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San Diego reservoirs at record lows

Headwaters of the San Diego River dry, too

Sweetwater and Loveland reservoirs “are at minimum pool. We can’t take any water out of them.” It’s hands-off — “emergency storage only.”

Sweetwater and Loveland reservoirs “are at minimum pool. We can’t take any water out of them.” It’s hands-off — “emergency storage only.”

For Gary Strawn, one prime indicator of the menacing intensity of the 2014 drought — and the health of San Diego County’s dozens of streams — is the presence of rainbow trout in the upper reaches of Boulder Creek.

Fisherman Gary Strawn has searched but not found any remaining trout in local mountain streams.

Fisherman Gary Strawn has searched but not found any remaining trout in local mountain streams.

Doug Taylor of the San Diego River Park says the spring at the headwaters of the river has ceased flowing this year.

Doug Taylor of the San Diego River Park says the spring at the headwaters of the river has ceased flowing this year.

On a mid-morning in June, I, Strawn, and Doug Taylor (the former a riparian volunteer and fly fisherman, the latter, ambassador with the San Diego River Park Foundation) are stepping gingerly through dead or dying underbrush on our way to one of two known trout pools. Strawn and Taylor have been here, in the past couple years, restoring a River Park–owned creekside parcel with native plants and fishes. We are five miles east of Cuyamaca Peak, the site of this stream’s headwaters at Cuyamaca Dam in the Cleveland National Forest.

Floppy-hatted Taylor has come upon trout in this little pond, under willow and sycamore, before. Typically, he creeps up, peering over a boulder and hoping to see them feeding on the gravelly bottom. Today, as stealthy as we are, we can’t scare up a one. It’s a worrisome sign, Strawn says, adjusting his ankle-stiff snake gaiters. Trout are susceptible to changes in their home environs. If the water gets too shallow or heats up, they die. Not just from low-flow starvation. Golden eagles swoop in, the pickings, talon-clutch-easy.

Both men say this creekside parcel is exceptionally dry. They’ve never seen it this bad, this early, in June. “It’s what I’d expect in August,” Strawn says. A lone mustard plant (a species brought in centuries ago by Spanish padres) is suffering. The grasses are straw-like. A Mexican fan palm withers, seems sadly out of place. “What you see dying and drying up, the most affected,” Strawn says, “are the nonnative plants. A fire will come through and wipe them out first.” More bad news: drought means more and faster conflagrations. (In 2003, the Cedar Fire raced down the Cuyamaca Mountains after the driest year ever — 3.3 inches of rain.) Strawn laughs: one “sweet side” of no rain is it’ll remove grasses while native plants, say, mugwort or wild rose, will muscle in robustly.

Soon, the three of us are loudly crunching a parched hillside trail. We tromp through dead grasses and ankle-stabbing foxtails, beside poison oak already turning red and orange, over-aged by the blistering Santa Ana winds of a fire-mad May. Below us is Boulder Creek, its rock-and-pebble bed painted with a chalky stain of sunbaked silt. Up ahead, Gold Mine Pond — we hope. Strawn and Taylor say last year they saw 11 trout scissoring in its ample pool.

Both men are nature nuts. Taylor, who grew up wanting to be a “river doctor,” found his dream job five years ago with the River Park Foundation, which protects big and little waterways with parcel buys, cleanups, erosion control, nonnative removal, and constant media outreach. He organizes group projects whose prime directive is the health of the 52-mile river.

A month earlier, Taylor and his wife were helicoptered in above the Inaja Memorial picnic site at the headwaters of the San Diego River. There, he says, they found patchy pools and the spot where a spring usually upwells. “Other years, you can see it flowing or bubbling up through the rocks, but not this year,” he says. Taylor and his wife hiked the length of the river, from source to mouth, in four days, documenting its health and stress via video and blog.

Strawn, who rattled up earlier in his 1973 Mustang convertible, yellow body and black interior, drives to this site — and others like it — regularly. In 2003, after the Cedar Fire, he restocked streams with trout. He and a small crew bucketed fish into pools after late fall rains. Rainbow trout are native to our mountains. Until recently, they survived dry years by spawning upstream, then migrating out to the ocean. Over time, they ran many stretches of the river, adapting from freshwater to seawater via a process called smoltification.

