When I started in the water industry more than 40 years ago, providing water to the San Diego region was relatively simple. Imported water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California seemed plentiful and reliable, and the San Diego County Water Authority reliably conveyed those MWD supplies to local water districts.
The drought of 1987-92 ended that mirage. At that drought’s peak, the Water Authority faced 50 percent cutbacks from MWD, which provided virtually all of our region’s water. The 50 percent reduction was averted thanks to the Miracle March rains of 1991 – but we did endure a 31 percent supply cutback for more than a year.
We heard loud and clear from our communities that overdependence on any single supplier must end for the region’s long-term good. They knew that no region can prosper when its water supply availability varies wildly from year to year. Residents and businesses must be able to count on those supplies – and the infrastructure that delivers them – every day.
When considering water issues in San Diego County, it’s critical to remember that the big goal is long-term water supply reliability to support 3.2 million residents and a $218 billion economy in a semi-arid region with few naturally occurring water resources.
Our long-term, prudent strategy is working. From 2009 to 2011, drought conditions and regulatory restrictions forced MWD to reduce deliveries to our region for 22 months. Our investments reduced the impact of MWD’s shortage by nearly half.
Now, just a few years later, drought conditions are gripping California again and forcing MWD to cut deliveries to the Water Authority this fiscal year by 15 percent – but we still have adequate supplies to meet 99 percent of normal demands in San Diego County.
That’s possible in part because our decades-long conservation-and-transfer agreements in the Imperial Valley will provide the San Diego region with 180,000 acre-feet of highly reliable water this year from the Colorado River, enough to serve about 1.4 million people.
Another major reason is the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which started commercial production in December and provides enough to meet about 10 percent of the region’s annual demand. It was built to serve the region for 30 years or more, and any attempts to gauge its value based on a few months of operations during temporary emergency regulations are short-sighted.
Our strategy has been lauded as a model.
“San Diego’s experience demonstrates that for communities reliant on imported water from vulnerable ecosystems, diversifying their supply portfolios with an emphasis on local sustainability is the smart path forward,” according to a 2013 report by Carpe Diem West, a non-profit think tank.
The major complicating factor is the emergency drought-response regulation adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in May, which should not have decoupled the historical link between water supply and demand. Instead, the regulation treated each region of the state as if it faced the same level of drought emergency, when in fact our experience in the 1990s had prepared us for this moment.
To their credit, the region’s residents and businesses have heeded calls for conservation and reduced water use by about 23 percent compared with 2013 (the state’s baseline year), beating the aggregate regional target. Since May, conserved water has been stored in San Vicente Reservoir near Lakeside for future use.
While adding to local storage reserves is a tangible benefit for the region, the state’s one-size-fits-all policy created unintended negative consequences. It forced residents who had invested in supplies to use dramatically less, forcing up the per-unit price of water so agencies could still cover the costs of keeping their systems running reliably. It also increased challenges for businesses to expand even though they use water very efficiently.
In addition, the regulations resulted in a temporary situation in which water we didn’t need and didn’t order from MWD was delivered anyway. Since November, the Water Authority has deposited about 1,700 acre-feet of unordered, treated water from MWD in Lower Otay Reservoir because the configuration of the MWD and Water Authority’s pipelines presents operational challenges to reduce flows to zero. That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of water used by 3,400 four-person families during a year.
We stored the unordered water in Lower Otay Reservoir where it will have to be treated again for use. The Water Authority and MWD are working cooperatively to find an equitable operational solution while ensuring that the stored water in Lower Otay will be put to beneficial use.
The lesson here is what happens when prudent, long-term planning collides with well-meaning but hastily constructed regulations. State regulators have acknowledged that they learned lessons during the drought-response process, and on Feb. 2 they updated their emergency drought-response regulation to provide credit toward meeting local agencies’ water-use targets for certified local, drought-resilient supplies.
These modifications – advocated for by the Water Authority and our community’s civic leaders – recognize the need to account for local water supply development efforts as well as increased conservation when implementing emergency drought response measures. They are expected to provide our region with the benefits of our investment in seawater desalination, part of a successful strategy this region embraced more than two decades ago.
Mark Weston is the chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors. He retired as general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa in 2012 and lives in Poway.