Where the sidewalk ends, on an unpaved section of 32nd Street in Golden Hill, adjacent to westbound 94, the city’s Public Utilities Department recently drilled a well in order to explore the possibility of tapping the groundwater as a resource for the City of San Diego. Imagine, our very own aquifer, right under downtown. That’s an amazing prospect, considering this town’s chronic water shortages. The 32nd Street Test Well Project, which the city announced in summer 2012, and which it is still conducting, is one step closer to determining if it will come to fruition.
My husband and I have been curious about that undeveloped patch of ground since we stumbled upon it while out for a walk shortly after we moved to Golden Hill. How, in the midst of this cityscape, only a mile or so from downtown, could there be an unpaved street? That would be 32nd Street, at the south end of which lies one of San Diego’s oldest developments, the 32nd Street Naval Base, commissioned in 1922 by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
The street doesn’t run continuously from the base to its northern terminus in Normal Heights: it takes several hops, skips, and jumps — as do many of the streets that San Diego has tried to conform to a grid despite myriad canyons and freeways. The particular section that goes through Golden Hill picks up just north of Highway 94, but the pavement doesn’t. For two whole blocks, from B Street to Broadway, 32nd Street is not paved.
Tershia d’Elgin, community organizer and longtime Golden Hill resident, lives only a half-block away, and she doesn’t know for sure why it hasn’t been developed but surmises that the street remains unpaved because no homeowners on the block have demanded it be graded and paved. It seems to still be covered with macadam, which was state-of-the-art road material before about 1920. Macadam, named for Scottish surveyor general John McAdam, comprises several successive layers of small angular paving stones left to bind together as a solid mass by the compaction of horse, wagon, and foot traffic trampling it. With the advent of the automobile, along came tar-bound macadam. That’s a layer of tar sprayed over the top layer of stones. This method of road-building was meant to keep the dust down, a major concern in the days of transition from wagon wheel to car wheel.
And dusty it is on that patch of undeveloped urban ground, where a few unkempt houses sit perched at the edge of a wide canyon. At the end of B Street, at the intersection with 32nd, a rutted dirt driveway befitting a more rural route meanders down to a sloped lot that hosts a two-story ramshackle house patrolled by an unleashed dog. Cars parked willy-nilly on the surrounding grounds lend the scene a country feel. A hiking trail leads north into unpaved territory. Way down the canyon, seemingly in another place altogether, with smooth concrete surfaces, sleek glass windows, and bright lights, sits Golden Hill Elementary, opened in 2006. From that vantage point, at the southeastern edge of the neighborhood, on one of the many hills that make up Golden Hill, one can look out at night and see the lights of Tijuana twinkling in the distance.
From B, proceed another two blocks south along unpaved 32nd and there find the location of the city’s test well. As of now, it’s an inconspicuous concrete slab about 4´ x 4´ with a nondescript manhole cover set in it. During the drilling, test equipment, a 30-foot drill, sound -barrier walls, lighting rigs, and trucks occupied the site.
When we drove by on westbound 94 one summer day in 2012, I commented to my husband that it looked as if they were filming a movie there. We found out later that it was the test-well operation, and that the city had erected the walls to block the neighbors from hearing the constant grind of the drill. The drilling went on 24 hours a day for 12 days, to a depth of 1220 feet. If residents became weary of the noise, which project manager Greg Cross of the city Public Utilities Department compared to “a diesel truck idling,” they could retire to the Marriott Residence Inn Mission Valley on the city’s tab. No one elected to do so.
That’s one of the reasons d’Elgin surmises that the city chose the 32nd Street spot: residents of Golden Hill, a neighborhood teetering on low-income, wouldn’t put up too much resistance to a potentially problematic project. According to Cross, “since the property was undeveloped, it helped with avoiding common underground infrastructure — namely sewers — that could constrain flexibility in siting future municipal production well(s).” The property adjacent to the 94 is currently for sale, and is rumored to be difficult to develop possibly due to dumping that occurred during freeway construction. The “For Sale” sign was covered in graffiti shortly after it went up in the spring of 2012, and no one has bothered to put up a new one.
