San Diego's vulnerable water supply

Not with a flood but with a trickle

Alan Langworthy with water hyacinths:  “We’re treating sewage here the way mother nature would.”
  • Alan Langworthy with water hyacinths: “We’re treating sewage here the way mother nature would.”
  • Image by Jim Coit

Two hundred miles northeast of San Diego a long gray cement building stands at the southern end of Lake Havasu on the Colorado River. From a distance the building looks a little like a barge docked at the foot of steep brown mountains, but the image is shattered by steel pipes, big enough to drive a car through, that run out the back of it. The building is known as the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant, and it is the first part of the Colorado River Aqueduct, a major source of water for San Diego County and the rest of Southern California.

The Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant is a temple: a temple to water, the most precious commodity in Southern California.

The Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant is a temple: a temple to water, the most precious commodity in Southern California.

Lake Havasu is a big lake — it is forty-five miles long and has thirty-nine square miles of surface area — yet it was created specifically to provide a forebay for the Whitsett plant. Approximately thirty feet below the lake’s surface the river water enters a row of nine huge intake pipes, each one about six feet across. Inside the pipes are fifty-ton, 9000-horsepower pumps that lift the water and drive it over the mountains behind the plant, starting it on a long journey across the desert to the coast.

Opening day, San Diego Flume. Water flowed from Cuyamaca Reservoir into the wooden flume that snaked some thirty-five miles through the hills to a reservoir in El Cajon.

Opening day, San Diego Flume. Water flowed from Cuyamaca Reservoir into the wooden flume that snaked some thirty-five miles through the hills to a reservoir in El Cajon.

San Diego Historical Society

The pumps operate “twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year,” the plant's assistant station chief, John Sweeney, told me not long ago, "If for some reason water stopped flowing down the river, we’d drain the lake in only about six months. That’s how much water we can pump.” As Sweeney told me this we were standing outside the plant on a cement platform that overlooks the lake. He pointed eastward across the blue water to the Arizona shore, where tan scars stood out on a dark brown hillside.

Alvarado treatment plant receives a water from the Feather, Sacramento, and San Joaquin rivers in northern California, the Colorado River, and the Laguna Mountains.

Alvarado treatment plant receives a water from the Feather, Sacramento, and San Joaquin rivers in northern California, the Colorado River, and the Laguna Mountains.

The scars mark the place where the Central Arizona Project’s intake plant is being built, he explained, and when it is completed in 1985 it will be half again as big as the Whitsett plant. At a glance the two plants seem to have little in common, but they are directly related in one of the greatest decisions about water that California has faced.

California Aqueduct. It meets the Colorado Aqueduct at Lake Skinner, near Hemet.

California Aqueduct. It meets the Colorado Aqueduct at Lake Skinner, near Hemet.

The water to be taken by Arizona will reduce the amount California can legally pump from the river, and to make up the shortfall a huge canal has been proposed far away in northern California. Four hundred feet wide, thirty feet deep, and forty-three miles long — about the same size as the Panama Canal — the Peripheral Canal is the centerpiece of a multibillion-doilar package of water facilities that would provide more water from the northern part of the state for the arid south. Emotions run high in California over the subject of water, and the Peripheral Canal has been called everything from an urgently required and environmentally sound water-delivery system to a costly boondoggle and a welfare program for farmers. On one side are those who are proud of the engineering accomplishments that have brought water to Southern California and think more of the same is necessary for the future economic wellbeing of this part of the state; on the other hand are those who say the Peripheral Canal will be too expensive, and that the shortfall can be made up by a combination of conservation, reclamation, and more innovative management*" of our existing water.

As Sweeney led the way back inside the Whitsett plant, I found myself admiring its vaulted ceilings and polished marble floors. Beneath the main building, each one of the giant pumps is housed in its own room, forty feet by thirty feet and about two stories high, and it is hard to resist comparing those rooms to crypts beneath some peculiar temple. The Whitsett plant is a temple: a temple to water, the most precious commodity in Southern California. In a way the upcoming vote on the Peripheral Canal will mean either construction of more temples like this one or temples of a newer, different kind; perhaps even no temples at all. The canal’s proponents insist that no other system would be financially feasible; its opponents claim the time is ripe for cost-effective alternatives. The two sides have almost nothing in common, but one of the few things they do agree upon is that the state’s water planning has come to a major crossroads.