On the trail to Gold Mine Pond, Strawn reminds us why there’s a Boulder Creek road: men, in wagons and trucks, dreaming of gold and silver strikes. He points to small caves across the wash where miners dug, then filed claims. A wildcat miner or two still roams these hills with a pickax. Mines beside a flowing creek, with fish, makes sense. But when we arrive at the pool’s overlook, Strawn exclaims: “Dry, dry, dry, dry, dry.” Then, “Wow! Wow!”

What was a swimming pool–sized pond, eight feet deep, a year ago is now a motionless puddle of stagnant water. Where the water was is etched by a telltale empty-tub ring. “I would have bet,” Strawn says, “this would have been the last place,” in the creek, “to hold any fish.” Climbing down a stream-polished boulder, we see there are no trout to be had.

The rainbow trout cannot survive unless their habitat is rife with insects, good oxygen levels, a cool temperature, deep pools with dark corners, a cascading channel for the fish to move up or down when threatened, summer monsoonal recharging, gravel (not silt) in which to feed and spawn, a biodiversity of plants plus horned toads, pollywogs, and newts — a creek crowded with life.

San Diego's Boulder Creek, all dried-up

Footage of a dried-up Boulder Creek in San Diego County demonstrates the extent of the ongoing drought.

Footage of a dried-up Boulder Creek in San Diego County demonstrates the extent of the ongoing drought.

Where’s the water? It’s not coming from the sky. It may be depleted by area wells. It’s held back at Cuyamaca dam for the Helix Water District. It’s likely trickling underground as streams do: Rob Hutsel, director of the River Park Foundation, calls them “upside-down,” or hidden, rivers. The water tunnels under rock outcroppings or beneath alluvial channels, disappearing from sight.

Local water supplies are depleted, bordering on severe, siphoned by three years of scarce rain and a larger cycle of drying up. Whether you’re a climate-change believer or denier, drought is a standard feature of climate. Tree-ring historians tell us droughts ended the Mayan civilization a millennium ago, disrupted the Native Americans in the Southwest in the 12th Century, and created the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. With millions of Westerners frightened into water conservation these days (according to Probe Market Research, drought scores second ahead of the economy as the region’s biggest issue), it matters not whether climate change is permanent or ephemeral. Unless the rains come, water used today is less water for tomorrow.

Local water in short supply

In San Diego County, we have 25 reservoirs in which imported water and runoff are stored. While all reservoirs receive runoff, 8 (Barrett, Wohlford, Loveland, Sutherland, Cuyamaca, Sweetwater, Henshaw, and Morena) are exclusively catch basins for rain, accounting for 10 percent of the total supply. As of July 21, Loveland is at 32 percent of capacity and Morena at 3.6 percent. (Morena was drained to swell downstream Lake Barrett, whose capacity is 20.4 percent, some 7000 acre-feet.) The other natural lakes are between 32 and 6 percent capacity; despite July rain, they’re all still dropping.

Only a few reservoirs are fed by groundwater wells, a dripping faucet in the vast tub. About 75 percent of our water is imported, 15 percent comes from recycled water, groundwater, and runoff, and 10 percent is “saved” via conservation. (The only new source, scheduled for 2020, is the costliest — desalinated seawater.) At Lindbergh Field, average rainfall for the past eight years has been 7.9 inches per year. The 30-year average is between 10 and 11 inches.

Wes Danskin

Wes Danskin

Sweetwater Dam and the 2014 drought

Scott McClelland, Director of Water Quality at Sweetwater Dam, discusses the history of the dam, the way the system works, emergency water supplies, and the overall effect of 2014 drought conditions.

Scott McClelland, Director of Water Quality at Sweetwater Dam, discusses the history of the dam, the way the system works, emergency water supplies, and the overall effect of 2014 drought conditions.

Despite Gov. Brown’s declaration of a drought emergency last January, the local pond has not been completely siphoned. In part because water specialists have planned for such calamities for decades. Among the watchdogs, Wes Danskin, of the United States Geological Survey. He tells me that “up to 1945, this area lived off local surface water and modest groundwater resources.” Big pipes from Northern California and the Colorado River have allowed enormous imports. However, no pumping technology can change climate. “We’re always in a drought,” he says. As long as water from the north keeps falling and flowing south, “We’re okay. But that means we’re addicted to that water.”