If the city were to tap the aquifer at that site, Cross says it would purchase the land to build a pumping station. It’s not clear if the lot advertised by the sign is the same property that might house the municipal facility, and the test well itself is on a dirt section of 32nd Street that reads “ST CLSD” on the San Diego County Assessor’s parcel map. The city did not respond to requests regarding the possible purchase."
The area contains seven separate parcels under four different owners: Michael Ramsey Trust owns two, 32nd Street LLC owns two, various members of the Starcevic family own two, and Rudenberg Family Trust owns one. Only one of the seven parcels, owned by the Ramsey Trust, is listed for sale, at $175,000. But at Golden Hill Planning Committee meetings, Cross and community members have also talked of a joint-use designation that would establish the area around the pumping station as a park. The whole group of seven vacant parcels has been deemed “moderate to high priority” by city park planner Howard Greenstein on a list of proposed park sites for Golden Hill.
Tershia d’Elgin hopes that if the city were to build a pumping station at 32nd, “Golden Hill would be the kind of neighborhood that, if they were going to pilot a demonstration of a local sustainable water source here, to include recreational green space would say, ‘Let’s do it!’”
D’Elgin has worked for 13 years with Friends of 32nd Street Canyon and other organizations to preserve open space in the city, and she currently works with a group called H2OFutures, which focuses on water-supply solutions. She opines that the residents of the neighborhood would rally around the idea of a park at the 32nd Street site and would most likely rally against the pumping station if a park were not to be included in the plan.
Although the yield from the well would mingle with the city’s water supply and would not stay strictly local to the “waterhood” — a term d’Elgin coined to describe a scenario in which neighborhoods would collectively gather runoff and/or tap into a local water supply to irrigate parks and plantings in the immediate surrounding area — a well at 32nd Street would definitely be a much more local supply than the majority of San Diego’s water, which comes from sources as far flung as the Colorado River and Sacramento. In fact, as d’Elgin shared with me, the California Energy Commission reports that almost a fifth of the state’s energy consumption goes into supplying and conveying water.
As mayor Jerry Sanders iterated in a press release announcing the test well project in June 2012, “It’s no secret that we are far too reliant on imported water, and we need to have more control over our future water supplies. We’re exploring many avenues to incrementally decrease our need to purchase water that is subject to drought, periodic cutbacks, and out-of-control price increases.”
Funny how, in this dry Southwest, that means digging right under our feet. According to the San Diego County Water Authority’s website, in 1991 San Diego relied on the Metropolitan Water District, a consortium of Southern California municipalities that draw water from all over the region, for 95 percent of its water, while 5 percent came from surface water. By 2012, the city had diversified the supply significantly, reducing the Metropolitan Water District portion to 45 percent, adding Imperial County Irrigation water, water from the Coachella and All-American Canals, and tiny portions of ground and recycled water. An 11 percent chunk came from conservation. The projection for 2020 includes 1 percent more ground and 2 percent more recycled water, as well as a new addition: desalinated seawater. The 32nd Street Test Well Project represents just a fraction of a drop in this bucket: local groundwater would make up a mere 4 percent of the projected 2020 supply, up from 3 percent in 2012.
And the test well is only that: a test. To me, the preliminary results seem to indicate that building a pump station to tap groundwater at 32nd Street is unlikely. Then again, so is having a green lawn in a semi-arid region where chaparral vegetation grows native, and there seems to be plenty of grass around here.
