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.”  

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