Over a decade ago, Southern California water officials rushed to build or expand treatment plants so they could keep up with the demand for drinkable water. That cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now demand for water has fallen dramatically. The treatment plants sit largely unused during parts of the year and officials are fighting over how to pay for some of them.

There are two kinds of water: treated water, which has been cleaned up for drinking; and raw water, which comes from a river or reservoir and is not yet fit for human consumption. Water treatment plants make the raw water drinkable.

In San Diego County alone, a dozen major treatment plants can produce up to 830 million gallons of drinking water each day.

Yet even when demand for water was highest – the dry summer months, usually – the county’s plants last year were treating only about 530 million gallons per day of water.

This winter, demand for water was so low that the San Diego County Water Authority temporarily idled a $160 million plant in San Marcos that it built less than a decade ago.

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

Even then, there was still so much treated water that officials had to dump a half billion gallons of it into a lake near Chula Vista, making it unfit to drink.

Some of the plants are still being paid off because agencies went into debt to build them. That means even as water use goes down, water rates for some customers will go up.

Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Water Authority, said treatment plants are built to handle high demand well into the future.

“For instance, we don’t build freeways to handle traffic on Sunday morning, we build them to accommodate rush-hour traffic,” he said in an email.

In the early 2000s, the Water Authority had trouble getting enough treated water from its main supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

In 2006 and part of 2007, the Water Authority issued an urgent call for San Diegans to curtail their water use during the daytime because of stress on treatment plants.

The Water Authority buys both treated water and raw water and resells it to two dozen local water agencies in the county. Some of those local agencies, including the city of San Diego’s water department, have their own treatment plants, but most do not.

The Water Authority also buys treated water from Metropolitan’s Robert A. Skinner Filtration Plant in Riverside County. Water from that plant is used by San Diego water agencies that don’t have their own treatment plants, as well as two other water agencies in Riverside County.

In summer 2001, Skinner was operating at or above its capacity.

Metropolitan officials began talking about enlarging the plant. At the time, the Water Authority didn’t own its own treatment plant, so it also began talking about building one.

By July 2007, Metropolitan had added 110 million gallons of treatment capacity to Skinner, allowing it to treat 630 million gallons of water per day – roughly as much as everyone in San Diego now uses in a day. That cost about $153 million.

The Water Authority’s Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant in San Marcos opened less than a year later, in April 2008. The plant can treat 100 million gallons of water per day. It cost about $160 million to build.

Then the recession hit. Then the drought came and Californians used less and less water, both by choice and by order last year of Gov. Jerry Brown.

“At one point in time we didn’t have enough treated water in the early 2000s, now we have too much,” said Gary Arant, the general manager of the Valley Center Water District.

The Water Authority’s own long-term projections tell the story: In 2005, it thought the San Diego region would use about 251 billion gallons in 2020. Now, it’s projecting the need for only about 196 billion gallons in 2020.

Southern California agencies aren’t the only ones dealing with this. The East Bay Municipal Water District in Northern California can treat 375 million gallons of water per day, but treated less than half that on an average day last year.

The unexpected drop could idle the expensive treatment plants in Southern California, or at least parts of them.

Only about 15 percent of Skinner was in use on a recent day. In the past several months, Twin Oaks has been entirely offline at times.

The Water Authority owes $6.1 million in debt payments on Twin Oaks this year and also has to pay $6.8 million to the plant’s private operator, CH2M Hill. The money is due whether the plant is needed every day or not.

Local water agencies have similar issues because water sales are down: They typically depend on selling water to pay for their operations. When people use less water, water agencies sell less, even though many of the agencies’ costs don’t go away.

The city of San Diego has three treatment plants, with a combined capacity of 378 million gallons per day. Peak demand in the summer is about 220 million gallons per day, though average demand was less than 160 million gallons per day.

One of the reasons the city increased water rates this year is to pay the debts it owes for its facilities, though it’s unclear if those costs are tied directly to treatment plants. A city spokesman for the water department, Kurt Kidman, said he could not say how much debt the department owed on its treatment plants because the plants are part of a “combined number of financed projects that have been refunded and blended together.” The city’s pricing consultant said it owes $65 million this year to help pay down its overall debts.

The Helix Municipal Water District helps operate a plant that can treat 106 million gallons per day. Peak demand has never come close to that. Lately, daily demand averaged a mere 40 million gallons.

