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Thursday, July 2, 2009 | When we last sat down for an extensive interview with Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, the region’s water wholesaler, the current water shortage hadn’t yet unfolded. We talked, among other things, about her coffee-table books.

In the three years since, a lengthy list of endangered fish have restricted operations of the pumps that deliver water to Southern California from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major source. Levels in Lake Mead, a key storage reservoir on the Colorado River, another major source, have continued dropping. The potential impacts of climate change on the snowfall that yields our water supplies have become clearer. And water-use restrictions started across the county for the first time in two decades. So we had a lot to talk about.

The water authority’s stated mission is to provide a safe and reliable water supply to its 24 member agencies. Water restrictions went into effect across the county today (July 1). Does that represent a failure on the water authority’s behalf?

I think this year we will not be able to achieve our fundamental mission. It is very troubling for me. We have made tremendous strides in increasing water reliability for this region. Probably more so than any other region in California — between the increase in local supplies, conservation, recycling, the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the completion of the two canal (lining projects).

Tremendous progress has been made, but that progress didn’t come quick enough for us to avoid some cut. Had this 13 percent cut arrived five years from now, we’d be in a much different place.

We’re at 13 percent now. I know you’re not a meteorologist, but I’m curious what’s in store?

When we started the year, we were very concerned that the cut could be in the 20 to 30 percent range. Had Mother Nature not come through with the late-winter storms, we were looking at a 20-plus percent cut. Just this morning on the news, they were talking about the potential of an El Niño. That often brings a wet year into California. It’s anyone’s guess what our hydrology will look like in 2010.

If a peripheral canal had been built last year (to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta), would we still be having the same discussion today about water restrictions going into effect?

We’d have discussions regarding the dry year we’re experiencing. But we would not be having the same discussions regarding the regulatory restrictions. That’s the difference.

Is there a realistic timeframe in your mind for some kind of delta fix?

When you talk about a long-term fix, you’re talking about probably a minimum of 10 years from now to get it fully implemented.

Is the expectation that in the next 10 years we’ll be more sensitive to the weather than we would be normally?

I think there’s been a lot of increased sensitivity as the result of the discussion of climate change and coming off eight years of drought on the Colorado River. That has increased Southern California’s sensitivity to the delicateness of our water reliability based on hydrology. Certainly the last drought in 1991 is imbedded in lots of peoples’ memories. That continues to drive us towards steps for water reliability.

By many accounts the delta is a major earthquake away from collapse and levee failure. What kinds of contingency plans does the authority have if a catastrophe does happen?

Southern California has taken great strides to address the potential of a catastrophic earthquake. The water authority has spent the last 15 years working on emergency storage. Next Thursday, we break ground on the San Vicente Dam raise. That will be the final piece of storing nearly 200,000 acre feet of water in our region (enough to supply 400,000 households for a year) so if there is an earthquake that cuts off our imported supplies, we’ll have water for the months it takes to restore operations.

How concerned are you about shortage being declared on the Colorado in coming years?

All of the states are seriously concerned about shortages in the long-run. The (authority’s) water transfer with the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the last pieces of water that would take a shortage or a cut. We’re equally concerned about [the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which supplies the authority] being the lowest of the allocations for California and the potential of shortage sharing if it gets extremely severe. Nevada and Arizona take a cut before California. That would be an extremely severe shortage before Southern California sees that kind of hit.

Though the Colorado system is recovering from the drought, Lake Mead continues to be over-drafted. It’ll be at 1,075 feet sometime in the foreseeable future. (It’s at 1,099 and dropping.) Is the concern that when the shortage renegotiation occurs at 1,025 feet that California will come into the discussion about taking some of that hit?

Ultimately, you’re right, California gets pulled into those renegotiations when you’re talking about extremely severe drought. That’s where you get to issues of health and safety. You’re not talking about increasing your economy. You’re talking about moving to a fairly severe level. Of course it’s a concern. It’s something we hope we never have to deal with, but we have to plan for these things. We think we have a good agreement among states to have a thoughtful process to address those shortages if they come.

Thoughtful means non-litigious?

You can never be guaranteed that you won’t have an agency or state take something to court. But if you look at the history over the last 10 years you have an excellent track record of the seven basin states working together to find something fair and equitable.

Tim Barnett at Scripps Institution of Oceanography likes to say that climate change isn’t something that you wake up one day and say: Aha! Climate change is here. In the short- and long-term, how do you factor that into what you’re doing?

Climate change has added a huge component of uncertainty to water-supply planning. Even with excellent scientific resources, you’re not able to say three years from now, it’ll look like this; 10 years from now, it’ll look like this. That uncertainty has to be put into our planning. You can no longer depend on historical records to say what our future will look like. The status quo of what you got five years ago, 10 years ago or even in the entire 20th century may not be what you get in the future. That’s why the diversification of our water supply is so important. You can no longer count on any single supply being there year-in, year-out and that it won’t be impacted by climate change.

Except seawater desalination. The region has moved toward desalination. We seem to have chosen that before sewage recycling. Orange County passed on desalination because it was more expensive than recycling sewage. Why the ocean first here?

I’d disagree with the characterization that we’re doing desalination first. We’re doing multiple efforts on multiple sources. You cannot compare what’s happening in Orange County with San Diego. We have so little groundwater. Orange County has a wealth of groundwater and has facilities where they can take large amounts of recycled water, treat them to a higher level and put it in ground and draw it back up. We don’t have that luxury.

We do have reservoirs.

We do. There’s a public perception difference, but also the Department of Public Health (permitting issue) with putting it into the ground versus putting it in a reservoir. The city of San Diego has a pilot program they’re pursuing — with the idea that indirect potable reuse water could be put in San Vicente (Reservoir). I think it’s unfortunate that people say: Look what Orange County’s doing, why isn’t San Diego? We have different resources. I wish I did have the groundwater Orange County has.

What role do you see for agriculture in San Diego County going forward?

The industry has taken a tremendous hit as a result of the hydrologic and regulatory restrictions. Our farmers have taken between a 13 and 30 percent hit on their supply. They’re taking some extraordinary measures to survive. I think it may have lasting impacts on the industry here in San Diego, and we may lose some of our agricultural industry as a result of the shortage.

Caltrans used 1.1 billion gallons of drinking water in San Diego County last year to irrigate the road shoulders. That’s enough water for 13,000 people. From a public policy perspective, why is that allowed to happen?

In speaking with Caltrans, one of the challenges they’ve had is that they’re in the middle of converting their irrigation system to automated, more efficient systems. They’ve not had adequate funding. What I’ve been most pleased with is that in our discussion with Caltrans over the past several months, they’ve realized the importance of water conservation and their role. We’re hoping as they continue to receive funding or construct new roads, that they’ll continue to implement more water-efficient landscaping.

Should San Diego have a restriction on the amount of turf that homes should be allowed to plant? Do you anticipate a Las Vegas-like restriction on lawns?

I think what Vegas did worked extremely well for Las Vegas. However, Las Vegas is in the middle of a very arid desert. They were in a significant building boom, they implemented a variety of things that worked well. That doesn’t mean that approach can be picked up and planted in San Diego and be as effective. We have three climates in San Diego. It has to be more customized. We don’t have that same uniformity of development. That’ll require more flexibility in what we ultimately implement in landscape ordinances and restrictions.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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