The Colorado River Aqueduct is not the only source of water for San Diego, but along with the water that flows down the California Aqueduct from northern California, it is the most important one.

The two aqueducts meet at Lake Skinner, near Hemet in southern Riverside County, and the resulting blend is piped across the county line. Roughly ninety percent of the water we use arrives in this way, and it is the only thing that has enabled San Diego to become one of the most populated and productive counties in the state. As Ed Fletcher put it some eighty-five years ago, “The basis of all value in this county is water."

It has not come cheaply, this system that brings water to the arid coast from far away, but we have been at it a long time. In 1816 the Franciscan padres of the San Diego mission got fed up with their brackish and undependable wells near the San Diego River, and enlisted the Indians to build a dam across the river six miles to the east. It was the first real water project in the western United States. The dam was abandoned around 1835, and for decades after that San Diego got by with a makeshift system of wells, windmills, and water sold from casks in horse-drawn wagons. But in 1889 the San Diego Flume Company launched the area into the modern age of water delivery by bringing water to residents from the Laguna Mountains. As described in Richard F. Pourade’s historical series on San Diego, the water poured twelve and a half miles down the San Diego River channel from the newly built Cuyamaca Reservoir, and into a wooden flume that snaked some thirty-five miles through the hills to a reservoir in El Cajon. From there it was conveyed the final ten miles to the coast in a steel pipe. The flume was cause for great celebration when it first opened in February of 1889, but within six years algae had begun to choke it, and the water was being described as “slimy and odorous.” In 1906 the city’s voters decided to purchase water from John D. Spreckels’ Southern California Mountain Water Company instead. The flume company went bankrupt and was purchased by Ed Fletcher for $150,000.

Spreckels and Fletcher were water-smart; like a number of wealthy wheeler-dealers in Southern California at that time, they realized water was the key to the growth of the area and that wealth would accrue to those who controlled it. Both had built dams and secured dam sites in different parts of the county, Spreckels in the south and Fletcher in the east and north, and their facilities eventually became an important part of the area’s water supply. Spreckels sold his Chollas, Otay, and Morena reservoirs to the City of San Diego for $2.5 million in 1912, and Fletcher sold the Cuyamaca system to a consortium of East County cities (it is now run by the Helix Irrigation District) a few years later for $1.2 million. By then the value of water was becoming apparent to a lot of people, and although there were still some who scoffed at the idea of San Diego someday growing large enough to need water from the Colorado River, the city’s officials weren’t among them. In the full summer heat of 1921, the San Diego city attorney and its manager of operations made a trip east to the river, and, in the time-honored manner of mining claims throughout the West, put a can with a legal claim inside it on the bank and built a pile of rocks over it. San Diego’s claim to Colorado River water was formally recognized a few years later, but the city later relinquished it in favor of receiving even more of the river’s water from the newly formed Metropolitan Water District.

The Met, as it is known, was formed in 1923 and now provides water to 12 million people in Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and San Diego counties. In San Diego County it sells its water to the county water authority, which in turn sells it to the City of San Diego and various other cities and irrigation districts. From Lake Skinner the water arrives in four huge pipes, known simply as pipelines one through four, that cross the county line deep within the earth beside Interstate 15. Twenty-four hours a day water is coursing through these pipelines, as much as 6300 gallons every second, 544 million gallons a day. The pipelines have crossovers and various connecting lines so that quantities of water can be mixed or diverted from one place to another like military units being shuffled around in a war on dryness.

