In a jarring contrast to conditions during the drought, the San Diego County Water Authority is actually trying to drive up demand for its water.

As recently as the first months of this year, Californians were asked to conserve water. Well, they did. And they still are. Now, that’s a problem.

Demand for water is low. In San Diego, it’s so low that drinking water is just sitting in the main pipeline that delivers water from hundreds of miles away to the southern half of the county. Typically demand for water is highest during the summer.

When water sits around, particularly in the summer heat, it stagnates and can become undrinkable.

To keep water moving, the Water Authority’s staff is talking about ginning up demand for water by offering incentives to several water agencies, including the city of San Diego’s water department. This wouldn’t necessarily result in profligate water use, because the Water Authority may just want agencies, like the city water department, to switch from the cheaper water they have stored in their own reservoirs to more expensive water that the Water Authority sells them.

The Water Authority would do so by striking some sort of deal with agencies along the pipeline to increase their use of its water – just months after Gov. Jerry Brown said California had exited one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The Water Authority is thinking about offering a deal to the city of San Diego’s water department, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, Helix Water District, the Sweetwater Authority and the Otay Water District.

It’s unclear what a deal would look like, though, or how long it would last.

“We expect the treated water demands to remain low out into the foreseeable future,” said Jim Fisher, the Water Authority’s director of operations and maintenance.

There are two types of water. The first is “raw” water that must be treated before it can be consumed by humans. The second, more expensive kind is water that’s already been treated.

In the future, the agency could change how the treated water pipelines are configured or come up with other ways of keeping the water from stagnating. But there’s a rush to solve the problem quickly.

That’s because the Water Authority has been flushing treated water through its pipeline to keep things clear and drinkable. That flushed water then spills into the Lower Otay Reservoir, a lake near Chula Vista.

Once the drinking water has been dumped into a lake, the water must be treated a second time before humans can consume it. That makes the region’s already expensive water even more expensive. So far this year, the Water Authority has lost $1.3 million worth of treated water, according to the agency.

If this sounds familiar, it is: A similar thing also happened last year, though the causes of that incident were more complicated than low demand.

Water Authority General Manager Maureen Stapleton told members of her governing board that she was frustrated by the ongoing situation.

“This is another example of unintended consequences,” she said, referring to water conservation efforts across the state.

Now, there’s another complication for the Water Authority. After a wet winter, the Lower Otay Reservoir is full. If the Water Authority keeps flushing water into it or if there’s more rain, water could come spilling out of the reservoir.

If the reservoir spills, whatever water topples out will be lost entirely. The Water Authority estimates it could lose another $4.5 million on water that spills.

So the Water Authority wants to take immediate action to increase the demand for water that flows through the pipeline, which is known as the Second San Diego Aqueduct. Right now, only 10 percent of the pipeline is being used. To avoid water quality problems, the pipeline needs to be 20 or 30 percent full.

Problems with “low flow” are not unique to San Diego. Across the state, people are using less water, which means that some water treatment plants that cost hundreds of millions of dollars have been sitting largely unused.

“People didn’t go back to the way they were using water previously,” said Damon Micalizzi, a spokesman for the Municipal Water District of Orange County. “Water needs to move to maintain water quality and that’s why you’re seeing some agencies have to flush more than usual, because as the temperature gets warm, that’s when you run into water quality issues.”

    This article relates to: California Drought, Government, Science/Environment, Water

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    Bit-watcher subscriber

    Unmentioned in this article is also the lowered revenue reduced water usage gives. It was entirely predictable about that, but largely unmentioned in the articles I've seen.

    There are still billboards up that encourage "us" to "save water for the future", whatever that's supposed to mean.

    johnny miles
    johnny miles subscriber

    Boo hoo, poor planning is to blame. Suck it up, buttercup! Stop blaming conservation and take some responsibility for your incompetence

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    It's time for variable water pricing. When reservoir levels are high, lower the price, and when reservoir levels are low, raise the price. This would permanently eliminate water shortages.

    Bernie Leon
    Bernie Leon

    @Derek Hofmann I agree however I do not see the price for water dropping as there was a proposed price increase that was just approved which is unfair to charge us more for the water we're conserving & now they have a surplus of water that risk getting flushed. They will still get their money by imposing higher rates. No one will want to use more water at the current rate for water. Even if you use no water and still receive a bill, you have over a hundred dollars in surcharges or fees and that is not for the past two months of water usage. I agree there should variable water pricing, but they're not willing to go down on their tiered HCF price rates. So a customer that consumes more water is charged more per HCF, so why would the consumer be willing to use more water when the more they consume they're charged a higher a tier based on their consumption? Thank you for sharing.