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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2007 | San Diego’s flirtation with recycling its wastewater is officially back for a fourth time.

As the region faces its most serious water supply restrictions in more than a decade, the City Council agreed to once again consider a plan to boost drinking reservoirs with treated wastewater.

At a Monday meeting, the council voted unanimously to hear a presentation on its 2006 water recycling study when it meets later this month. Though the study was completed early last year, the council was never briefed on its findings.

That study outlined several alternatives for expanding the city’s use of recycled water — primarily to boost irrigation and to fill city reservoirs with treated wastewater. But Mayor Jerry Sanders has opposed water recycling, saying it is too expensive and not favored by the public.

Water recycling has been considered by council members periodically for eight years. In 1999, the City Council halted studies after critics famously dubbed the program “toilet to tap.” A council committee revived the issue in 2003 at the behest of environmentalists — a move that led to the study now headed to the council.

Council members said they wanted to hear more about the recycling practice after hearing a report Monday on the precariousness of the region’s water supply. Currently, about 2 percent of the region’s water comes from recycled sources.

“Any water you’re drinking is ‘toilet to tap,’” Councilman Jim Madaffer said. “We only have so much water. Only so much exists. H2O is a molecule. And it’s been the same amount since the planet was formed. It’s important that we really hear this water reuse study.”

Environmentalists urged the council to push forward with the proposal and suggested a implementing a one-year demonstration project as an interim step.

“We have the obligation to use that water as wisely as humanly possible,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “That’s something in San Diego that we haven’t done.”

The move toward water recycling came on a day when the council was warned of the threat of possible water rationing next year.

San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Maureen Stapleton told the council that mandatory cutbacks were not currently needed, but said her agency was in the process of drafting “a menu” of potential mandatory reductions that will be released in February.

“We do not believe mandatory conservation is necessary at this point,” Stapleton said. “That doesn’t mean that six or eight months from now I would not be back in this chamber saying it continues to be dry … and I believe now is time to take further measures.

“The trigger is the Sierra Nevadas and what happens with the snowpack in the coming year.”

Stapleton’s appearance at the council meeting wasn’t groundbreaking. The precariousness of San Diego’s water supplies has been well-documented this year.

But it was symbolic: The region’s major water provider delivering a report to its biggest customer that painted a bleak picture of San Diego’s water supply in coming years.

The Colorado River is mired in its eighth year of drought. Reservoirs on the Colorado are less than half full. If the river stopped running, those massive reservoirs — Lake Mead, Lake Powell and Lake Havasu — would have 2.5 years of water left.

Adding to the problem: Last winter was extraordinarily dry in the Sierra Nevada. The mountain range, where snowmelt is a major drinking water source for San Diego, received 27 percent of its average precipitation last winter.

The final complication: Supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta face significant cutbacks next year. To help protect the Delta smelt, a small endangered fish, a federal judge ordered a decrease in the amount of water pumped out of the delta next year. The goal is to reduce pumping when the fish are likely nearby.

Some San Diego farmers will begin seeing cutbacks in January. Unless California has a wet winter, more severe restrictions could follow.

Fern Steiner, the water authority’s chairwoman, said the federal ruling could reduce delta water exports by 12 to 22 percent next year. That’s less dire than the 37 percent estimate that has been used previously by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which supplies the water authority.

Whether San Diego sees mandatory restrictions will depend on three significant factors:

  • How much precipitation falls during the winter.
  • How much water can be exported from the delta.
  • How well the water authority’s call for voluntary conservation works.

If the winter is dry and the delta cutbacks are as serious as expected, the region would have a shortage of about 29,000 acre feet, Steiner said. (An acre foot is equal to 326,000 gallons, enough water for two homes for one year.) The water authority is negotiating a transfer from Northern California to cover that gap.

Stapleton said the authority would “have a balanced water budget in 2008.” But to get there, the authority is counting on its conservation calls to save 56,000 acre feet of water.

“We have had quite a bit of success so far,” Stapleton said of conservation efforts. “But we have a long way to go.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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