San Diego Drought
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The 2021 California drought is as bad if not worse as the one in 2014, which endured for five long, dry years. As of Friday, 33 percent is in a state of “exceptional drought,” the most severe drought category given by the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

Farmers in the Central Valley are ripping up almond trees, according to Bloomberg. Those living along the headwaters of the Russian River in Mendicino County have been told to use no more than 55 gallons per day – enough to fill a bathtub and flush a toilet six times, according to CalMatters. Santa Clara Water District voted this month to place 15 percent water reduction targets on residents countywide, according to San Jose Inside.

Yet San Diego officials aren’t just calm in the face of these troubling conditions, they’re downright celebratory.

The Water Authority initially scheduled a press conference and photo op to tout its “drought-safe” status and “how far the region has come since prior droughts,” but postponed the event when Mayor Todd Gloria couldn’t make it.

All the hoopla is because, well, officials here spent a lot of money on deals to secure more supplies and build water infrastructure. That’s why San Diegans pay some of the highest water rates in the state and country.

During the last drought, then-Gov. Jerry Brown ordered all Californians to use 25 percent less water regardless of how much of the life-sustaining liquid their local water agencies had stored-up. San Diego hopes the governor won’t issue blanket mandatory water conservation orders again this year.

“We are pushing pretty hard for it to not be one-size-fits-all because San Diego … put a huge amount of money into storage to get us through droughts without so much risk in running out of water,” said Shauna Lorance, director of city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department.

Those mandatory restrictions of the last drought seem to have permanently changed San Diegans’ behaviors. In 2007, one San Diegan consumed 170 gallons of water per day (that includes both indoor and outdoor use), Lorance said. So far this year, San Diegans use about 102 gallons a day.

Plus, at least in the city of San Diego, residents are beholden to year-round permanent and mandatory water restrictions. That means it’s illegal to wash off the sidewalk or your driveway with a regular hose or overfill your swimming pool and restaurants aren’t supposed automatically give your table water to drink unless it’s requested. (Of course, the city isn’t actively enforcing this, meaning drought cops don’t look for driveway washers to ticket. Code enforcement is based on complaints.)

While other California cities are building emergency drought infrastructure, San Diego’s governing water agency – the San Diego County Water Authority – declared triumphantly over many social media posts that the region is “drought-safe” this summer. Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, triggered drought emergency proclamations in 70 percent of the state – mostly the northern half through the Central Valley, according to this map from ABC10.

Until the 1990s, San Diego bought about 95 percent of its water from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which controls a huge aqueduct channeling Colorado River water to Southern California – still the primary drinking water source for the region.

A severe drought in the 1980s led Metropolitan to cut back a huge amount of water it delivered to San Diego, the source of a fight that continues to poison the relationship between the two agencies today.

After that debacle, San Diego got busy designing ways to diversify its water supply and gain more control of its water sources. The Water Authority spent $568 million to raise the walls of the San Vicente Dam 117 feet so it could store more water for emergencies. It’s part of an approximately $1.5 billion so-called Emergency Storage Project, which also added storage at Lake Hodges and the Olivenhain Reservoir. These large bowls in the Earth are where we store that Colorado River water.

All those enhancements should sustain the region’s water needs for six months if a really big catastrophe struck, like a major earthquake, and cut off water delivery pipelines.

The Water Authority looked for more ways to cut its dependence on the long straw to the Colorado River controlled by Metropolitan. In 2003, the Water Authority struck a deal to buy Colorado River water from Imperial County, enough to quench 1.6 million people a year for up to 75 years.

That’s important because the Colorado River is really stressed right now. The water raging down that river supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico, but it comes from melted snow accumulating high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Climate change made those snows more unreliable and hotter temperatures evaporate more of that water before it reaches the places that need it. Everybody started freaking out this spring because Lake Mead, the huge reservoir behind the Hoover Dam straddling Nevada and Arizona, is as low as it’s been since we started filling it in the 1930s, according to the Arizona Republic.

But there’s this thing called the Law of the River, a 1922 agreement between the Colorado Basin states and feds, which prioritized or promised Colorado River water to certain areas over others. Since 1933, Imperial County has more rights to the river than anyone else. And through the Water Authority’s agreement with Imperial – called the Quantification Settlement Agreement – San Diego gets a piece of that high-priority water.

The Water Authority also spent money on fixing up two canals Imperial uses in exchange for more water that would have otherwise seeped out of those canals into the ground. About 50 percent of San Diego’s supply is Colorado River water that once went to Imperial. In total, 68 percent of San Diego’s drinking water in 2020 came from the river.

Where San Diego Gets its Water
The San Diego region still heavily relies on the Colorado River for its drinking water (the blue, red and yellow bars) / Image via San Diego County Water Authority

But again, that water is still severely taxed by climate change and everybody who wants to use it.

So around 2015, the Water Authority helped open a desalination plant in Carlsbad, the largest in the country at the time, which cleans ocean water to drinking water standards. It’s the most expensive water San Diegans use, while the Colorado River water we get from Los Angeles is one of the cheapest.

Other than that, San Diego has just a little bit of surface water, groundwater and recycled water it can rely on, for now.

That’ll change once the city of San Diego builds its massive wastewater-to-drinking water recycling system dubbed Pure Water. The city estimates it can support over a third of San Diegans’ drinking water needs by 2035. San Diego is the Water Authority’s biggest customer. If the city fills a third of its drinking water needs with recycled water, San Diego won’t have to buy as much Colorado River water from the Water Authority.

But building that Pure Water system is going to cost billions, which puts more pressure on those residents’ rates. San Diego and the rest of the region still have to pay for the $1.77 billion in principal debt the Water Authority owes on its aging water infrastructure, too. That’s more upward pressure on future rates.

The Water Authority passed a 3.3 percent rate increase for treated water (drinking water) in its 2022-2023 budget on Thursday. In a press release, the agency blamed the rate increase in part on Metropolitan raising its rates and paying off all those infrastructure investments to bloat supply.

So, water bills will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

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1 Comment

  1. Makenzie has done a great job with this and other in depth articles about the cost and availability of watering our region. Congrats!

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