Within the city limits, water from Lake Skinner usually flows directly to Otay, San Vicente, and Miramar reservoirs, and to the Alvarado treatment plant at Lake Murray. The water is filtered and treated at Otay, Miramar, and Alvarado, and from those points moves out into the city’s 2215 miles of water mains. On the day I visited the Alvarado treatment plant, its manager. Gene Crossley, took me out on a walkway that leads across the plant’s complex system of channels and basins where incoming water is filtered and disinfected. Pointing to a nearby field with a grove of eucalyptus trees in it, Crossley said that pipeline number four from Lake Skinner terminates directly underneath it and feeds into the plant. Today, he explained, the plant was being supplied with water from Lake Skinner and from the city’s own reservoirs — in other words, a blend of water from the Feather, Sacramento, and San Joaquin rivers in northern California, the Colorado River, and the Laguna Mountains. Staring down at the green water moving through the channels, I could only marvel at the system that had brought it here.

The Alvarado treatment plant was built in 1948, and like the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant it has a characteristic art deco tone to its architecture. Many of the major pipelines, pumping plants, reservoirs, and treatment facilities in Southern California were built in the 1930s and 1940s, when labor and materials were cheap, and the millions of dollars spent building the system would run into the billions today. Whenever alternatives to importing water have been discussed in the past — alternatives like desalinating seawater or reclaiming water lost in sewage treatment — they have usually been torpedoed in part by high construction costs. The existing system perpetuates itself; adding to it has always been cheaper than building completely new facilities.

Now, however, high costs have caught up with imported water, too. The cost of energy is climbing rapidly, and it is particularly significant in a system that pumps water hundreds of miles. Mervin Field's California Poll recently showed a majority of the state’s voters balking at the estimated $5.4 billion price tag for the Peripheral Canal and its related facilities. Seemingly for the first time, the idea of importing more water does not have clear-cut economic advantage over the alternatives; but it is not nearly the first time alternatives have been proposed.

There has never been a shortage of suggestions as to how San Diego should obtain more water. Some of the more innovative ideas have included damming San Francisco Bay to turn it into a huge freshwater reservoir; running a pipeline under the ocean to deliver water directly from rivers in the northern part of the state to the southern part; and turning the Salton Sea into a vast solar-powered still. The inventor of the last plan — and as far as is known, its sole proponent — suggested the sea’s water level could be maintained by drawing in water from the Gulf of California via a canal. But the only alternative ever given any serious consideration here was desalinization — removing the salt and other impurities from seawater.

As recently as the late Fifties and early Sixties, desalinization was being touted as a permanent solution to the area’s water needs. At the time there was no California Aqueduct that could deliver northern California water to San Diego, and the federal government was keen on developing desalinization technology as a longterm answer to water demands in various parts of the country. In June of 1960, the department of the interior announced that San Diego was one of five cities chosen to receive a desalinization test facility. The $1.6 million plant was to be built on the seaward side of Point Loma, and it was designed as a sort of giant still: seawater would be flash heated by electricity and the resulting steam condensed and collected.

Construction had barely begun when the state department of water resources, starting its own work on the California Aqueduct, issued a special report calling the new desalinization plant “just another drop in a not-too-well-filled bucket. ” The report said the state’s new aqueduct would provide water far more cheaply than the Point Loma plant would, and it added, in a grossly unfair comparison, that 1300 plants the size of Point Loma’s modest demonstration facility would have to be built to supply the same amount of water as the Met already did every day.

“Look ahead even further, to 1980,” the report urged. “California [will need] great quantities of water. . . .’’The report didn’t say what the water would be needed for, but it made it clear that plenty could be supplied by the California Aqueduct, and it concluded that “many years will probably pass before [desalinization] can play a major role. ...” When another desalinization plant was proposed for San Diego a few years later, a state water resources official was even more candid about the state’s opposition. In a conversation with San Diego Mayor Frank Curran, the official said the state couldn’t support a major desalinization project because it would create competition for the California Aqueduct.

Construction of the Point Loma plant went ahead without the blessings of the department of water resources or the Met, and it finally opened on March 11, 1962. Mayor Charles Dail declared the day Saline Water Day, and Governor Pat Brown told a dedication-ceremony crowd of 2500 that completion of the plant marked the “birth of a new era in water development.” The era lasted a little less than two years, which is how long the plant supplemented the water supply of Point Loma, Loma Portal, and Ocean Beach with up to 1.4 million gallons of fresh water daily. (The water was several times more expensive than that imported from the Colorado River.) In February, 1964, the federal government abruptly announced the plant would be disassembled and shipped to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which had had its water supply cut off by Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. The Point Loma plant left town in pieces two months later, strapped to the decks of the cruise ship President Grant, and with it rode most of San Diego’s hopes for a supply of fresh water from the sea.

