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For years, San Diego has wanted to install 280,000 “smart meters” across the city. The goal was to improve meter accuracy, provide real-time data on water use and eliminate the need for human meter readers.

That’s all behind schedule. In 2016, the city guessed it could complete the project by the beginning of 2018 at the cost of about $60 million.

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So far, the city has installed only about 90,000 meters that it considers “ready” to begin transmitting water use data. Of those, less than a fifth actually are. And about 75,000 of those new meters lack the radio transmitters to allow them to send real-time water use data.

That means only about 15,000 meters are “smart.” But because those fully functional meters went to the city’s biggest customers, about a third of the city’s water is already flowing through smart meters, said Michael Vogl, a deputy director in the city’s water department.

Vogl said getting money from the state to help pay for the project has complicated things.

“We’re ready to go,” he said.

Now, though, the water department is being audited because of billing problems. That audit also includes a look at the smart meter program, something the water department had recently hoped to avoid. There’s no evidence that smart meters are contributing to billing errors. The city has blamed its billing problems on “human error” — the sort of errors that smart meters are meant to eliminate.

Vogl said a smart meter recently helped the department detect at least one leak because it was sending the city real-time water use data.

Gearing Up for Another Drought

Most of San Diego’s water comes from two distant mountain ranges — the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra of Northern California. Neither have gotten much snow this year.

While there is some hope for a wet end to the winter, folks are gearing up for another fight against over water use. In the past, some water agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority, argued against Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency drought regulations when they were in effect. The pitched battle went away when a wet winter ended the emergency last year.

For San Diego, the drought wasn’t a huge ordeal, all things considered. The Water Authority used the demand drop that was caused by the governor’s restrictions to help store water behind a newly-raised dam out in East County, which is about 75 percent full.

But if drought is back in California, the reckoning over water use may become more urgent than ever. Even though San Diego got through the drought relatively unscathed, the Colorado River — this region’s largest source of water — has never truly recovered.

San Diego Coastkeeper is among those who point out that water use is creeping back up and is urging aggressive water conservation.

But we don’t yet know what kind of winter we’re in for: Will we have a “miracle March” that spares us a return to drought, or will the rain go away for another several years, causing another emergency?

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which delivers much of the water used in Southern California and San Diego, is studying whether it should build two 35-mile-long tunnels to help deliver water to Southern California largely on its own. In the past, the $17 billion tunnels project was going to be funded by a group of water agencies, and Metropolitan would have to shoulder about a quarter of the costs. But several major players have backed out. At a board meeting earlier this month, a few Metropolitan members suggested the agency might be able to come up with roughly $11 billion on its own to get the project done now. Water users in the northern part of the state may view this as a “water grab,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

From the Actual Environment

A few times, I’ve watched Southern California TV reporters transition from talk about the drought or fires to the weather. Then, after talking about how dry it is or how fires have broken out, they glorify how sunny it is or worry emphatically about how rain might ruin part of the week. The irony is apparently lost on them.

The Union-Tribune had such a column last week headlined, “Rain? We don’t need no stinking rain!” I assume part of it was tongue-in-cheek, but this story hit me hard because I’d just gotten back from a trip to the Colorado River Delta.

That’s where the river used to flow out to sea in Mexico, due south between El Centro and Yuma, Ariz. There used to be two million acres of wetlands there.

Then the river was dammed, then dammed again and then dammed again.

The dry wasteland where the Colorado River used to end. / Photo by Ry Rivard

The dams help divert the river and its tributaries all across the southwest — to Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley and, of course, San Diego.

What’s left is mostly a vast wasteland where the river no longer runs.

Now, a few groups of environmentalists have been working hard — literally planting trees by hand — to restore hundreds of acres at a time. Hundreds of acres. Versus the two million.

Even so, the largest bit of wetland left is an accidental sea, the Cienega de Santa Clara, formed by agricultural runoff, not the river itself.

Whether you agree that using the Colorado River this way is a good thing or not, there’s no reason to be blasé about the entire ecosystem that has been destroyed and likely lost for good. We’ve taken water from a wetland to turn deserts and near-deserts like our own green. Don’t forget that.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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