San Diego’s semi-arid climate is worsened by its geological oddity. Danskin traces it to the lack of high mountains like those surrounding Los Angeles. Across time, those peaks pack snow while their runoff scours ravines and lays down massive groundwater basins — L.A.’s 100 times more plentiful than the coastal flat of San Diego. We get, west of I-805, a mere 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet worth of water. Danskin and other hydrologists search for “tongues” of freshwater along the coast; even within the 6000-foot-deep San Diego Formation, our coastal sand pit, the tongues’ number is few. Local water scouts are playing catch-up with most other urban areas. Why? Without oil, gas, and mineral deposits in our geological depths, this corner of America has been barely mapped. “It’ll take another couple years for us to answer how much is here.”

Coastal wells are far and few between. Yes, there’s water at 150 feet, but it’s brackish or else it’s slight, taking decades of seepage to replenish. Most rain evaporates. About 20 percent percolates into fractures in the hard rock, swelling the sediment at a snail’s pace.

When cattle grazed in Mission Valley, wells supported small populations of farmers and livestock. Rob Hutsel says that “in the old days, you could go out in Mission Valley with a bucket, dig a hole, and the water would be right there.” The 1769 mission settlement above Old Town had some water but it became spotty and saline, forcing the friars to move upstream seven miles. Place names of other locales recall a watery past: Spring Street, Spring Valley, and Sweetwater. Once sizable, their water’s been tapped and replaced with “urban drool,” runoff contaminated with nitrates and other chemicals from storm drains and parking lots.

Desalinating Sweetwater

In 2012, the Sweetwater Authority, one of 23 local water districts, provided some 20,464 acre-feet of water to Chula Vista, National City, and Bonita. Half of their water came from surface runoff; a quarter, imported; 14 percent, freshwater from wells; and 9 percent desalinated groundwater. In the past two years, the volume of imported water has nearly tripled because the surface water is nil.

Michael Garrod, Sweetwater Authority’s engineering manager, inspects the Chula Vista facility used to remove excess salt from groundwater.

Michael Garrod, Sweetwater Authority’s engineering manager, inspects the Chula Vista facility used to remove excess salt from groundwater.

Michael Garrod, the authority’s engineering manager, presides over a tour of the Desalination Facility in Chula Vista. “We’re getting zero percent from surface,” he says. “Our reservoirs,” Sweetwater and Loveland, “are at minimum pool. We can’t take any water out of them.” Loveland has about 8400 acre-feet left, while Sweetwater is down to 3800 acre-feet. It’s hands-off — “emergency storage only” — meant to last Sweetwater’s customers four months, eight if suburbanites stop watering lawns and washing cars.

Garrod says the local aquifer, freshwater taken from the San Diego Formation, is being sucked up more than usual. In wet years, “We let the aquifer rest.” Two kinds of wells comprise this source: potable or drinkable freshwater, pumped up in National City, and water high in salt. The latter is treated with reverse osmosis at the Chula Vista plant, its 100-plus noisily whirring tubes separating out the salt molecules. That salt is then dumped downstream in a holding pond while the facility produces four million gallons of water a day.

Sweetwater’s well water is “drought proof,” Garrod explains. So long as they don’t overtax it — the groundwater in California’s Central Valley has been heavily depleted — the supply is stable because of the formation’s deep alluvial sediment, a coarse sand pile whose dregs have pooled water for centuries. This “ancient water” is 16,000 years old, pre–Ice Age. At 800 feet, no human waste or nasty chemicals have penetrated it.

The Sweetwater Authority will, with a $10 million expansion, more than double the amount of water it desalinates, accounting for 38 percent of its needs by 2020. “Drought-proof” water is essential for these ever-expanding communities. I can’t help but remark on the irony: the more efficient Sweetwater taps this local source, the more people are going to want their product, especially if it’s cheaper than other parts of town, say over-condo-ed Mission Valley or imported water, its tab, the highest.

Garrod sees Sweetwater’s growth as a win-win: cheaper water here means “someone else will get the imported water we would have used, a great benefit to the community.” He says his expanded-plant grant qualified for funding because “we could prove every drop of water would offset another drop of imported water.”

