Thirty million people in seven states in the Southwest use the Colorado River's water for their survival. California—including San Diego—has more people depending upon Colorado River water than any other state.
Competing demands make the Colorado River one of the most contested and controlled rivers on Earth. Over the last decade, humans have drained all of the river's water - all 5 trillion gallons - before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. The Colorado River is in very bad shape and deeply threatened.
In total, about twenty million Californians rely, at least in part, on the Colorado River for their drinking water, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation's 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. In San Diego, we import 70 percent of our water and about half of that comes from the Colorado River. Does that sound efficient or secure to you?
We say no, and it's time to change our ways. In 2009, San Diego Coastkeeper and our partners reached a Cooperative Agreement with the City of San Diego to plan how we can reduce our dependence on imported water and secure a local water supply. This year, in 2013, City Council unanimously instructed its staff to move forward with wastewater recycling to bring us about 100 million gallons per day of clean local drinking water. Success!
But guess what? Around 78 percent of the water drained from the Colorado every year goes to agriculture. Colorado River irrigates an amazing 15 percent of our nation's crops – so we'd better get busy on that front, too.
In California, over a half million acres of agricultural land is irrigated by the Colorado River and most of the vegetables consumed by people in the United States in winter months come from California crops irrigated by the Colorado River. The Department of Interior and the seven Colorado River states are now meeting to figure next steps on agricultural conservation and efficiency and keeping healthy flow in the river.
Thanks to the Colorado River Basin Study, we know that we could save three million acre feet per year, if only we'd take action. That's enough to cover San Diego in 13 feet of water.
And that's why we and Councilmember Gloria care about the National Young Farmer's Coalition.
It's a truism that how our young generations think and act will define the future of our society—and in this case our river. So the fact that the National Young Farmer's Coalition supports sustainable farming and is a leader in demanding that agricultural users protect the Colorado River tells us something important. A thriving Colorado River is our future. San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria is joining farmers on July 25, Colorado River Day, in a plea to the Basin Study planning group that the outcome of their meeting is actionable proposals—things we can do NOW--to reduce agricultural pressure on the Colorado River while maintainin its strong industry here in San Diego.
This issue has been studied thoroughly, the time for action is now.
How You and IPR Can Save the Colorado River
In its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2013, American Rivers has named the Colorado River as the number-one Most Endangered River in the country. Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers, identified that the Colorado River is “so over-tapped that it no longer reaches the sea.”
The Colorado River is, simply put, the lifeline of the Southwest. It supplies drinking water to 36 million people from Denver to LA, irrigates four million acres of land and supports a 26 billion dollar outdoor recreation economy.
Yet it currently stands as the Most Endangered River in America because of outdated water management that can’t respond to the pressures of over-allocation and persistent drought. This led American Rivers to sound the alarm for Congress to support state-of-the-art water supply programs that can positively and sustainably impact how the water in the Colorado River is managed.
This also highlights to the significance of what we can do in San Diego—both as a region through potable reuse and individually as water-conscientious citizens and community members.
Currently, the City of San Diego is deciding whether to move forward with full-scale water purification projects in San Diego. San Diego Coastkeeper and the Water Reliability Coalition—a groundbreaking collaboration between environmental and business-oriented groups—are encouraging the San Diego City Council to approve full-scale water purification projects to create more potable water in San Diego. Creating a reliable, secure local water supply is both good for the environment and good for business.
Potable reuse projects use special technology to purify water, leaving it extremely clean. Just how clean? The ultra-purified water is actually cleaner than the water we import from the Colorado River or the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The ultra-purified water can then be mixed with imported water either at a reservoir or at a drinking water treatment plant before it gets another round of treatment.
The City of San Diego has run a pilot project of this technology since early 2012. When they tested the ultra-purified water for over 300 compounds, the purified water met all drinking water standards. Not only that, but the purified water contained only two of the 91 Chemicals of Emerging Concern, while imported water that makes up the bulk of our drinking water contained 13 of these chemicals.
While the City of San Diego is working to implement potable reuse projects, there are a lot of things that we can do, both large and small, that can make an impact on water conservation efforts like that of saving the Colorado River. See what positive changes you can make to reduce your daily water use. And please contribute to Coastkeeper’s efforts with the City and other decision makers.
Together, we can make a lasting impact on San Diego’s water supply and save the Colorado.
