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Saturday, June 14, 2008 | Ken Weinberg serves as director of water resources for the San Diego County Water Authority, the agency that delivers water to the city of San Diego and 23 other member agencies throughout San Diego. If you’re drinking tap water, the authority had a hand in getting it here. Weinberg oversees the authority’s long-range planning, conservation programs, environmental compliance and demand forecasting. “All of those things that seem to be the topics of discussion,” he says.

We sat down to talk with him about San Diego’s water supply. As it stands today, San Diego County could face mandatory rationing next year, a step in which the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District would reduce deliveries to this region. The governor has declared a drought. A federal judge, Oliver Wanger, has cut water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a step designed to reduce the impacts that water pumps have on the delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish. The supplies are tight, and Weinberg and other officials are calling for the region to make long-term changes in its behavior to save water. Here’s why.

On a scale of 1-10 (1 being ideal and 10 being bad), how bad is our water supply situation right now?

This year I’d put us around a 7 moving to an 8.

Why?

As you look at how the conditions are setting themselves up, clearly we will be able to get through this year. But because we’re looking at dry conditions again this year, we’re looking at the restrictions on pumping, we’re looking at this being a multiyear event. We’ve got storage supplies that are being drawn down. We may not feel the immediate effects, but we’re clearly in a serious situation.

Can you break down the components of that? What has pushed us up the scale?

It’s really years in the making. You can bring it back to 1982 and the referendum on the Peripheral Canal. That really set the stage for the fact that the delta was going to be the crux of water supply problems. What followed after that was what happened on the Colorado River.

To a large extent, you could bring that back to the Supreme Court case Arizona vs. California (which quantified how much water California could draw from the Colorado River). We wind up with the delta as the main conveyance for California’s imported supplies, we get less Colorado River (water) and that created a precarious situation. Pile on eight dry years in a row on the Colorado, and it really brings home the fact that we don’t have surplus Colorado River water.

And you have all the attention on the delta. We knew there was a problem. We spent the last 10 or 15 years talking about it, and it didn’t get solved, and finally the whole ecosystem started to collapse. Now we’re faced with a diminishing supply on the Colorado River, a diminishing supply on the State Water Project (the delta), and we’re still in the early stages of diversifying our supply here. This came at a very inopportune time.

We know the future. We know where we need to go. But it’s going to take time, and we’re vulnerable now.

In the 1987-1992 drought, we were saved from mandatory rationing by miracle rains. Is there any hope that there’s something possible like that this time? Or are we dealing with a new paradigm?

We’re dealing with a new paradigm. The problem now is that you have restrictions (on the delta to protect endangered fish). Even if you get the weather to cooperate, you’re not going to get as much water. The essence of the problem is that a lot of the supply planning on Metropolitan’s part was to use reservoirs as a way to get through periodic dry years.

You were going to be able to put water in those reservoirs seven out of 10 years, statistically. Now, with Judge Wanger’s ruling, it’s three out of 10 years. And that’s the problem. You can’t rely on storage for extended dry periods. The quickest way to protect that storage is to reduce demand for water. And that will get us through until there’s a structural plumbing fix that will allow us to get more out of the delta when the weather cooperates.

What’s the significance to you of the governor’s drought declaration?

It’s an acknowledgement that this is a serious issue statewide, and that action needs to be taken on a statewide basis. Because we’re all sharing these critical water supplies. It’s pretty significant. It’s good to see the state stepping in.

This weekend, you’re taking a walk on the beach. And there’s a little lamp there. You rub it, and a genie comes out and says: Ken! I’ll give you three wishes about the world of water in California. So you can’t wish for world peace or anything. What are your three wishes?

Let’s see. A peripheral canal-type of solution in the delta. Large-scale seawater desalination. And efficient irrigation. Those are the three things, the key pieces to getting some certainty in long-term reliability in our supply in San Diego County.

How far does Poseidon’s plant in Carlsbad go to addressing the desal wish?

It’s a big piece of the future supply. There’s nowhere we can go and get 56,000 acre feet of water. It’s significant just in terms of the amount of water you can get. But that in and of itself isn’t the answer. We have to change the way we use water. And that really means being efficient in landscaping — people just coming at this from a whole different perspective in the plants they choose.

We’ve talked about that a lot, the idea of outdoor water conservation. It has clearly been identified. And the solution is there. How do you get people to make that long-term behavioral change?

You have to make it easier for them to do it, you have to show them how and have the help out there. Those are the pieces we’re trying to put in place. We’ve been successful in indoor water conservation — toilets, showerheads, washing machines. To make landscape conservation work, people need to know you can do things that still are aesthetically pleasing and have low water use. There’s a regulatory component we want to work on with land-use agencies so developments are doing things in an efficient way.

Do you see the need here to take the same steps that have been taken in places like Las Vegas, which allows no grass in your front yard? Are we there? Do we need to be there?

I don’t think we need to be exactly where they are. But we need to take some steps to ensure that when new homes are going in that they are balancing their landscaping and meeting some efficiency standards. And we need to reduce the amount of turf. We’re trying to do that through incentivizing people.

Almost a year ago, the water authority called on residents to save 20 gallons of water a day. Have they?

It depends on the month we look at. It’s really tough. When we looked at January, February, we were saving water. But we also had cool, wet weather. What we saw in March and April, the temperatures started to climb, and we started to eat into that amount we were saving. The rubber is going to hit the road in July, August, September. That’s when we’re going to know whether people are stepping up and using less water.

The authority’s call for savings through that 20-Gallon Challenge was somewhat a polite, neighborly call: Hey, it’d be nice if you did this. The new billboards (part of a $1.8 million water conservation advertising campaign) have a cow’s skull on them. Is there a conscious push to be more strict and more threatening?

Yeah, I think that’s a good observation. Clearly, the call for conservation and the intensity evolves as the situation does. A year ago, we were on the front end. We knew we were facing some potential constraints. As the situation deteriorates, you get more concerned, and I think you’re seeing that now. 2008 was another dry year. Looking out at 2009, if this continues, and we’re not getting the savings we need, it’ll have to be mandatory. Because the consequences of failure will impact the economy. We’ll have to take actions that affect different segments of the economy — and the preference is to wring out the waste first.

Sitting here in June 2008, how likely is mandatory rationing?

If we get another dry year in 2009, there’s a good likelihood of rationing, just to protect storage. Because you don’t know when the end is in sight.

If the writing has been on the wall about our water supply, and yet we’re still experiencing this vulnerability here, is that a failing of the authority? Could you have seen this coming and prepared for it more than you have?

In 1991, because we faced more severe ramifications in Met’s service area, the message hit us really hard. Whether it was building more storage, the [Imperial Irrigation District water] transfers or the canal lining. We’ve done as much or more than anybody in the state on conservation. We got it. Part of it is that it certainly takes a long time. We operate in a very regulated environment, you have to have a lot of stakeholder involvement. It takes a long time to move a project. Everybody in water knew there was a problem on the delta. But the solution eluded everyone. That’s the issue. That inaction has put us where we are — in crisis. And out of crisis, you hope that action takes place.

What would the situation be like today if after the 1987-1992 drought the authority had said: Whew, glad that’s over with. And just gone back to business as usual.

I think some parts of the state did that. We’ve invested billions. Metropolitan has invested billions, and San Diego has helped pay for that. All of that has put us in a much better situation than we were in 1991 at the height of the last drought. We’ve got a situation that’s so serious, that even with those investments, we’re going to start to feel the pain of this. This hurts. But it doesn’t hurt as much as if we hadn’t made those investments. It could be a lot worse.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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