(Actually, the federal government was pressured into replacing the Point Loma plant. Representatives of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce even journeyed to Washington, D.C., to insist on it. But there was little fanfare when the Clair Engle Desalting Plant opened on the bay near Chula Vista in August of 1967, and within six years it was offered free to any public agency that could operate it, a victim of the Nixon Administration’s budget cuts. The San Diego City Council rejected the offer on the grounds that imported water was cheaper, and the plant was permanently mothballed.)

Throughout the 1970s, a new process called reverse osmosis made desalinization technology appear on the verge of a breakthrough. The process utilizes cellophanelike membranes to absorb and filter out impurities down to the size of microscopic organisms, and in August of 1972 an article in the San Diego Union quoted a researcher at Gulf/General Atomic as saying that within five years reverse osmosis would provide fresh water from seawater at a price competitive with that of Colorado River water. But according to Melvin Lew, a chemical engineer with the interior department, inflation and rising energy costs offset the gains made by researchers in the mid- and late-Seventies. Lew said recently that the cost of desalinated water would be about ten times that of an urban sewage treatment facility. There are the usual antiseptic white tanks and pipes you expect to find at such a facility, but roughly half the plant’s total area is taken up with plastic-covered wooden-frame structures that resemble greenhouses. As a matter of fact they are greenhouses, filled with ponds of water hyacinths. A Shetland pony stands in a little corral nearby, and next to it is an enclosure for assorted rabbits, ducks, and chickens.

The plant, located in the southwest comer of the San Diego Stadium parking lot along Interstate 8, had its grand opening late last month, and although it received attention from most of the local newspapers and TV stations, it wasn’t exactly a major event. The only person to attend the opening who really qualified as a “dignitary” was City Councilman Ed Struiksma (the plant is in his district). Overshadowed by the larger debate over the Peripheral Canal, the demonstration plant simply didn’t seem very important, and yet it could be the first step in a major trend away from our current water use.

The day before the opening, Alan Langworthy, the plant’s young supervisor, showed me around the premises. First he led the way to the hyacinth ponds, which were thick with tall, reedy plants. Langworthy explained that a mixture of domestic and industrial sewage from a nearby trunk line is screened for grit and then fed directly into the ponds. There, almost unbelievably, it is cleaned by the hyacinths. “The water hyacinth is a totally aquatic plant — meaning it floats free on the surface of the water — and it gets all its nutrients from the sewage,” Lang worthy told me. “It also absorbs heavy metals and pesticides.” Reaching into one of the ponds, he pulled up a cage full of glistening crayfish. “There are catfish in here, too, and when we first started up the system we went and got snails from the San Diego River channel,” he continued. “We’re essentially treating sewage here the way mother nature would.”

As the water flows from pond to pond it gets progressively cleaner, and the water flowing out of the sixth and final pond is free of virtually all bacteria, pesticides, and heavy metals. But it is still high in dissolved salts, so it is pumped to a reverse-osmosis unit for final filtering. A narrow channel collects the water as it pours out of the filtering unit, and when Langworthy led me over to it we stood staring into it silently for a few moments. The water looked fresh and clear.

Langworthy also noted that each week some 3000 pounds of water hyacinths are harvested from the ponds. “The plants reproduce themselves from roots, so once you stock the ponds you never have to put any more in,” he said. Some of the harvested plants, rich in nutrients, are fed to the pony and the ducks and rabbits, but the bulk of them are ground up and piped into a 10,000-gallon digester. There, the decomposing weeds produce methane gas that is burned to produce electricity that helps run the plant. “I think this is one of the most exciting parts [of the demonstration plant),” Langworthy said. “If we put all of the city’s sewage through this kind of system, we’d get a tremendous amount of energy from it. Eventually we think we can run the plant here from the hyacinths alone.”