As Greg Cross reported to the Golden Hill Planning Committee on January 9, the pump test showed a yield of three gallons per minute per foot, whereas a “good well” (relative to others in the same aquifer) would yield six. The test also determined that the transmissivity of the aquifer, the rate at which water flows horizontally through it, is low. Most prominently, the water that lies 400–600 feet deep under downtown, in the San Diego Formation, is brackish — not surprising, given its adjacency to the Pacific Ocean. According to Wes Danskin of the United States Geological Survey, the San Diego Formation aquifer spans “from La Jolla past the U.S.–Mexico border, and from San Diego Bay to Interstate 805.” On a map it looks like it took a big bite out of the coast.
Salinity hasn’t stopped the Sweetwater Authority from drawing brackish water from the San Diego Formation. In 1999 Sweetwater opened what is now called the Richard A. Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility, where water drawn from 800-foot-deep wells in the San Diego Formation undergoes reverse osmosis to remove salts and other dissolved solids. The desalinated water is disinfected and added to Sweetwater’s supply. The leftover brine is discharged into the “man-made Sweetwater channel along State Route 54,” as stated in the Union-Tribune in September 2007.
Sweetwater Authority, which serves National City, Chula Vista, and Bonita, reports that about 70 percent of its water supply is local, much more than neighboring San Diego. In fact, the City of San Diego seems to have a case of aqua envy: in 2010 it filed two lawsuits against Sweetwater’s proposed expansion of drilling in the San Diego Formation. In one suit, the city invoked its Pueblo water rights, which date back to the days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). As Wikipedia defines, settlements organized under the laws of Mexico or Spain were granted “the water right to all streams and rivers flowing through the city and to all groundwater aquifers underlying the city.” The case of City of Los Angeles v. City of San Fernando in 1978 established that the rights do not expire if a city fails to use the water.
San Diego had failed to use its own groundwater for most of the last century, pretty much. But as W.E. Smythe describes in History of San Diego, in the late-1800s the young city did sink wells within its limits, including one downtown in the courthouse yard and another at Horton House, San Diego’s premier hotel as of 1870. Another artesian well was drilled in what was then called Pound Canyon and is now Cabrillo Canyon. These sources, along with several reservoirs within the city and water pumped from the San Diego River, quickly proved inadequate. In the early 1900s, the municipality consolidated its water interests and began purchasing water from mountain reservoirs, and by the middle of the century the San Diego Aqueduct brought water from the Colorado River. Not until 2001 did San Diego begin to reexamine the water underlying the city, when the United States Geological Survey initiated the San Diego Hydrogeology Project. Though it seems that the city would’ve explored its options sooner, until recently, according to the Geological Survey website, “no comprehensive study of ground-water resources ha[d] been done for the San Diego area.”
But necessity has made the city optimistic. As Greg Cross puts it, “A local groundwater desalination project is currently more expensive than imported water. However, as imported water prices increase, and treatment technologies continue to develop, we believe that there will be a point in time when typical groundwater desalination is less expensive than imported water.”
So, the testing goes on. The San Diego Hydrogeology Project has installed 13 multiple-depth monitoring wells around the county, at sites ranging from North County to the Tijuana River south of the border, with four more planned. These wells, including one in Balboa Park, transmit data via satellite to the Geological Survey database for display on the project website, and will ultimately lead to a “larger geological model of the coastal plain groundwater basin,” according to a press release announcing the project in June 2012. The city is also poking around in other aquifers around the county, including the San Pasqual Basin, the Mission Valley Basin, and the Tijuana Basin.
This summer, the Public Utilities Department plans to drill supplementary wells at 32nd Street to perform what Cross refers to as “validation testing” on water from the San Diego Formation. If it’s feasible to go on to the next stage, which would be a “pilot production well,” testing could go on for two more years. Cross says the city will also further investigate an even deeper aquifer, in the Stadium Conglomerate, “to determine its viability as a groundwater resource.” The Stadium Conglomerate is a layer that lies about 1200 feet below that dusty patch of ground at 32nd and Broadway. As preliminary tests showed, the water waits down there at a toasty 89–92 degrees Fahrenheit, tempting the city to plunge in.