“You have stranded assets and that’s what MWD is facing, just like we are,” said Helix general manager Carlos Lugo, referring to Metropolitan.

Metropolitan’s abundance of treatment capacity has prompted two separate standoffs in recent months with the Water Authority.

First, Metropolitan kept sending treated water to San Diego from Skinner, even though the Water Authority had no need for it. Besides the capacity of Twin Oaks, the Water Authority recently began buying water from a privately operated desalination plant in Carlsbad that produces 50 million gallons of drinkable water a day. Between desalinated water, Twin Oaks water and Skinner water, there was too much water.

In emails sent days before Christmas, the Water Authority’s director of operations and maintenance, Jim Fisher, pleaded with the Metropolitan to stop sending water to San Diego.

“As you are aware, no one anticipated or could have planned for the dramatic demand reductions that all water agencies are experiencing due to the mandatory conservation requirements set by the state,” Fisher wrote to Metropolitan’s head of water system operations.

Metropolitan said it could not stop sending water without making physical changes to its pipeline, which is designed to carry a few hundred gallons of water per second.

Metropolitan also worked on a plan to change how it charges its customers for water treatment.

Metropolitan wanted to collect the same amount of money for treatment costs – $257 million – but its 26 members would pay different portions of that cost. Some would pay less than they otherwise would have, some would pay more, depending on which of several rate plans Metropolitan adopts. The plan is on the back burner for now because of concerns over the formula.

Arant, the Valley Center water official, said that water officials acting in good faith overestimated how much treatment capacity would be needed, but that’s not bad in the long-term.

“You always want a situation where you want to overbuild capacity,” he said. “You don’t want to run out of water, because running out of water is unacceptable.”

    This article relates to: California Drought, Government, Must Reads, 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 ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

    Mike subscriber

    We, all the residents of the western states, should be ashamed of ourselves for wasting such a critical natutal resource and expecting others to take care of the problem for us. Importing water, from any source, is not a valid answer to how we should live sustainably in this desert. Our wasteful ways created a water management system that overestimated the regional needs. Our choice to prioritize convenience and scenery created a water system that is overly dependent on outside sources we cannot control. This will not be the last news article written about the ramifications of thirsty humans living lavishly in the west. I'm not some extremist. I just think if we had all agreed to conserve water in the first place, we could have saved ourselves a lot of these political and financial headaches. Reasonable conservation, like switching to a drough tolerant lawn or building wastewater recyling, isn't really going to cramp anyone's style. People can still have their veggie gardens, but no one's gonna get hurt from low flow toilets. We're in this situation because our water managers responded to our uncontrollable need for more water. This is our problem, and avoiding future mistakes will take a lot of self-control regarding how we value our critical natural resources.

    Founder subscriber

    Mike — I agree with most of what you said, but also believe that while we should each strive to be less wasteful, the changes we can make are tiny compared to what could be accompluished if our elected Leaders spent as much time, money and energy on improving San Diego's infrastructure as they are shoving yet another $tadium down our throats.

    It is hard to recycle rainwater and stop pollution from runoff when we don't even have a state of the art system to capture excessive rainfall much less recycle it. I think the reason for this is that those that control/sell water don't want any additional water added to our water supply unless they are the ones doing it and they get paid for it. If our Leaders can tell us it is important for us to conserve water, when we have the means to provide water to those that want it, why can't we tell our Leaders that it is important that they should spent more of our money doing what is best for all of us instead of what is best for getting donations from Big Sports.

    It is unrealistic for them to expect us to be the ones conserving when they refuse to do the same, especially when we are the ones footing all the bills, paying their salaries and funding their retirement plans.

    Maybe we should support a Recycl-$tadium project that way all of us in SD would win instead of just the Chargers, their wealthy owners and their fans.

    I believe that using water is no different than using gasoline or diesel fuel, specifically nobody should waste it but nobody should tell others what constitutes WASTE. I might choose to have a green lawn but not commute, while others choose to have no lawn and spend hours commuting.

    All of should strive to WASTE LESS but we should also strive to understand what is important to us may not be as important to others, especially when it comes to all our "personal usage" issues, whether it be water, gasoline, alcohol, time, sex or anything else because that is what personal freedom is all about.

    Founder subscriber

    RE: "the plants are part of a “combined number of financed projects that have been refunded and blended together.” The city’s pricing consultant said".

    What a bunch of accounting B$ that is specifically designed to make it impossible for the public (and the media it seems) to have any kind of real oversight; which is exactly what SDG&E does. These "smoke & mirror" accounting techniques are the real reason that we have shortages (of funds not water ).