Larger plants would reduce desalinated water’s cost further, Lew conceded, but such large plants have never been built. Last month the county board of supervisors expressed interest in a large desalinization plant that could utilize energy produced by the county’s energy-recovery project, a $200 million facility that would generate electricity from burning trash. A spokesman for the Fluid Systems Division of UOP Inc., considered a leader in desalinization technology, said at the time that he felt desalinated water could be provided at about the same cost as the water to be delivered by the Peripheral Canal. Currently, Fluid Systems is building a 100-million-gallon-a-day desalinization plant near Yuma on the Colorado River, and when it is completed it should help answer the kind of questions county officials will ask before committing themselves to spending the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to build a similar plant here. A combined trash dump/desalinization plant that runs on its own electricity might well provide a cost-effective alternative to imported water, but it is years away from reality.

The same day the article about the Gulf scientist appeared in the Union, a second article cast a long shadow over yet another potential alternative to importing more water — reclaimed wastewater. This article quoted an official from the state department of water development to the effect that only about five percent of the state’s wastewater could be reclaimed at all. He emphasized that even this amount would require “new dollars and a great infusion of innovation.” In the last few years, San Diego has received both.

The City of San Diego's water-hyacinth demonstration plant is a startling place for he test facility, said to be the only one of its kind in the world, currently processes about 25,000 gallons of raw sewage daily, and construction of a $3.5 million plant that will treat one million gallons a day has already begun nearby. Dick King, director of the city 's water and sewer utilities department, said the department eventually hopes to mix the reclaimed water with the city's drinking supply in Otay Reservoir, and he is optimistic that current statewide regulations that restrict the use of reclaimed water to certain types of irrigation can be overcome. “There was a considerable amount of apprehension ’' on the part of various officials who reviewed the plans for the hyacinth facility. King said recently. “It was a new idea, and people were conservative in their rush to accept it. But after studying it themselves, the people who were doubters became staunch supporters.”

King said using water hyacinths seems expensive when compared only with other methods of treating sewage. But he claims that by the year 2000, if one-third of the city’s water supply could be recovered through this kind of reclamation, the average user’s combined water and sewer bill would be sixty percent lower that it will be otherwise. (Any weeds not used for generating electricity could be sold as animal feed, making the overall system even more efficient economically.)

Nevertheless, an official at the state health department cast doubt on King's rosy scenario. Certain types of soluble contaminants can pass through even reverse-osmosis membranes, the official said, and he indicated that years of testing and monitoring of the reverse-osmosis units will be necessary before the department will consider them safe enough to produce potable water from sewage. The official added that the state considers importing more water one way of “protecting” the public from having to develop potentially unsafe reclamation facilities, and in the long run this kind of reasoning may be the most difficult obstacle for the new technology to overcome. Widespread use of reclaimed water may not pose a competitive threat to the state's existing water facilities, but if a few key state officials perceive that it does (as happened once before with desalinization), they are not likely to provide reclamation with the support it needs to become a reality.

King doesn’t think reclamation poses a threat to imported water; he points out that it isn't really a new source of water but a more efficient use of water that is already on hand, most of it imported! And even though he thinks water-reclamation plants that use water hyacinths could provide the city with as much as 100.000 acre feet of water by the year 2000 (an acre foot is 326,000 gallons), he says the Peripheral Canal will still be necessary to assure the city of adequate water supplies. The canal’s opponents do not agree, and they are concentrating their campaign on yet another method of squeezing more water out of our existing supplies: conservation.

One of the small points both the canal’s supporters and its opponents can agree upon is that San Diego County is a virtual desert in its natural state. If you looked only at the figures for water usage here, however, you would probably conclude that the City of San Diego sits on the banks of an enormous river. The city’s per capita consumption of 192 gallons a day in fiscal 1981 is well above the national average of 170. Every day 17 million gallons of water are flushed down city toilets; ten million gallons more disappear down bathtub drains. Thirty-four million gallons are used just for watering lawns — fully half of all the water supplied to single family homes. For years local water officials have zeroed in on that last figure in their conservation campaigns, and they have reasoned that in the city alone nearly two and a half billion gallons could be saved yearly — enough to supply a city of more than 38,000 people — just by cutting the number of acres planted to grass by twenty percent.

