San Diego water: You will pay

Even if the drought miraculously ends, water will be taking money from your pocketbook.

The Colorado River provides 29 percent of San Diego County’s water. Drought, dams, and supplying water to parts of three states have reduced the flow to a trickle in places.
  • The Colorado River provides 29 percent of San Diego County’s water. Drought, dams, and supplying water to parts of three states have reduced the flow to a trickle in places.

March was supposed to come in with a deluge. But populated areas got disappointingly little rain. And the rest of the month has been desert-dry. An El Niño may help later, but that’s iffy.

Maybe this should be mandatory reading for Southern Californians.

Maybe this should be mandatory reading for Southern Californians.

Maybe all Southern Californians should read the book The West Without Water, which was published by the University of California Press last August. It posits that the current drought could be worse than anything the state has suffered in centuries. The 20th Century was aberrationally wet, say the authors. Thousands of years ago, droughts could last decades, even a century. Governor Jerry Brown has warned of a “megadrought.”

As a result of a deal made in 2003, San Diego County gets 29 percent of its water from Imperial Valley, which in turn gets 100 percent of its water from the Colorado River. That river is down to a near trickle in places — suffering grievously from 14 years of drought. Imperial Valley farmers are fallowing land and are unhappy as the already-weak valley economy dips further. The nearby Salton Sea is drying up, exposing allergens that are blown throughout the area. Imperial County has the highest rate of childhood asthma in the state because of Salton Sea particulates, dust from feedlots, and other agriculture-related pollutants.

San Diego gets 46 percent of its water from Los Angeles’s Metropolitan Water District, down from 95 percent in the early 1990s. L.A.’s water district is also hit by the drought. But San Diego, Imperial, and Metropolitan all claim they have reserves that should be sufficient for this year. Most California towns are not calling for mandatory conservation measures.

Steve Erie

Steve Erie

That may be shortsighted. “When half of our water is dumped on lawns, people should be forced to go to desertscaping,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego.

Others want various mandatory restrictions on consumers and businesses, and perhaps a moratorium on real estate development.

Matt Dessert

Matt Dessert

“San Diego needs to be very conscientious about development,” says Matt Dessert, a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, which made the deal to sell water to San Diego.

Professor James Hamilton, a member of the Center for Environmental Economics at the University of California San Diego, says the San Diego County Water Authority may have to go to mandatory conservation by the summer. “We will need some better long-run solutions; it sometimes takes a crisis like this to get people focused,” he says. Still-higher prices can be one method of curtailing usage. (County usage has dropped 25 percent since 2007, as average water prices have gone up 107 percent.)

Richard Carson

Richard Carson

“Higher water rates reduce water usage a moderate amount over the short run and by a much larger amount over the long run,” says Professor Richard Carson of the University of California San Diego, also a member of the Center for Environmental Economics. Few changes can be made in the short term, but “in the long run, landscaping can be changed and household appliances and fixtures that use water replaced with those using less water.”

Stuart Hurlbert

Stuart Hurlbert

But Stuart Hurlbert, professor emeritus of biology at San Diego State University, says that initiatives like rationing and raising water prices may contribute to short-term solutions but “impede long-term solutions.” Once usage drops, developers will go right back to building homes on every available inch of land, he says. The big picture that we must focus on, says Hurlbert, is overpopulation — too many people for the amount of resources we have.

Maybe the Southwest must realize that the tremendous growth of the last half century is unsustainable.

San Diego has tentatively won the early round in a lawsuit against Metropolitan and is counting heavily on Imperial Valley for water. That could be a mistake. Marion Champion, spokeswoman for the Imperial Irrigation District, notes that Imperial farmers fallowing land is a requirement of the deal with San Diego. “It is not a popular thing; it definitely hurts our economy,” she allows. “A lot in our community want to see [the deal with San Diego] end” or be modified. Several lawsuits are pending.

Bruce Kuhn

Bruce Kuhn

San Diego “beat our ass” in negotiations, says Imperial Irrigation District board member Bruce Kuhn. “Hell no, we didn’t get a perfect deal. But warts and all…[the deal] brought some stability to an otherwise volatile situation.”

As the Salton Sea shrinks, particulates and pesticide residues blanket Imperial County. The sending of water to San Diego cuts off agricultural runoff that ordinarily would replenish the sea. Part of the 2003 deal was that the State of California would plunk $9 billion into Salton Sea restoration. “The chance of the state coming up with $9 billion is close to zero,” says Erie.

The state is “contractually obligated,” says irrigation district board member Kuhn. “If they don’t do it, they will put the entire thing in jeopardy.”

Board member Dessert warns that San Diego may have to help Imperial out financially. “It’s only natural to look to beneficiaries [such as San Diego] to step up to the plate if California doesn’t step up,” he says.

The irrigation district has launched its Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative in partnership with Imperial County. The idea is to build a geothermal plant on the dry lakebed. In addition to producing energy, the plant would hold down dust at the site. There are also plans for solar electricity generation. Again, though, the State of California will be counted on to shovel in money.

Last month, the San Diego County Water Authority adopted tepid voluntary conservation steps; for example, restaurants will fill patrons’ water glasses only on request.

But face facts: your wallet is going to be emptied. “San Diego should recycle its water,” says UCSD’s Carson. “This is lower cost than desalination. Indeed, it is shocking to live in an arid area and not recycle the water.”

Desalination will go forward, as will recycling. This will cost buckets of money. Unless the drought ends, all landscape irrigation may be prohibited, car washing will be banned except at commercial car washes that recycle water, and residential and commercial construction could be curtailed. Such measures will hurt the San Diego economy. Be prepared.

Says Carson, “It is irresponsible going into a dry period to do nothing because you are not yet in serious trouble. It is better to take steps now.”

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We fallowed our lawn last year and we just finished removing the remaining dead grass roots this year. After a complete covering of landscape weed control cloth (available at Costco) the front yard is covered in mulch (free from Miramar Landfill Greenery) and what used to be the back lawn is now covered in outdoor carpet. (500 sq ft @ $.65 per sq ft. Home Depot)

Since the water heater is on the opposite side of the house from the bathroom, we catch the gallon of cold water that the pipes hold in a bucket in the bathtub every day. We have 3 rain Barrels fed from the roof gutter downspouts; they're full right now. These sources go on the remaining landscape plants.

Not in the budget for this year, but I'm looking to trade out my hot water tank for a tankless heater maybe next year? Since we have been conserving all along, the only thing I could think of to add is to only flush brown waste.

Frederick Simson: You are ahead of the curve, and ahead of most other San Diegans. I don't believe you will regret these moves. Best, Don Bauder

I also subscribe to "If it's yellow...." but have learned that letting it sit in the bowl for too long a time builds a ring of the various minerals and salts in both water & urine.

Jelula: "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down" is generally good advice, but there are problems, as you point out. Best, Don Bauder

Prof. Erie is absolutely correct “When half of our water is dumped on lawns, people should be forced to go to desertscaping,”.

And as long as politicians and scientists fail to create combined power-desalination plants along our coast we shall fail to produce an acceptable quality of life for future generations.

Ike gravely warned us best in his 1961 Farewell Address: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded." UC failed to overcome Ike's grave warning and instead chose to fail to protect our future by selling out to the power of money supplied to them by the military-industrial-corporate complex as their highest priority. It was far easier than actually thinking and doing the right thing.

We have our heads in the sand and sand shall become our future.

Anon92107: Desalination and recycling are inevitable. We should have been pouring more money and effort into these initiatives long ago. Similarly, San Diego should start mandating desertscaping. San Diego is, after all, a semi-desert. Don't be fooled by those palm trees. They were imported. And they are irrigated, which should make them a thing of the past. Best, Don Bauder

Stephen Siciliano: Pass the word. Best, Don Bauder

"This will cost buckets of money". So are you suggesting a certain former radio host with supposedly back tested investment strategies will help pay for this?

ImJustABill: I didn't even have buckets of money in mind. It was as play on a water bucket. Incidentally, I didn't know that he is a former broadcaster. Did the SEC's action doom him on the air? Best, Don Bauder

Ray used to have a show on the weekend on KOGO 600 (part of their weekend lineup of financial service informercials masquerading as informative radio shows). I don't think he's on anymore.

ImJustABill: I haven't checked to see if he is still on the air. Best, Don Bauder

I presume this is the "Ray" to whom you refer:


He is now syndicated, and is heard on a variety of stations.

Duhbya: Yes, we are talking about Ray Lucia. He got in trouble with the SEC for saying that an investment formula he uses had been back-tested when the SEC says it had not. But I didn't think he is off the air. Best, Don Bauder

I have no intention of replacing my lawn with artificial turf or conserving water. I was born here. My right to the water is a birthright. Scott Peters uses two million gallons a year at the La Jolla estate his father-in-law bought him. Peters is from Ohio. Cut his water off. He knew there was a water shortage when he moved here. He has no right to the water. He can truck his water in from Ohio where he belongs. Water should be allocated based on the length of time you've lived here.

Burwell: Agree Scott Peters should be spanked. Disagree that everybody can ignore desertscaping. It's coming. Best, Don Bauder

Don, this latest drought scenario, specifically our failure to take it seriously is proving that our decline and fall phase is accelerating. Academic/political failures to deal with it and lawn watering are our worst case scenario failure mode.

Your investigative reports are the only hope we have left to motivate us to save ourselves.

Anon92107: It takes a crisis to get people moving. But that crisis is here. Best, Don Bauder

People who buy into water conservation are suckers and saps. The water Simson thinks he's saving is going to be used as justification to continue the densification of the neighborhoods with apartment buildings and condos. What Simson will receive for his efforts is no overall reduction in water usage city-wide and a neighborhood overrun with cracker box apartments and $12 an hour Starbuck and microbrewery workers from the midwest. Steve Erie says lawns should be banned. Does that apply to him? He lives in a $3 million house in Dr. Suess' neighborhood in La Jolla. His street looks like a tropical rain forest. If he can sucker Simson and others to use less water, then La Jollans will be able to maintain their lush landscaping and property values. A an individual like Simson living on a postage stamp size lot is about the last person who should be conserving water. It's in everyone's self-interest to consume as much water as they can afford.

Burwell: Disagree wholeheartedly. There is too much of a chance that water will be scarce for a very long time for people to go ahead using it at current rates.

The possible severe lack of water is also another argument against fracking, which uses much water. Best, Don Bauder

Don, most ironically, according to VOSD San Diego has been chosen as "one of just 18 cities from around the world that will be showcased in a three-year National Geographic TV series on “smart cities” that local leaders hope will elevate the region’s stature as a global player.----San Diego's reputation as both a livable city and home to respected academic and research institutions appealed to National Geographic."

I guess National Geographic isn't up to date on our cultural, political, economic and environmental death spiral failures in leadership, tabloid news media, the Opera and Balboa Park Centennial plus our hideous refusal to face up to the water crisis as if we were a herd of buffalo being massacred while no one is paying attention to the deaths of others beside them.

If we are one of the 18 in the world, God Help the Rest of the World and the human race.

Anon92107: San Diego is smart in several ways. There are leading research institutions, for example, although the fact that some are setting up heavily subsidized operations in Florida is disquieting. San Diego's leadership is definitely NOT smart. Best, Don Bauder

Anyone who would like to maintain an attractive, green and floral yard while using far less water should take a trip to the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College. There are low-water tolerant grasses as well as numerous flowering plants and bushes.

Jelula: Emulating what is going on there might help, but Cuyamaca still uses water. San Diego County may need desertscaping -- no watering allowed. Best, Don Bauder

Rainwater Systems: Yes, if people were really thinking, your company would have more business now. Best, Don Bauder

Well, according to a report on KPBS by Susan Murphy (Jan 30, 2014) water is not a problem at all as there seems to be an Abundance of Groundwater in the Mountain Community of Pine Valley just east of San Diego. In Fact, they sold many gallons of this precious commodity to a construction company for the large highway repair job on Interstate 8 east towards El Centro as well as other huge projects presently going on in the backcountry. Maybe San Diego County doesn't have a water problem after all.


rokky: Pine Valley doesn't have a water problem. But that doesn't mean that San Diego County doesn't have a water problem. Best, Don Bauder

Don, In my opinion, its only a matter of time before areas in the Backcountry that are groundwater dependent will experience water levels dropping and in some cases wells drying up altogether. Its happened before and in some isolated cases its happening now. San Diego has the luxury of the Colorado River, the Backcountry does not. With the extreme drought we have endured the past several years and it looks like it will continue for many more, extreme water consumption is a real and present danger to all Californians. When the lack of water becomes a desperate situation in the Backcountry of San Diego County those residents have but two choices. Truck water in from other areas at an absorbent cost or walk away from their homes as their value will drop like a rock. Water conservation is in all of southern Californians future as well as the worlds. Pine Valley selling potable Groundwater for non-potable uses just doesn't make sense to me no mater how much you have at this time or at any time.

rokky: There is little question that the Backcountry will suffer as coastal San Diego will. You may say that San Diego has the luxury of the Colorado River, but in many respects that is a burden, not a luxury. The Colorado is suffering from the drought. It's down to scary levels. Best, Don Bauder

Don, with all do respect I think you are missing my point. The KPBS article on Pine Valley having an abundance of Groundwater certainly does not justify it being sold for freeway repairs and other non-potable construction uses. Just because Pine Valley has this abundance doesn't mean it will continue. By drawing down the aquifer in one area it could certainly have an effect on other areas and townships in the backcountry that are groundwater dependent. If the Colorado River presents a critical source of water for San Diego then desalination is one method of obtainment for it's future. If groundwater becomes a problem in San Diego's backcountry then where do they get their water? Thanks for listening.

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