Addressing individual contribution to pollution by reaching out to children (as discussed in the last post) is probably the easy part of what must happen to safeguard our local environment. As critical as individual action is, there is only so much a person can do independently to safeguard our waters and environment. Yes, we must all take responsibility for reducing water pollution, conserving water and energy usage, and being eco-friendly in our transportation choices (walk/bike to work, mass transit, fuel-efficient cars).
Beyond that, though, we need to enact and enforce policies and laws that will ensure a safe and healthy coast and planet for future generations. It has often been said that we need our leaders to be compasses, and all we usually get are weathervanes. While things are improving locally, that is still too often the case in San Diego.
On May 22, after more than six years of negotiations, the San Diego City Council approved a final settlement with Coastkeeper, the Surfrider Foundation and U.S. EPA that will obligate the city to invest almost $1 billion in its sewage collection system through 2013. Once officially filed with the court, the settlement will ensure the continuation of the city’s successful Sewer Spill Reduction Program that has resulted in an 83 percent reduction in spills since 2000. While the city should be applauded for taking this step, and for all of the measures its leaders have implemented over the past seven years to reduce spills, we must recognize that it took litigation — not leadership — to achieve these impressive results. Likewise, the mayor and city should be applauded for passing water and wastewater rate increases. Again, these increases were passed to ensure compliance with legal settlements or administrative orders. Still, hiking rates in San Diego — even when necessary to comply with the law and when it’s the “right thing” to do — is not always easy.
However, now is the time for even more bold leadership in this city and region. Examining one example of this — an example that links water, energy and climate change — we see the lack of leadership that is still too prevalent in San Diego. In hosting Café San Diego previously, I have written of the need for the city to take a leadership role on reusing reclaimed water. While I don’t want to repeat what has been written previously, let me summarize: San Diego does not have sufficient water to support even close to our current population; we currently import the vast majority of our drinking water from outside sources, including the Colorado River, which are heavily contaminated by hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage and industrial discharges before reaching us; with the combination of global warming and increased development that will reduce available sources of imported water, we must identify local supplies to ensure “water security” for the region; creating local water supplies would also reduce the use of energy statewide (thus reducing a large contributor to global warming) as moving water throughout the state is now the largest user of energy in California.
The most efficient, cost-effective and eco-friendly ways to reduce our dependence on imported water is through conservation and indirect potable reuse (or reservoir augmentation). Yet, we are making little progress on these fronts. While we have taken some steps toward conservation already … and the increased wastewater rates will hopefully further disincentivize wasting water … there are still a great many measures that can be taken to reduce the use of water in San Diego (incentivizing native vegetation would be a nice start.)
Perhaps more frustrating, though, is inaction on water reclamation and reuse. In San Diego, we currently have two facilities that could deliver over 40 million gallons of reused water to local communities through a combination of reuse options that includes reservoir augmentation. Despite public concerns with reservoir augmentation (brought about by the “toilet to tap” debate), recent scientific studies have concluded that if done properly, indirect potable reuse is a safe and reliable option … certainly safer than the current source of most of our water, the Colorado River. Moving ahead with reservoir augmentation would also reduce the discharge of waste that currently goes into the ocean, while also helping alleviate statewide energy usage in California that is currently needed to transport water to San Diego (a perfect example of that linkage between land, air, water and energy mentioned in the first post).
I have met with virtually every elected official on this issue, and after detailed discussions of the science, health and environmental implications, as well as public policy considerations, virtually all agree that moving ahead with reservoir augmentation makes sense. They almost all agree that it is also likely inevitable over the coming decades as water becomes an even more scarce resource. That is where the progress ends.
With all the pressures facing this planet, few are willing to lead on this issue as they believe it is politically unpopular. (Well, it is politically unpopular now and will likely stay that way absent an aggressive public education effort). When pressed on this issue, the response of most of our leaders is to suggest groups like Coastkeeper (with our tiny budget and staff) should take the lead on educating the public; they will back reservoir augmentation once Coastkeeper makes it politically palatable. To me, this is an abdication of what we elect officials to do: lead! Anyone can get behind easy solutions to better our environment — it is these difficult (and sometimes unpopular options) where we need true leadership, true compasses, to use their bully pulpit to publicly advocate for real solutions that will better our environment and protect our pocketbooks while also safeguarding public health.
Reservoir augmentation is just one example — there are many others where our elected representatives have not shown a willingness to stand up for what they know are crucial steps to protect and restore our waters and where, by doing so, they can help play a pivotal local role that will aid in the global environmental issues facing us. Whether it’s a willingness to move ahead with a funding proposal to comprehensively address urban runoff pollution (despite the difficulty in further burdening rate payers), aggressively pursuing in-basin clean energy solutions (rather than relying on “business as usual” options like Sunrise Powerlink or opposing poorly thought-out development projects like the Regents Road Bridge (rather than waiting to lose lawsuits on these projects), we need our elected representatives to provide leadership on crucial environmental issues. I recognize the myriad of issues they must balance, but as mentioned in my first posting of the day, considering the consequences of inaction, it’s about time our officials make environmental protection our No. 1 priority.