But such suggestions go largely unheeded in a place where the residents flooding in have brought with them the hallowed American tradition of the emerald-green lawn. They know it is the warm, almost rainless climate that brought them here, and that there is plenty of water when they turn on the tap, and they either don’t know or don’t care about the millions of dollars and hundreds of miles of pipeline that bridge that gap. And why should they? The locals don’t exactly set a pattern of careful use. For years developers have encouraged water use by building houses with spacious lawns. Those same developers are required to calculate how much sewage flow and air pollution their new communities will produce, and how much energy they will need, before they can proceed with construction. But never in recent history have they had to calculate whether or not there will be enough water here to supply the new houses.

There has always been plenty available from the county water authority (many of whose directors, incidentally, also help direct construction companies and banks that provide home loans.) When the county board of supervisors adopted a new policy last March that stipulated new developments would have to demonstrate a guaranteed supply of water before they would be approved, a number of the county’s twenty-four independent water districts charged the supervisors with unnecessary interference. The residents of the West, it has been noted more than once, are not particularly tolerant of limits.

To a large extent the debate over the Peripheral Canal boils down to just that: whether or not we can accept limits, and to what extent. The Met says that when the Central Arizona Project begins operating in 1985, the Met’s own yearly entitlement to Colorado River water will be cut back from 1.2 million acre feet to 550,000 acre feet and perhaps even further, depending on the final outcome of a suit brought by Indian tribes along the Colorado. The Peripheral Canal is necessary, the Met says, to make up this shortfall of 650,000 acre feet. But opponents of the canal point out that the Met has used an average of only 800,000 acre feet of its total entitlement in the last ten years, reducing the true amount of the shortfall to only 250,000 acre feet. Moreover, they say, if there is more water coming down the river than the total number of claims on it, as is likely, the Met will get half the surplus. The Met insists it can't count on this.

The canal’s opponents claim that in the short term the 250,000 acre feet can be made up in a variety of ways, and they emphasize agriculture’s role. “Agriculture uses eighty-five percent of the water in this state,’’ says Dan Martin, the San Diego County representative for the anticanal group Californians for a Fair Water Policy. “When you start talking conservation, you’re attracted to that eighty-five percent like a magnet.’’

Martin’s group has publicized the results of a recent official state study that estimates conservation measures in the Imperial Irrigation District alone — which uses five times as much Colorado River water as the Met — could save 438,000 acre feet annually, more than enough to make up the coming shortfall. (Much of the water lost by the district ends up in the Salton Sea, which is on the verge of being unable to support fish life due to the high salt content of the wasted irrigation water.) But Buck Ogden, assistant chief engineer for the county water authority, points out that law currently prohibits the sale of water from one water contractor to another. “We don’t feel that [obtaining water from the Imperial Irrigation District] is a remote possibility,” he says. “If they can save the water, they ’ll use it to open up more farmland there. They have the rights to it, and I don’t think they'll relinquish those rights to us. I don’t know why they would. In the West you take your water rights as a pretty serious thing.”

Martin counters that the Imperial study is merely one example of how much water agriculture could save. Farmers pay far less for their water than urban residents (in return for the price break, they agree that their supplies will be the first to be interrupted during a drought), and Martin argues that the net result is that farmers have no incentive to conserve water which is being subsidized by urban users. He says Proposition 9, the ballot measure that would authorize construction of the Peripheral Canal, perpetuates this inequity since the canal will be financed by user costs under the current rate structure. But San Diego Assemblyman Larry Kapiloff, one of the authors of Proposition 9, says the average user benefits from the current rate system in the form of lower food costs, and he adds, *'Agriculture is our largest industry. We can’t allow it to dry up and blow away, so obviously we’re interested in getting it some water.” Some of the farmers grow cotton rather than corn or wheat, Kapiloff concedes, “and cotton may not be food. But it’s a valuable product — three billion dollars-plus per year in the state — and it’s better than polyester when you consider that polyester has to be made from oil.”