On my very first day with San Diego Coastkeeper, Waterkeeper Jill Witkowski came to me with an idea to change the way we tackle water issues throughout the county.
She envisioned pulling together a group of community members from throughout San Diego County who represent the diverse backgrounds and concerns of the region to better inform us of what local, water-related problems were out there.
As an organization that works to “find and fix” these problems, Jill saw a need for us make sure we were finding what truly needed fixing. There seemed no better way to identify these issues than straight from the individuals seeing them every day.
If I ever had any doubts about how motivated San Diego Coastkeeper was to making ideas become reality, it was quickly cleared up as we launched the application process for our inaugural Community Advisory Council just three weeks later at our Signs of the Tide event.
At the same time, the San Diego community wasted no time in showing me how devoted they were to protecting our water. In the one-month application window, we received 24 applications from a wide range of ages, professions, interests and locations. There were 24 applications for 10 seats on the Council.
Reading through the applications was one of the most inspiring and motivating processes. It’s amazing how many individuals wanted to be a part of enacting change in their community. Students and parents, legal professionals, college professors, and healthcare workers all voiced their concern over water quality and availability here in San Diego.
While we heard from drastically different communities and individuals, the concern for clean water availability was constant. From Oceanside to Chula Vista, we heard from people who were not only concerned about their water, but were willing to take an active role in protecting it. This was incredible to see and only made the selection process more difficult.
After four weeks of reviewing applications and meeting with candidates, we were left with 10 members of our inaugural Community Advisory Council. They will be responsible for representing their community’s concerns and working with others to develop solutions. Our Council members will also act as representatives of San Diego Coastkeeper, helping to educate their community and provide them with resources to be successful advocates for their water.
We are thrilled to welcome on our inaugural Community Advisory Council. We have a dynamic and passionate group and are excited to work with them in the coming months. If the last two months are any indication, the next year will be an incredible time at San Diego Coastkeeper and looks very promising for the health of our water.
For years, shipyards dumped pollutants into the sediments of San Diego's waters.
Since the approval of the cleanup plan, they’ve been good about listening to our feedback on how to cleanup the problem, but they haven’t been good about listening to yours.
The Remedial Action Plan, adopted back in March, set forth a strong cleanup order to get metal discharges and other pollutant wastes out of the sediment. The plan outlined how the shipyards were to dredge without harming water quality, and to make sure no more pollutants end up in our water. It has specific goals for these shipyards to reach. And the shipyards have done a good job at incorporating our feedback on how to reach those goals.
But why aren’t they incorporating your feedback?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs a new communication plan. The current one isn’t cutting it. Right now, their plan is to essentially to direct people over to the Water Board’s site, which is full of lengthy PDFs that do nothing but confuse the average citizen.
In their current Community Relations Plan, the group acknowledges, “the community needs to have access to information and have the opportunity to understand how the remedial action may affect them.” Acknowledging that is great, but making sure it happens is the only thing that matters.
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group needs its own website, one that’s constantly updated with information on everything the group is doing. Simply sending out newsletters doesn’t get the job done. The “Potential Community Relations Tools and Materials” in the current Community Relations Plan lists advertisements, information displays, blogs, comment databases, presentations, briefing packets, and a website to name a few. Where are they?
The Shipyard Sediment Site Group is starting to make progress, and Coastkeeper is appreciative that they’ve been responsive to our feedback. But without a strong community relations plan, the public, who are the real stakeholders, has no way of giving their input in this case. The public needs to be able to see the changes that are happening, and comment on them. This is a two-way street.
What do you think the Shipyard Sediment Site Group can do to better increase community input?
On Saturday, more than 200 community members descended upon Otay Valley Regional Park for San Diego Coastkeeper’s 5th annual Walk the Watershed event. What is a watershed you ask? A watershed is the ecosystem in which we all live including the wildlife, surface waters, water, water quality, and of course, our neighborhoods.
Participants had the opportunity to learn about San Diego’s watersheds at the education stations along the education tour through Otay Valley Regional Park, culminating in ice-plant removal as the restoration project.
