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Have you ever casually read the nutrition label of a favorite so-called healthy food, only to realize it had vastly more sodium or sugar than you thought?

That head-smacking moment brought to you by the advent of nutrition labels may not change your eating habits, but at least allows you to make an informed decision.

Just as the benefits of healthy eating are widely accepted, drought or no drought, it is well known that more efficient utilization must be a part of our region’s strategy to diversify its water portfolio if prices are to remain under control and future supply assured. (See our H2Overview series for more on this.)

What is less widely understood when it comes to our region’s water supply are the particulars of where the chief costs and savings opportunities lie:

  • The cost to water agencies of encouraging conservation on average is 25% to 50% less expensive than imported water, seawater desalination or recycled water. It saves consumers money at home and also has the most benefits to the environment.
  • 80 percent of the San Diego region’s water supply is imported. Some studies estimate that up to 10 percent of that is wasted in transmission due to leaky pipes and aging infrastructure.
  • Importing water has other economic costs: 20% percent of California’s total energy demand comes from transporting and treating water. Since San Diego is literally at “the end of the pipeline” the water we import has higher energy intensity than that of almost any other region.

Just as removing hidden calories from your favorite foods while maintaining their deliciousness is easier said than done, there is no quick fix to improving efficiency in our current water management system. But step one must be for water consumers to understand where the most significant costs and potential savings lie, and that is an issue of transparency.

Right now, our region has a golden opportunity to maximize the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of ensuring our future water supply, as the San Diego County Water Authority and other water districts in our region are developing their individual Urban Water Management Plans (UWMP), as required by state law.

As the wholesale water supplier for the region, it’s the County Water Authority’s job to provide a safe and reliable water supply to the 24 retail agencies serving the San Diego region, and thus the County Water Authority’s UWMP has special significance.

While individual member agencies develop their own plans that break down what percentage of their future water supplies they expect will come from where — i.e., conservation, imported, reclamation, desalination, etc. — it’s the County Water Authority who sees the big picture and can help coordinate, incentivize and organize the needed infrastructure to manage and meet future retail demands within its service area over the next 25 years.

Equinox Center submitted our formal comments to the San Diego County Water Authority on its draft 2010 UWMP yesterday. We commend the Water Authority for its proactive efforts to reduce dependence on imported water and diversify the region’s water supplies. However, we would like to see the county’s draft 2010 UWMP, and future plans in general, provide greater detail about the region’s options going forward.

Here is what we propose: present and evaluate a spectrum of scenarios for our region’s future water management, showing a high, moderate and low conservation emphasis, and various water portfolio mixes, and include a cost-benefit analysis and projected impacts on water prices for each scenario.

Although it might not be required by state law, if the SDCWA’s water planning documents were to compare alternative scenarios, water consumers themselves could help ensure we are making the most objective, economically sound decisions for our region’s future. What’s more, better data outlining the economic and environmental impact of various water management strategies would help San Diegans become savvier water consumers overall.

Ann Tartre is Executive Director of Equinox Center, a locally based, non-partisan research and policy center founded in 2008 dedicated to helping the San Diego region craft an intelligent future.

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