A nuanced drought

The extreme low level of Lake Henshaw, which only receives water from rain runoff, tells a graphic tale.

The extreme low level of Lake Henshaw, which only receives water from rain runoff, tells a graphic tale.

Warner Valley and its blue eye, Lake Henshaw, espied from a panoramic overlook, is a marvel. At 2700 feet above sea level, the valley is divided into two parts: the Warner Ranch, owned by the Vista Irrigation District; and the rest of the land, below Highway 79. The ranch portion collects water in its 43,000-acre basin—the largest in the county—from a 207-square-mile watershed, the southeastern slope of Palomar Mountain. Henshaw is one of eight county reservoirs fed only by runoff and groundwater.

In dry years, the water level shrinks dramatically. This summer, it’s down to 7.7 percent of capacity, about 4000 acre-feet.

Don Smith

Don Smith

I’m with Don Smith, the 14-year director of water resources for the district, bouncing along the valley floor in his truck. In early June, the grass is as brown as a taco shell but greens here and there with seepages. We drive by one where two cowboys tend a bevy of black-and-white cows. A seep, Smith says, is where the groundwater hits the surface. It’s part of an aquifer, which has risen via a fissure in the earth. “Think of an aquifer as a sponge,” says Smith, a patient explainer, gray-tousled hair, khaki ranger shirt and pants. “A sponge can be dry, squeezed out, or it can be wet, saturated. An aquifer is like a saturated sponge.”

Past the seep, we come to a wellhead, one of a dozen that dot the land around the lake. There, pouring out of a 12-inch pipe is a thick stream of cool, clear water, maybe a dozen bathtub faucets on at once. So clear I can see through its robust flow.

“That’s good enough to drink,” Smith says. “What [elsewhere] they bottle and sell. Any house out here is going to be on well water.”

The wells went in, in the 1950s, during a severe drought: the water volume fell to 600 acre-feet, about 1.1 percent capacity, “just a puddle,” Smith says. In wet years (1983, 1993), the lake rises, and the wells are turned off, letting the groundwater recharge. Most summers, Smith schedules groundwater releases until September or October, close to the start of the rainy season.

On a pier, sticking out onto the lake, Smith calls the water opacity turbid, an opaque, slimy green, in part, because the semi-starved lake is not overturning its contents. At such a low level, one danger is, the water temperature stratifies. The bottom, cooler water loses oxygen (anoxic), which may be deadly to the mainstays, crappie and carp. The district also leases its Warner Valley land to Hein Hettinga, a cattle rancher and dairyman from Yuma, who typically fattens a herd of some 2500 Holstein heifers. This year he’s down to 1500, a low number for the start of the summer.

How parched are we?

In Northern California, the drought is dire, says Smith, a relaxed overseer who calls Lake Henshaw his office. Snow levels are at all-time lows; Central Valley groundwater basins are overtaxed; the State Water Project has ceased deliveries to farmers; and many farmers are buying and trucking in freshwater on their own to survive.

In Southern California, “the message is nuanced,” he says. “The drought is impacting different parts of the state differently.” The Metropolitan Water District has stockpiled a lot of water, several million acre-feet “for this kind of event,” a three-year drought. Smith says we’re okay this year. But with a dry 2015, he believes the San Diego County Water Authority will mandate cutbacks. Since Smith expressed that belief, the San Diego County Water Authority has issued a “drought alert,” which calls for up to “20% mandatory conservation.”

Still, the resource is surprisingly cheap: the household average in the county is $58 a month, one of the lowest in the state.

So much of the water story in Southern California is, for Smith, a success: raising San Vicente dam, building the monster-capacity Diamond Valley Lake, in Hemet, (storage capacity of 900,000 acre-feet), reclamation, desalination, and conservation. About the only source left is “indirect potable reuse.” This involves treating wastewater to a very high level, pumping it up to San Vicente dam where it’s blended with imported water, sits for a year, and then, is released and treated again. In effect, “doubly treated.” Smith wonders if it is overkill. What, he asks, if we took “highly treated” wastewater and put it directly into the system? “Direct reuse,” however, is, as yet, too radical. The U.S. and the California departments of health would have to write new regulations. A third option, perhaps the smartest, is to discharge wastewater directly into the groundwater supply.

What else might we do? Ninety-five percent of residents in San Diego county live on 25 percent of the county’s land, bunched by the coast and bulged in a couple of inland valleys. The 6 percent of residents who live in the backcountry, less than 200,000, almost all rely on well or surface-water runoff. Their trickle is not the problem. Would that we coastal and valley people had a few drops of their self-sufficiency. Another (temporary) solution is to let die lawns, parks, and golf courses, where, unconscionably, half of all our water goes.

Fiercely adaptive

Richard Halsey

Richard Halsey

Spending time with Ric Halsey, founder of the Chaparral Institute and friend to coastal shrub, is like club-hopping with a jazz musician. Barely a minute into a conversation — we’re in the Del Dios Preserve, between Elfin Forest and Lake Hodges — he stops, his head cocked, listening. “Hear that?” He’s mouse-quiet. “California gnatcatcher.” When Halsey ambles into chaparral, its gnarly bushes, its thorny scrub, its desiccated soil, he sees life where most people, car-bound, see lifeless and flammable weeds. Life is there, “winking at us,” he says, even if it looks dead. To find it, you have to look inside the plant.

Southern California has a Mediterranean climate, which, world-over, is rare. A dry summer and a long, mild, sometimes wet winter. Most places rain in the summer. Not here, aside from the occasional mountain thundershower. Our seasons are topsy-turvy, Halsey says. The plants — including buckwheat, black sage, and the most prolific coastal shrub, ceanothus—adapt to “a weird reversal of moisture accumulation.” Facing drought in June (coming off a parched spring), plants have two strategies: “their leaves curl, which avoids dehydration, or those leaves die.”

Ceanothus (wild lilac) loses about half its leaves in summer. The reason is not obvious. Every leaf on a plant puts out the moisture the plant has taken in, part of the photosynthesis cycle. With scant moisture, the plant will “sacrifice” many of its leaves and retain a few. Were there a sudden rainstorm, the plant would re-hydrate and uncurl the leaves to absorb sunlight. But in drought, which is common, most of the plant just “shuts down.” Chaparral is fiercely adaptive.

“If you think about your yard,” Halsey says, where residents water plants daily, weekly, monthly, even the drought-resistant ones, “out here, these guys go six, seven, eight months without any water. They just hunker down.”

Halsey kicks the soil. Hard, dusty, and meshed here and there with a mossy overgrowth that preserves some nutrients. He cracks a ceanothus branch: sure enough, there’s a lime-like patina amid the pulpy white. Leaves and branches die. The plant lives. That trace of green life below the bark steals color from the leaves during drought. Such changes in hue tint San Diego hillsides most autumns when the chaparral moves from green to gold, from mossy-dark to burnt rust.

Ric Halsey in the chaparral

Ric Halsey, founder of the Chaparral Institute, discusses San Diego County's chaparral and coast sage scrub environments and individual species, as well as tactics for survival in a drought climate.

Ric Halsey, founder of the Chaparral Institute, discusses San Diego County's chaparral and coast sage scrub environments and individual species, as well as tactics for survival in a drought climate.

The beauty of chaparral is that the bushes have learned how to grow in wet winters and in periods of no rain. They live a kind of nomadic yet stationary life. “They get tricked to think they’re like desert plants but then take advantage of winter moisture. They have very little storage capacity, so they grab what they can get.”

“This drought,” Halsey says, “is the worst we’ve had — throughout the state and locally — in 100-plus years. Lower elevations are, with climate change, getting dryer. Plants are marching up the slope, to higher elevations, and they’re heading up the coast — altitudinally and latitudinally.” Eventually (deep time), the chaparral will take over and eliminate the trees. One outcome: much less carbon-absorbing plant material. Which is a simple calculation: the faster the climate changes, the faster native plants lose their habitat.

An example is the tecolote star thistle, a spindly, thorny nonnative plant, thriving where native plants have been burned or removed, or the soil’s been disturbed via overgrazing, tilling, and development. They get a foothold during rains where the natives take longer to propagate. Halsey calls such species weeds, undesirables: they push out the slower-to-root natives and steal the habitat’s water. When homeowners (as they’re supposed to) cut firebreaks around their canyon-nestled homes, in a wet year those breaks fill with weeds and grasses.

“What we do to reduce fire risk,” Halsey says, pointing to a ridgeline where a homeowner has bulldozed a firebreak, “is create environments that grow flashy fuels which are more flammable than the stuff around them. This creates a kindling that ignites the [dead] weeds and, in turn, ignites the shrubs. We actually increase fire risk.” The way to make a firebreak, he says, is not to clear-cut a swath, but “to selectively thin the shrubs,” thus preserving a native plant defense. The point is, clearing without replanting means more post-drought fuel. The native vegetation, such as toyon and manzanita, which retain moisture, retard a fire far better than dried-up weeds.

Preserving the chaparral — as opposed to losing it in fires, bulldozing it away, or even planting trees in its stead — slows climate change because, says Halsey, “this is what can grow here.” It’s already adapted, something new species need tens of thousands of years to accomplish. “This is the most efficient carbon-sequestration machine known to humankind, right here,” the natural environment.

Stressed-out forests

Chaparral seems better able to adapt to what’s usual — little rain at low elevation. But in the once-mighty forests of the backcountry where conifer and oak thrive, dwindling soil moisture is wearing trees down. So says Tom Oberbauer, president of the California Native Plant Society, San Diego Chapter. In its 286,000 acres, the forest has been under attack by four concerns: a 16-year period during which trees have had only two years of above-normal rain, a total deficit of 100 inches of water; two of the three driest years ever recorded in San Diego County, 2002 and 2007; two spectacular fires, the Cedar in 2003 and the Witch Creek in 2007, which consumed some 40,000 acres of forest; and insect infestation, the bark beetle and the newest critter, the gold-spotted oak-borer.

This three-quarter-inch beetle, an invader that arrived in 2006, attacks only oak trees, “the biggest and healthiest and most beautiful,” Oberbauer says. It lays its eggs just under a tree’s bark, in the cambium layer, the tree’s new growth of plant tissue. Already stressed by parched soil, that’s where moisture and nutrients circulate. The borer circles or girdles the tree, cutting off water and food from going up and down the trunk. Our backcountry, where black oak have thrived for millennia, is strewn with dead trees. Their ghostly sentinels haunt the hillsides in Descanso, Pine Valley, and the southern reaches of Cuyamaca State Park. It’s marching northward, too: “Catastrophic for California.”

It’s important to note that fire and drought go hand-in-hand: crown fires, which burn incredibly hot and move twice as fast as a person can run, get their fuel from drought- and beetle-ravaged forest death. Coulter pines are especially threatened by drought and fire since they populate the more arid fringes of a forest. In addition, sugar and ponderosa pine, white fur, and incense cedar need adult trees to provide seeds. The cones of these young conifers will not open and seed themselves in a conflagration.

In the Western states, Oberbauer says, the policy is to put out every fire, which means areas are obliterated when they burn and become too dense when they do not burn. Nature controls its growth with lightning-strike fires that burn the under-storage. If we did controlled burns in our national forests, he maintains, we would have far less fuel to fuel the drought-year blazes whose frequency seems to be growing.

One final hope

According to the City of San Diego Long-Range Planning and Water Resources Division, the San Diego Formation, a massive underground catch-basin, “is largely unstudied.” In the two-to-three-million-year-old marine bed, there may be only 10,000 acre-feet of untapped and removable water available each year that the County Water Authority is extracting. That’s not much when you consider the county’s yearly need is 612,000 acre-feet, which, says the Authority, will rise to 779,000 acre-feet by 2020. Ten thousand acre-feet is supplemental, not salvational.

However, there is in the formation “usable storage volume estimated between 270,000 and 360,000 feet.” Large, indeed, and potentially beneficial when — probably not if — we begin re-injecting our treated wastewater underground to be stored/purified for later use. Let the earth do the filtering. Let the water pool for generations hence. Perhaps we flushers, dishwashers, and bathers can sustain ourselves by reusing what each generation uses, ad infinitum. Water from here — not elsewhere.


Corrections: Local water agencies extracted about 21,000 acre-feet of groundwater in 2013. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is scheduled to open as soon as fall 2015, not 2020.

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Yet the city says we have enough water.

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