It was definitely a joint effort to make Walk the Watershed a success. Partner organizations included the Unified Port of San Diego, Metropolitan Water District, WiLDCOAST, Elementary Institute of Science, Otay Valley Regional Park and park rangers, City of San Diego, County of San Diego, City of Chula Vista, Allied Waste, The Girl Scouts of San Diego County, REI, and I Love a Clean San Diego, and of course the group of rock star volunteers.And what event is complete without tamales, a dance performance, and a few words from San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox and Council Member David Alvarez? The best part is, it was free to the public! Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning learning about your environment, meeting organizations in the community that care about preserving and protecting your environment, and breathing in the fresh air.
Wastewater recycling, reclaimed water, and Indirect Potable Reuse (or IPR) are all ways of treating wastewater and reusing it rather than treating it and dumping it into the ocean.
San Diego reuses wastewater for irrigation, in its purple pipe system. Purple pipe is so-named because it requires two sets of plumbing, one for drinking water (potable use) and a second (purple) set for reclaimed water for irrigation. It’s easy enough to install when constructing a new building, but otherwise it’s a major retrofit, and either way it’s not cheap. But during a bad drought in 1989, purple pipe was touted as the only way we would
make it through with enough potable water for showers and drinking. The City Council even passed an aggressive ordinance to force anyone who could reasonably use reclaimed water for irrigation or industrial uses to do so. But the drought ended, and since then the ordinance has been largely forgotten and essentially unenforced. In fact, according to a Sign On San Diego article, San Diego only uses 15 percent of its two reclaimed water plants’ capacity.
Now, the city is taking another look at wastewater recycling for drinking water. (Check out how purple pipe and IPR compare – spoiler, IPR wins.) Mayor Jerry Sanders supports a new demonstration project to test the safety of IPR for drinking water – a definite improvement on his previous stance of ceremonially vetoing the “toilet to tap” project. The latest test builds on the successful use of wastewater recycling in:
Singapore, where they use reservoir augmentation, the very same process proposed for San Diego, and bottle and sell the stuff under the brand name NEWater
And closer to home, Orange County, where they use wastewater recycling for groundwater replenishment
The demonstration project will last a year and is required by the California Department of Public Health to prove the project adequately protects the public health. Tours of the facility are open to the public so you can see the high level of treatment the water receives.
The Advanced Water Purification process, which consists of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and treatment with hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light, actually removes more contaminants from the water supply than do the processes used to clean raw imported water. IPR water has been found to contain lower levels of all but six of the 232 tested pollutants, and those six were all still below levels that cause health concerns (check out page 108 of this report for details). The tested pollutants include pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupters, which are a common concern about IPR water.
In the words of Ronald Coss, the technical manager of the Water Reuse Study that made the above finding, “the human health risk from consuming [IPR water] directly is negligible, especially when compared to current drinking water standards and with other water supplies available to San Diego. Augmenting San Diego’s raw water supply with [IPR water] would result in an improvement to water quality over current water supplies.”
If you have lived in San Diego for any length of time, you have probably noticed that it doesn’t rain very often here. Yet if you look around, you’ll find you’re surrounded by lawns and swimming pools. Where does the water come from to support all of this? The short answer – not here. San Diego County is a dry one, where a few isolated areas, the wettest in the county, get up to 45 inches of rain per year. The driest gets nine. San Diego city, where Coastkeeper is located, gets between nine and twelve inches per year. Compare that to Northern California, where the wettest areas get up to 125 inches annually and where 40 to 75 inches is not uncommon. See this map for a breakdown of the annual rainfall in San Diego County, and this one for the average annual rainfall in California.
San Diego’s limited amount of rainfall, in addition to other local sources, only accounts for about 20% of its water supply. (Local supply includes surface water, or lakes and streams; groundwater; recycled water, also known as 'purple pipe'; and conservation.) The other 80% must be imported.
The Colorado River, source of half of San Diego County’s water, was first allocated in 1922 in the Colorado River Compact. The Compact divides the usable flow of the Colorado River – 7.5 million acre-feet (an acre flooded a foot deep) – between the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, and Nevada). Each basin subsequently divided its portion among its member states, assigning each state a number of acre-feet for its entitlement. This is important, because that assigned number for each state stays the same no matter how much water is actually in the river. Problems have arisen since the original apportionment due to both simple squabbling over who should have the bigger slice of cake, and more problematically, because the cake isn’t actually as big as it was thought to be when it was apportioned. The 7.5 million acre-foot “total” that can be taken without harm to the river was measured during a wet year, and so when the states use their allocated amount of water, they use more than the river can spare.