In San Diego County the cost of treated water supplied by the county water authority is currently about $140 an acre-foot. But the energy cost of importing that amount of water (currently about twelve dollars) is expected to increase more than six-fold in the next few years as old contracts for the supply of electricity expire. The state department of water resources estimates that by the year 2000 imported water will cost about $753 an acre-foot. Today’s desalinization technology simply can’t compete with this, but water reclamation is a different story.

The costs of reclaiming water vary widely, but one plant in Santee currently produces irrigation-quality water for only about half the cost of treated water from the county water authority. A lot of imported water could be replaced by such water even if we can’t drink it; and in the long run the city’s water-hyacinth plant should prove cost effective at producing reclaimed water of drinking quality, too. None of these figures is immutable, but they are the best we have to go on, and they indicate an expanded system of efficient reclamation plants could in the future provide us with water at a price equivalent to, and perhaps even less than, water to be supplied by the Peripheral Canal.

The question, then, becomes whether or not we will have adequate supplies if the canal is not built. The county water authority says San Diego County will need about 670,000 acre feet of water by the year 2000, but they admit their figures do not include the increasing cost of water, the trend toward multiple-family dwellings, and various state-mandated, water-conserving plumbing devices such as low-flow shower heads and toilets.

The canal’s opponents say that these things alone will reduce the authority’s projected need by fifteen percent — 100,000 acre feet — and that, along with the Met’s firm ability to deliver 460,000 acre feet to San Diego County each year (without the canal), the difference can be made up by local reservoirs, water reclamation, and an assortment of other measures. If the city’s estimate of 100.000 acre feet from water-hyacinth-type reclamation plants by the turn of the century is realistic, this argument seems persuasive indeed; and none of these figures even takes into account surplus water that the Imperial Irrigation District could theoretically sell to the Met. But the Met claims that in a dry year it may have only about 245,000 acre feet of water available for San Diego County, and that trying to juggle supplies the way the canal’s opponents suggest could lead to economic disaster during a prolonged drought.

Proposition 9 includes a lot more than just provisions for the delivery of additional water to Southern California; a major part of it deals with protecting the Sacramento River delta, which has been severely damaged by the state’s pumping of vast amounts of water over the last twenty years. If the proposition fails, it could be years before new legislation that would protect the delta works its way through the legislature.

But most environmentalists are convinced that the protection measures spelled out by Proposition 9 are not adequate. They support an alternate ballot proposition (which they are trying to qualify for the November ballot) that would limit the amount of water that can be transferred from one groundwater basin to another within the state, and would mandate conservation measures whenever a transfer takes place. The vote on the Peripheral Canal, they say, is a chance to change the course of the state’s water planning before it is cast in bronze for another fifty years.

“We look at it as a way to force the water agencies to start looking at some of these alternatives in a serious way,” said Martin. “If the Peripheral Canal gets authorized, there’s going to be no incentive for conservation,’-’ much less for environmentally sound water facilities such as reclamation and desalinization plants, he said.

Emily Durbin. a member of the water resources committee for the local chapter of the Sierra Club, puts it differently. In a recent forum on the canal held at the SDG&E auditorium downtown, she noted that the canal issue is often portrayed in the media as a clash between the interests of California’s northern and southern areas. “It is not,” she said firmly. “It is a clash between those people who want to see a bigger water system and those who want to see our current water system made more efficient before it is made bigger.”

Forty-two miles south of Mexicali in Baja California, the highway to San Felipe crosses a dirt canal full of murky green water. It is the only water to be seen for miles in the sunbaked, treeless plain — surely one of the most desolate places on earth — and it comes from the Colorado River. The canal is the last diversion of the Colorado, the last demand on a stream that, as author Philip Fradkin noted in his recent book, River No More, resembles a vast plumbing system more than a river. The canal runs west and north from the highway some twenty miles and empties into the Laguna Salada, a sort of Mexican version of the Salton Sea. In the other direction it runs about six miles to the channel of the Colorado itself.

