Water in San Diego: plumbing and politics

There's lots of fresh water in California ... and every drop has someone's name on it.

by Steven Saint Thomas
nce upon a time, water in San Diego was relatively simple. You dug a well. If you found water, you survived. That was life settling a semi-desert.
It was tough for developers. San Francisco land speculator Isaac Lankershim picked up a cheap parcel called Rancho El Cajon in 1868 with visions of subdividing it into numerous small wheat farms. Much to their dismay, settlers from the midwest found themselves forced by San Diego's climate and lack of consistent rainfall into other crops, including grapes and honey.
Unwillingly to wear the shackles of groundwater dependency, San Diegans moved beyond simple ecological sustainability and built pipes to import water from other sources. More than 2.6 million residents now survive by importing 90 percent of their water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. San Diego's urban-industrial lifestyle is completely dependent on a thin blue line - an aqueduct - and tangled in a political web that stretches from Tijuana to Washington, D.C. The water industry is making unprecedented moves to unite business, agriculture, environmentalists and government.
The goal is water reliability, even at the expense of this country's fundamental environmental laws.

The plumbing

Spanish settlers conducted the first recorded experiment in San Diego water development in 1769. They built a dam across the San Diego River and diverted the water to their mission via a six-mile channel.
Private companies built dams, canals and pipelines in the early American period. By 1897, six reservoirs were built to store local water supplies and transport them to San Diego's 35,000 residents.
In 1921, the San Diego City Council began discussing how to get a legal share of the Colorado River, on the chance that the region's population growth might outpace water supplies by the end of the century. A deal was cut in 1930 to give San Diego 112,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water a year - provided it could build 60-70 miles of aqueduct to take it.
World War II changed everything. The Navy doubled San Diego's population in four years and President Roosevelt used war powers to connect San Diego to the Colorado via an aqueduct being built by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.
MWD is a coalition of water agencies formed in 1928. It is now bigger than 34 states and has $3.3 billion in physical assets, more than any other public agency in California outside the state Legislature.
The "Met" (as it's called in water circles) buys water from the State Water Project, which operates the California Aqueduct from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Lake Perris in Riverside County. This water originates in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and runs off into the Sacramento River.
In the role of a wholesaler, the Met sells this and water from the Colorado River to its members, which include 14 cities, 12 municipal water districts and San Diego's County Water Authority.
The County Water Authority (CWA) is a collective of 16 water districts, the county, Camp Pendleton and the cities of San Diego, Del Mar, Escondido, National City, Oceanside and Poway. The CWA picks up water delivery around six miles south of the Riverside County line and sells it to its members.
Some of the local water agencies also have their own local supplies. For instance, the city of San Diego owns nine lakes, from Morena Lake near Campo to the Miramar Reservoir. Helix Water District owns Lake Cuyamaca and Lake Jennings. The Julian Community Services District serves its customers exclusively by pumping local wells. Otay Water District and National City, on the other hand, own no local supplies.
All told, San Diegans import 90 percent of their water from the Met, a position any local water official would describe as precarious. Most agencies are nervous about predictions of more population and less Colorado River and Delta water ahead and are turning to both plumbing and politics to increase local supplies.
The Leucadia County Water District and East County's Padre Dam Municipal Water District have built plants to reclaim water from sewage. La Costa is using reclaimed Leucadia water on its golf course, and the seven Santee Lakes are filled with reclaimed water from Padre Dam.
The city of San Diego recently received clearance from the state Health Department to go beyond conventional reclamation, in which reclaimed water never enters the drinking system, to what water insiders are calling "potable reuse." Reclaimed water will be piped out to San Vicente Reservoir, located north of Lakeside, where it will blend with fresh water and eventually wind up back in San Diego taps. Otherwise, this expensive imported resource would end up in the ocean.
The CWA is also looking to expand local storage, either by building new reservoirs and/or by expanding existing ones. The four options under study involve various combinations of reoperating Lake Hodges, building a dam at Moosa Canyon (north of Escondido), expanding San Vicente and building a dam in Olivenhain.
But unable to imagine San Diego surviving on local supplies alone, political ducks are lining up with an eye to changing state and federal law. The Delta, as well as the Endangered Species, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, hang in the balance.

The politics

"We've got a lot of water in California, but all of it has somebody's name on it," state water czar Dave Kennedy told a roomful of city and water district officials last month. "It's a problem of human relations. It's like tribes saying it's us against them."
Kennedy was speaking at the behest of MWD and state Senator David Kelley, a long-standing member of the state Agriculture and Water Resources Committee who represents most of East County. A catered breakfast was thrown at Mission Valley's Red Lion Inn to build the case for diverting water from Central Valley farmers and building a canal around the periphery of the Delta. Kennedy and the Met's Tim Quinn told those assembled that cities across the state are now lining up against the agricultural industry, which uses 80 percent of the state's water. The result is a three-way tug of war between cities, farmers and the environment.
Laws now allow cities to buy water from farmers but the transfer process hasn't been smooth so far. Covetous of their water allocation, many farmers are backing AB 2673, a bill that would essentially allow water agencies to veto urban develop projects if water supplies aren't sufficient.
Cities, predictably, oppose AB 2673 because it impinges on their land use authority. Many water agencies also oppose it because they have traditionally existed to serve the needs of the population, not make judgments about its size.
There are also problems between humans and fish. Massive pumping of the Delta has driven the Chinook salmon and delta smelt to the brink of extinction. The Sacramento spittail may soon follow suit, and federal agencies are working to limit the amount of water the aqueduct can have.
A joint state-federal working group has been formed to try to hammer out biological standards for the Delta ecosystem. Business leaders across the state have thrown in support for comprehensive, multi-species planning in the Delta and eastern San Francisco Bay.
Kennedy said a new attempt to build a peripheral canal, which was soundly defeated by voters in a 1982 ballot measure election, is likely to emerge from the process.
"Gov. Wilson laid out a 10-point approach to solving our water problems," he said. "Every option is on the table. The peripheral canal is back on the table."
Environmentalists argued in 1982 that a peripheral canal, which would divert water from the Sacramento River around the eastern edge of the Delta to pumping stations south, would destroy the Delta's ecosystem. State water officials believe it might now be the salvation of fish endangered by the direct pumping.
Although no one at the Mission Valley water summit mentioned gutting the endangered species legislation that lies at the heart of the Delta battle, several local water agencies have taken up the charge.
Five East County water districts formed a legislative committee in April to collaborate on lobbying efforts. The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a top priority because, water officials say, it's driving up the cost of water.
"The Endangered Species Act is very expensive to California residents and you feel it in ways you don't really realize," said Padre Dam General Manager Augie Caires. "Right or wrong, mitigation projects are a factor in the cost of your house, your car, your water."
The ESA requires builders to avoid endangering plants and animals or pay to make up for their environmental damage through mitigation. The CWA just spent $2.3 million purchasing 261 acres of gnatcatcher habitat near Crest to offset the damage being caused by its capital improvement program.
The CWA estimates mitigation adds 4 to 6 percent to its construction costs, which are passed on to districts like Padre Dam when they buy imported water.

The prospects

The California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV) says the current Legislature is in a "state of crisis." Pro-ecology voting has declined across the board and anti-conservation bills vastly outnumber the pro-environment ones.
"There's been an all-out assault, saying environmental protections are bad for the economy," said CLCV Executive Director Sam Schuchat. "In the context of a lot of real economic pain, many politicians have bought into it."
The near future definitely holds battles for a tough ESA, high drinking water standards and an ecologically sound approach to the Delta. Locally, there are several things San Diegans can do to impact water policy. Individuals and households can reuse what is called "graywater," water that flows from washing machines, showers and bathtubs. Under new state guidelines, graywater may be used for landscape irrigation.
Advocate sustainable growth. Quality of life suffers with indiscriminate growth. There are pressures to expand water and sewage services into virgin open space rather than redevelop and redesign existing urban areas. Water availability should be a factor in land use planning, but water boards historically follow the growth-oriented forecasts.
Get involved in water board elections. Candidates for some 30 water districts will appear on San Diego County ballots in November. Many of these could end up appointed by their boards to the CWA or the MWD and play a larger role in regional water policies.
Support candidates in your area who will promote conservation and reclamation over expansion. Since water board candidate forums are virtually nonexistent, check your newspapers and the League of Women Voters "Election Extra" for information on the candidates.
Once upon a time water was simple. Now we hang by a thin blue line. That's life in a semi-desert.

Steven Saint Thomas is an independent journalist specializing in local government and the environment. He is also the Green Party candidate for the Helix Water District board in East County.

Do we really use this much water?

ccording to the County Water Authority, the average San Diego household uses 163,000 gallons of water every year.
This astronomical figure is actually lower than the usage indicated in the Helix Water District's annual 1992-93 report, in which every East County resident is using 135 gallons a day (197,000 gallons for a family of four.) The city of San Diego and American Water Works Association have the lowest estimates - 372 gallons a day per household, or 135,780 a year.
Do we really use this much water? Do we need to? Compare your household usage against these figures given by the San Dieguito Water District:
Water use                                     Gallons

Shower, conventional showerhead (5 minutes) . . 25 Shower, water for wet down/rinse off only . . . 4 Brushing teeth, tap running . . . . . . . . . . 10 Brushing teeth, wet brush/rinse mouth only. . . 0.5 Bath, full tub . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36 Shaving, tap running. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20 Shaving, fill basin only. . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Dishwasher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30 Washing dishes, tap running . . . . . . . . . . 30 Washing dishes, wash/rinse in dishpan or sink . 5 Washing hands, tap running. . . . . . . . . . . 2 Toilet, older 3.5=gallon tank . . . . . . . . . 5-7 Toilet, new 1.6-gallon tank . . . . . . . . . . 4-6 Washing machine, full cycle . . . . . . . . . . 60 Washing machine, short cycle. . . . . . . . . . 27 Watering lawn, each minute. . . . . . . . . . . 10 Washing car, hose running . . . . . . . . . . .100 Washing car, bucket with hose rinse . . . . . . 20