The State Water Project has its own set of problems as a water source. The water ultimately comes from the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. The Delta is currently overdrawn, menacing the seven endangered and threatened fish species that call it home. One in particular has served as the poster child for the recent Delta debates – the Delta smelt. It’s a small fish, easily held in the palm of the hand, and its susceptibility to pollution makes it a good water quality indicator. Concern for the species’ survival helped push through the Delta Plan, new legislation from November 2009 which puts conservation of the Delta on par with providing more reliable water supply to Southern California. This has the effect of reducing the water transferred to Southern California – good for the fish, but inconvenient for the humans.
The humans have always had a bit of a problem with water supply in Southern California. They have refused to recognize its limits, preferring instead to rely on massive water relocation projects to meet their needs. This is not a sustainable path – there are very few other places we can take water from. We need to start learning to conserve and live within our limits. Visit http://www.bewaterwise.com/ for some ways to conserve.
This is the fourth of a 5-part blog series examining the nature of our local water supply and how to increase the reliability of our supplies now and into the future.
Today’s match-up features two contenders, both aimed at solving San Diego’s water crisis.
In the first corner, the “purple pipe system” is looking to continue its reign in San Diego. San Diego currently reuses a small fraction of its sewage for irrigation. This recycled water is distributed through a separate purple pipe system. Because the water is non-potable, it is not fit for human consumption.
In the second corner, the up-and-coming “Indirect Potable Reuse” (IPR) is looking to solve San Diego’s water problems. In scientific terms, IPR is a process to treat wastewater and sewage using advanced technology to produce potable water fit for human consumption. Essentially, we would be drinking purified sewage. Right now, you are probably cringing at the thought of drinking recycled wastewater; I know I did. But then I did some research, and I found out that the water produced from IPR is actually superior to our existing water supply. How is this possible?
First, advanced water technology removes any remaining solids through microfiltration. Next, reverse osmosis is used to eliminate viruses, bacteria, pharmaceuticals, and other microbes. The water is then disinfected by UV light and hydrogen peroxide. Finally, it is added to groundwater or surface water reservoirs where it is further purified by natural processes. Once drawn from the groundwater or reservoir, the recycled water goes through the standard water purification process all drinking water undergoes to meet EPA standards. Once this IPR-produced water is fit for consumption, it is distributed through the existing drinking water infrastructure. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Round 1: Costs
The cost of producing one acre-foot of water with IPR ranges from $1,200-$1,800. The purple pipe system ranges from $1,600-$2,600 per acre-foot.
Purple pipe recycled water cannot be added to the existing drinking water infrastructure, so it requires a separate pipe system which costs about $2 million per mile to build. It also requires homes and businesses to be plumbed with two sets of pipes—one for recycled water and one for potable water. This is beginning to sound expensive!
Although the purification process of IPR sounds expensive, the City of San Diego estimates that implementing IPR would be cheaper than expanding the purple pipe system. This is because IPR negates the need for a separate water infrastructure and would maximize the use of the available recycled water supply.
IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 0
Round 2: Energy
The energy intensity of the IPR process is higher than that of the recycled water in purple pipes. Compared to non-potable recycled water, IPR generates a higher carbon footprint. However, IPR uses significantly less energy than other potential water sources in San Diego, such as desalination or imported water.
IPR – 1; Purple Pipes – 1
Round 3: Environmental Impact
By using recycled wastewater, IPR reduces the amount of waste flowing to the Point Loma Treatment Plant. In doing so, IPR reduces the amount of potentially harmful pollutants being released into the ocean from the Point Loma Plant’s effluent.
Purple pipe recycled water does have some red flags. Particularly, the use of non-potable recycled water can lead to the accumulation of byproducts over time in the irrigated soil.
IPR – 2; Purple Pipes – 1
Round 4: Water Quality/Safety
Studies show that water produced through IPR treatment processes contains fewer contaminants than our existing treated imported water supply. Further, a study performed by the National Research Council concluded that there were no significant health risks as a result of IPR.
Because the water in the purple pipes is not treated to the point that it is drinkable, it contains pathogens and harmful chemicals. Simply stated, the consequences of ingesting non-potable recycled water can be severe.