One afternoon a few weeks ago I parked my truck near the highway bridge and set off down a road that runs alongside the canal. I was heading east, toward the river, because I wanted to see for myself what the Colorado delta looks like. The canal is flanked by low mounds of earth that were thrown up during its construction; they are the highest point in the delta, but even from the top of them there is almost nothing to see for miles in any direction except cracked and peeling mud. The flats consist mainly of the alkaline silt of the river, deposited for millenia in layers too thick to be measured, and over most of their surface not even plants can survive. Here and there patches of pickle weed and shoots of tamarisk bravely give it a try. The color of the landscape reminded me of chocolate when it is dry and stale.

It was a warm day, and the brittle earth crunched loudly beneath my shoes as I went. The canal with its tamarisk-lined banks provided a lush and rather ludicrous contrast with the surrounding terrain, and yet I found myself gazing at it most of the time anyway, as if the rest of the countryside were simply too desolate to bear. The mud flats are not deceptively levellooking like the desert farther north but truly, awesomely flat, devoid of a gully or a rise, and they arc made more stark somehow by the unswerving straightness of the canal.

For a long time the wind and the sound of my shoes in the dirt were all I heard. But suddenly there was a hoarse croak above me, and I looked up to see a common egret circling overhead. Along with its cousins the snowy egret and the great blue heron, it was one of the few signs of life I saw all afternoon. A few miles farther on I came across two great blues standing in the middle of a barren mud flat; big birds that stand as tall as a child, they moved away at my approach with long, stealthy strides, adding to the surrealism of the scene.

To the north big disc-shaped clouds floated out across the delta like an armada of flying saucers. Staring in the direction of the river, I thought I could see a low, tan rise in the distance, and beypnd it plumes of smoke. But the rise turned out to be nothing more than clumps of dried marsh reeds. At last, I thought. I’m getting near the river — or where the river used to flow. Unfortunately, the plumes of smoke turned out to be whirling columns of dust, “dust devils” that formed almost instantly when the wind was blowing, and disappeared just as quickly when it was not. Through binoculars I could see a particularly large one throwing out streams of dust as it spun across the canal a quarter mile ahead. Getting caught in one of these miniature tornadoes would be an unpleasant experience, and I kept an eye out for them for the rest of the afternoon. Later I counted four moving across the landscape at once.

After nearly two hours I reached the junction of the canal and the river. Two Mexicans in a weatherbeaten yellow rowboat were fishing at the canal’s mouth, just below the point where river water was pouring into it. and one of them returned my wave before going back to work. The river channel itself was about one hundred feet across and seemed full of water, but after scrambling to the top of a mound of dirt, I could sec it went only a few yards south before narrowing and bending eastward, a thin green line on an expanse of yellow and brown.

Fradkin, the author who traveled here by kayak in 1980, reported that the channel gets shallower as it proceeds south, until finally it disappears altogether some six miles from the Gulf of California. The river has not flowed into the gulf since about 1961, he said, and he added that a stick thrown into the river below the canal actually flows northward into it. I was on the wrong side of the canal to test his experiment, but as I sat contemplating it something dawned on me; the canal I had been walking alongside is not just the last diversion of the Colorado but the river itself — all that is left of it. Dammed, diverted, sucked up, transported, sprayed, flushed, and drunk, the largest river in the western United States is nothing more than a shallow dirt canal at its mouth.

The Peripheral Canal would probably never drain the Sacramento River delta the way the Colorado has been drained, but the Colorado delta has a bearing on the issue nonetheless. The same message can be read at Mono Lake, where the water level is slowly dropping as the water is piped to Los Angeles, or in the gradually increasing salinity of the Salton Sea as the Imperial Irrigation District’s wastewater flows into it. It is that our current water system is grossly out of whack, not only with the land’s capacity to deliver water to us but with our ability to dispose of it in a nondestructive way. Southern California will stop at almost nothing to satisfy its ever-increasing thirst, but somewhere the land will succumb as a result, and we will have to pay for that sooner or later, too. The Colorado River delta is a lesson, but it is far away in another country, and it will probably go unlearned.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad