a larger portion of our local water needs with local rainfall.
The local water supply in San Diego is currently enough to support just a few hundred thousand residents. Please explain.
San Diego has existing reservoirs designed to capture local rainfall and delivered to customers. But due in part to logistics, reservoir storage infrastructure and lack of local capture and use, we actually capture and use only a limited quantity. In the future, it’s likely that you’ll see small-scaled capture and rainwater use/treatment systems throughout the desert and coastal Southwest.
California is facing its third dry year in a row. How do droughts like this affect the water supply?
The state has less snowpack to pull water resources from and less snowpack means less water. In the past, snowpack acted as a “natural reservoir." Currently, with the entire state impacted by drought, what water we were getting from central California is drastically reduced. The same goes for Colorado River water and a drier environment is more likely to burn, meaning increase wildfires and the water quality issues are closely associated with our current situation, a situation that could be increasingly permanent.
The drought has caused increased groundwater pumping this year. Please explain how we are depleting our aquifers and what this could mean for the future.
This method of sourcing water has lead to drying up of wells, reduction of water in streams and lakes (due to hydrologic connections), deterioration of water quality, land subsidence and saltwater infiltration into groundwater, among other impacts.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that only 16 percent of people have been drastically affected by the drought at home. How will this change in the future if increased drought conditions occur as predicted?
One way that this will almost certainly change is that that number will go up, likely way up. Once mandatory irrigation schedules or other prohibitions become commonplace, people will begin to feel the pinch. Pricing will continue to rise as water gets more scarce and harder to come by. Sometimes the pocketbook is the place where people feel things the most and get more motivated. That is not far off now.
We're in the worst drought in California's recorded history--and the City of San Diego has not yet elevated its water use restrictions to Level 2. This is unacceptable.
Governor Brown already requested everyone in the state reach 20 percent conservation, and the San Diego County Water Authority recently approved moving voluntary water use restrictions to mandatory. This vote allowed numerous cities in the region to implement their mandatory water use restrictions and come into compliance with emergency water conservation mandates approved July 15 by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Unfortunately, during an update about its ongoing water conservation program on July 23, City of San Diego's Public Utilities Department Director Halla Razak and a representative from the city attorney's office reiterated the stance that the City is already in compliance with state regulations. They said that the permanent mandatory restrictions currently in place in the City of San Diego "mirror" the Level 2 drought restrictions that the County Water Authority approved. Sadly, Ms. Razak stated that we should "pray for rain" and plan for allocations.
We know this isn't right. And we are committed to working with folks at the City, the State Water Board and the County Water Authority to ensure all water suppliers in our region obey the law and do their part to conserve.
Last week, our staff gave public comment during the City of San Diego environment committee meeting to update council members on state regulations that require implementation of mandatory restrictions and information about how the City hasn't taken necessary steps to address outdoor irrigation scheduling and other key elements of those restrictions.
In addition to comment letters and public testimony, we also partnered on a strongly-worded joint press release with Save the Colorado, highlighting the broader impacts of this decision for the regions from which we draw our water. We identified the current City of San Diego stance as in violation of existing regulations--and in poor taste, considering the broader implications of the drought for the entire Western U.S.
It is our goal to have the City of San Diego understand the requirements and come into compliance with State Board regulations. The deadline just passed, and the need to act is urgent. We have been working one-on-one with decision makers, in public hearings and in the media to achieve this goal.
How is San Diego's water supply connected to other locations throughout our region? This blog, written by PhD Candidate Alida Cantor, looks at a particular connection: birds at the Salton Sea.
A quick background
The Colorado River supplies over half of San Diego's water. The Colorado also supplies water for many other users-- 25 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland throughout the entire Colorado River basin. The river is known as one of the most controlled and over-allocated waterways in the world.
In 2003, an agreement (the Quantification Settlement Agreement, or QSA) was negotiated with the goal of limiting California's over-reliance on Colorado River supplies. The agreement transfers water from farms in Imperial Valley to urban users in San Diego. This means a more secure water supply for urban water users in San Diego, but could have negative impacts for others throughout the broader region -- including birds.
Birds at the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, is a 400-square-mile salty lake in Imperial and Riverside Counties. Its water comes primarily from agricultural runoff—which means that taking water away from farms means less water flowing into the Salton Sea. This is very worrisome for many reasons, one of which is potential impacts on bird habitat. Less water means receding shorelines and increased salinity, which hurt bird habitat.
The Salton Sea hosts a lot of different types of birds-- around 400 different species. This includes several endangered and sensitive species, such as the Yuma Clapper Rail. The Salton Sea supports about 40 percent of the entire endangered Yuma Clapper Rail population so this bird is considered very vulnerable to habitat decline at the Salton Sea.
Other birds at the Salton Sea include eared grebes, cormorants, yellow-footed gulls, and white and brown pelicans. Brown pelicans were once endangered, but their populations have rebounded since the banning of the DDT pesticide. White pelicans are not endangered but a large percentage of them- 30 percent- nest at the Salton Sea. More birds of concern at the Salton Sea include mountain plovers, burrowing owls, and black skimmers, to name a few.
As wetlands throughout the broader region have diminished due to development (about 90 percent of wetlands in California have been lost over the last hundred years), the importance of the Salton Sea as habitat for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway has grown. Although the Salton Sea experienced large-scale bird die-offs during the 1990s due to avian botulism and other diseases spread by having so many birds in one place, it remains a very important habitat, and every year millions of migrating birds rely upon the Salton Sea as a stopover to rest and fuel up along their journey.
Thinking about what San Diego's water system means for birds at the Salton Sea shows how we are connected via our water supply to other locations and species throughout the region. The story of our water doesn't start or end when we turn on the tap.
The summer is sure to bring the heat. We can already tell it's going to be a summer of rushing to the ice cream truck, cold showers and ocean swimming.
As things quickly heat up, we can clearly see how important it is to have a sustainable water conservation plan that takes into account drought concerns and environmental impact throughout San Diego County and beyond.
To put things in perspective, the color-coded portion of the map below depicts the severity of drought throughout California with data from the US Drought Monitor. It was produced as a joint venture between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When you read news reports about parts of California being in "exceptional drought," this is the map they are referring to. To see the drought's impact on our water supply sources, I overlaid the outlines of the Colorado River Basin and the Sacramento River Basin combined with the San Joaquin River Basin, which flow into the Bay Delta. The watersheds San Diego draws its water from are nearly 100 percent impacted by drought. The San Diego County Water Authority's Master Plan update doesn't focus enough on conservation, recycling and local stormwater capture as future sources.
As stewards of the water, we are concerned with the scarcity of water in our supply chain and the environmental impact that this plan could have in the long run. The energy needed to transport this water translates to greenhouse gas emissions, further intensifying climate change impacts like drought in the southwest, leading to more aggressive and spontaneous wildfires like what we have been experiencing recently.
We must develop a plan that focuses on water recycling and conservation so we can stay hydrated for the days, months and years to come and reduce climate change impacts associated with our water supply choices.
Well, hello blog readers.
Because you're an important part of the Coastkeeper community, I wanted to take a moment to give you an insider's perspective on our recent lawsuit. We filed against the San Diego County Water Authority for failing to account for the environmental impacts of existing and future water supply sources in its recently approved water supply plan. As you know, we strive to build relationships in the community with a broad spectrum of businesses, agencies and nonprofits. As you also know, when collaboration fails to meet the needs of our waters, legal action is in our repertoire.
In late March, the Water Authority approved an update to its Master Plan for water supply and a related environmental impact report and climate action plan. Despite the fact that California law requires them to do so, these plans do not fully assess the environmental impacts of each water supply source the Water Authority considers. In particular, they ignore the energy used to treat and move water. These plans will be used as the basis for decisions made for the next twenty years, and today that is a faulty basis.
San Diego Coastkeeper protects and restores fishable, swimmable and drinkable water, this includes our water supply. We are worried about these plans because energy used to move water translates to greenhouse gas and exacerbates climate change impacts like sea level rise and drought characteristics. In San Diego, our environmental and economic stability will be threatened if these plans are left as they stand.
We did not jump straight to a lawsuit. Since mid-2013, we have worked with the Water Authority in meetings with its staff and board members; by submitting comment letters alongside our partner groups; and by giving oral testimony at public hearings. Our concerns and cautions about environmental laws were repeatedly dismissed.
So, as the watchdog organization in our region dedicated to protect our waters and empowered to act, we filed a lawsuit. Our ultimate goal is to bring the Water Authority back to the table and end up with a better water supply plan for our region. The improved plan will consider embedded energy, and we'll end up prioritizing conservation and reuse over more energy-intensive sources like imports from the Bay-Delta and Colorado River.
It probably won’t surprise you that as San Diego Coastkeeper’s Waterkeeper I spend a lot of my time thinking about water- the best sources, the best methods and the best ways we can take stewardship for our environment while meeting our serious regional water needs. I probably don’t need to tell you that we live in a region with a drought crisis or that most of our water, 80 percent in fact, is imported from outside of San Diego County.
Lately, I have spent a great deal of time on efforts in the lead-up to the San Diego County Water Authority’s recent vote on the adoption of its Regional Water Facilities Optimization and Master Plan Update (Master Plan). As expected the vote upheld the business-as-usual and environmentally neglectful policies of the past. To the frustration of many, the plan and its accompanying environment and climate change documents fail to address the greater impacts of the region's water supply system including environmental damage, increasing ratepayer costs, greenhouse gas pollution and climate change.
In addition to the Master Plan, which explores the region's needs for and options to address water supply through 2035, the Water Authority also approved the accompanying Supplemental Program Environmental Impact Report and Climate Action Plan. Unfortunately the deficient Climate Action Plan will allow for the Water Authority to continue prioritizing water sources that are both energy-intense and environmentally damaging; namely additional imported water and conveyance, and additional desalination plants. I will talk in more detail about cheaper, more environmentally responsible alternatives to desalination, including the City of San Diego’s potable reuse project, in a later blog post. For now, I want to focus on the Master Plan and the supplemental documents.
In the months leading up to this vote, I worked in coordination with other environmental and social justice organizations, known collectively as San Diego Bay Council, which includes groups like the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Environmental Health Coalition, North County Coastal Group, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and others. Most of us had been part of this planning process since early 2013 and have repeatedly called on the Water Authority to prioritize conservation and recycling, and implement an appropriate and responsible climate action plan. As evidenced by the vote, the Water Authority has repeatedly declined to incorporate any of this feedback into its plan, noting that it believes it is not responsible to account for the energy use of its water supply strategy, leaving that to its suppliers and customers to sort out. Does that seem fair or responsible to you?
The vote was disappointing in that it shows the Water Authority sidestepping an opportunity to safely and economically usher the region into a much-needed new water supply paradigm. What seems to have been ignored all together by this plan is the amount of energy it takes to supply water. As approved, the plan misses the opportunity to issue a water loading order, which would prioritize the least environmentally damaging sources of water. This would have led to water supply solutions that better protect the environment and reduce very costly infrastructure needs.
As you can see, its decision also means that the trend continues: lower-cost and more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient water source solutions are being downplayed or ignored to the detriment of our environment and pocket books. In a region so desperate for water, we must assure that our water sourcing portfolio is both diverse and effective while making informed decisions based on a variety of factors including cost, environmental impact, energy intensity, and ratepayer implications.
And let us not forget, another issue at stake is the depletion of one of the nation’s most vulnerable waterways, the Colorado River. Our region’s water needs have contributed heavily to the fact that for the last decade the Colorado River has been drained dry by the time it reaches the Sea of Cortez. The Save the Colorado organization points out that, “While the destruction of the river is a clear and obvious consequence of our actions, additional threats to the Colorado River - from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, all the way to its dry destiny near the Sea of Cortez - are increasing with each tick of the clock.” Can we really afford to wait to take action?
I want to be clear that, while the vote and other Water Authority efforts have disappointed, they are not the end of the story. We still have power as citizens and the region is brimming with potential. You can help prove me right by donating to our efforts, volunteering for one of our many monthly events to care for our beautiful and bountiful waters and beaches and you can let your voice be heard by contacting your local representatives on the San Diego County Water Authority Board with your thoughts on their totally-off-the-mark plan.