IPR – 3; Purple Pipes – 1
After four hard fought rounds, IPR has dominated the ring, proving that it would be a strong, viable addition to San Diego’s arsenal for fighting the water crisis.
Still think “from toilet to tap” sounds less than appetizing, or has your mind changed? Tell us what you think!
This is the third of a 5-part blog series examining the nature of our local water supply and how to increase the reliability of our supplies now and into the future.
Recently we posted a video of watering turf grass at Liberty Station. We asked you to see if you could spot whether there were any water unwise things in the video. I am sure you have been waiting with baited breath for the answer.
As I hinted in the last blog post, to get a sense of what is technically incorrect, we need a quick review of what our local ordinances say about irrigating.
- First thing we need to know is that the San Diego City Council removed the Drought Level 2 status. Our City Council exercised some foresight last year and made a few of the drought level 2 restrictions permanent. Now, drought or no drought, there are just some things you cannot do, end of story.
- Which brings us to the next important things you need to know - it is still illegal to water your lawn between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. (June to October) and 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. (November to May); and "City of San Diego water customers must prohibit excessive irrigation and must immediately correct leaks in their private water systems" (emphasis mine). The City's regulations now state that customers "shall not allow water to leave their property due to drainage onto adjacent properties or public or private roadways or streets or gutters due to excessive irrigation and/or uncorrected leaks."
Thus, according to the letter of the law, Liberty Station is within the bounds of legal limits in terms of when they water all that turf - the video was shot in May, at 9 AM. BUT, the video clearly shows excessive irrigation (as evidenced by the water flowing on the sidewalks, pooling around the sprinkler head and flowing into a drain).
The video demonstrates a clear violation of the letter of the law.
But beyond that, there is a clear violation of the spirit of the law as well, which in my mind is meant to keep all San Diegans - whether they manage a small house or a large commercial development - living within our water means. Given our climate and troubled water supply, we should always be striving to make the best water use decisions possible. To their credit, Liberty Station is participating in a pilot Water Savings Performance Program. They have installed an automated irrigation system that determines the length of time and the days to irrigate based on weather, soil, microclimate and plant material. This is a good start but is clearly not sufficient.
But what is a historical site that is trying to pay tribute to its military roots supposed to do?
Well, there are many things Liberty Station could have done and still could do. As Morgan, one of our commentators pointed out "Turf is not water wise ... period." There are other native and drought tolerant ground covers that look similar to turf grass and would help maintain the look of old military training fields of yore.
While it is great that Liberty Station has installed a fancy water-saving irrigation system, they lose half the battle if they don't check to make sure it is working properly:
- sprinkler heads spraying water onto concrete should be addressed immediately;
- lawns could easily be watered earlier in the morning (just around dawn is generally considered best);
- water should be applied more slowly by switching to more efficient irrigation heads (thanks again to our commentator Morgan for that idea).
Of course, these kinds of changes cannot happen overnight. But with a thoughtful plan for improving water management on site, Liberty Station could identify opportunities over the coming years to change its water path. We believe that any place - not just Liberty Station - can and should craft plans of action that lays out a vision and tasks for achieving water sustainability.
Saturday's Union-Tribune ran an editorial rescinding its previous opposition to indirect potable reuse, a water supply option which would recycle treated wastewater into water so pure we could drink it. We've been advocating for this water supply option for many years and would like to congratulate the paper for stepping back from the brink to re-think San Diego’s water crisis.
What a difference two-and-a-half years make.
In September, 2008, this Editorial Board’s assessment of the pilot project to recycle wastewater at San Diego’s North City Water Reclamation Plan did not mince words, advising the City Council to ‘face up to reality and kill the toilet-to-tap boondoggle.’ Further back in the archives, in 2006 the sentiment was even blunter: ‘your golden retriever may drink out of the toilet with no ill effects. But that doesn't mean humans should do the same.’ Fortunately, in the intervening years the UT has got religion, or at least education, about water scarcity and the real science about recycled wastewater. Now the message matches reality: indirect potable reuse produces a higher-quality water source than anything being imported into San Diego currently.
One area environmentalists, taxpayers, elected officials and even the media have always agreed on is the issue is one of education. That’s why we’ve supported and fought for a public education campaign to go with the pilot project. Hopefully, when that campaign gets into full swing later this year, the Editorial Board will be first in line to testify to the power of science and a little persistence.