    No wonder our rates have gone up while we have been busy "saving water".

    Founder subscriber

    Why should using water be any different than choosing how long a commute is acceptable? Imagine if everyone was told to live less than 5 miles from where they work to reduce traffic?

    I'm glad that those that want a green yard can have the water to make it grow. Why should the "Powers to Be" get to cherry pick what people can and cannot do just to make certain groups more money; our Leadership is promoting for the BIGS (Water, Utilities, Oil, Developers and Sports Owners) instead of for us, that is what is making San Diego an ever more expensive to live.

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    Let's build a new stadium instead where our money could be totally wasted.

    Joe Geever
    Joe Geever

    You might want to look at the votes you cast for your water agency representatives. Water managers shouldn't have to be compelled by the State to prioritize conservation -- it is the cheapest way to ensure water reliability and they should do it by choice. The next cheapest alternative is recycling wastewater for potable reuse. But when the utilities invest in expensive capital projects before exhausting reasonable efforts to conserve and re-use, then ratepayers are stuck paying for the projects whether they are needed or not. At least the treatment plants can sit idle and customers save the expense of operating the facility (small comfort). But the "take or pay" contract for the desal water -- that is now not not needed in the midst of the most dramatic drought in recent history -- is inexcusable. "First Things First!" We don't have a water supply problem, we have a water management problem.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Joe Geever I obviously disagree.  You can quite readily manage your water use.  Either turn on the tap, or do not.  No need for government force to intervene, is there?  I do not want to "conserve" by most people's definition.  You are free to do otherwise.  I want to grow vegetables, flowers, and a lawn, and will pay my bill as it comes due.  Conservation as I think you espouse is force.  Again, you can regulate your costs by individual choice, as opposed to government force.  There is absolutely NOTHING inexcusable about the Carlsbad desalination plant, nor its financial arrangement.  Unless you think water agency folks should be able to "crystal ball" situations and politics 15 to 20 years out.  Can you?

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    The county is feeling the impacts of inexcusable interference by state government in regional affairs.  This county never had a water shortage, due to proactive actions taken over the past 20-30 years to reduce the area's dependence on stone age processes of praying for rain and snow on the Sierra watershed.  So investments were made, rates increased, planning for the future was done, satisfying the probable growth of the area and subsequent demand for water.  So Moonbeam comes along, and declares an emergency where none existed.  If you want to focus on responsibility, do so with state government and their idiotic and despotic disregard for individual rights and local responsibility.  Also, given this state's regulatory processes, where by one recent study 40% of new housing costs are caused by regulation, the water agencies must plan some ten years or so out,  It took maybe two or three years to bring Carlsbad desalination plant on line, and maybe 10-15 years to get it approved?  Ridiculous, so don't blame the water agencies.  Look at the votes you cast, and what those elected officials do in your behalf.  If facts matter, read this website for references:  http://www.watersandiego.org

    Brandon Rigg
    Brandon Rigg

    @Bill Stoops  If facts do matter, then I would advise you to present all facts and not just your specific biased viewpoint. The reality is that San Diego still receives around 50% of our water from the Colorado River and 30% of our water from Northern California (which is Sierra Snowpack). So in total 80% of our water supply does in fact come from "stone age processes of praying for rain and snow." You say as much on your website (see quote below).

    On your website, you state: "Lake Mead supplies a significant amount of the water used in San Diego County. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Lake Mead, sees no shortage in 2016 or 2017." Despite the fact that the BLM has not formally stated that Lake Mead has a water shortage, the fact remains that Lake Mead water levels are at or near all time record lows. El Nino has done little to help improve Lake Mead water levels, and BLM is very close to declaring a shortage.

    Suggesting that San Diegans not conserve water while we continue to depend on the Colorado - just because we have first water rights - is irresponsible. Conservation is in fact the cheapest way to ensure water reliability, and suggestions that San Diegans continue to waste water on thirsty grass lawns and other water hungry landscaping is simply unacceptable. In fact, the largest corporate water user in the City of San Diego is The Irvine Company. I work in an office owned by the Irvine Company near UTC. Every day I drive up and down Towne Center Drive and can't help but notice the large swathes of very green grass. We should be encouraging all users of water, including the Irvine Company, to conserve and replace water thirsty grass with drought tolerant landscaping.

    With that said, I do agree that it appears we have a water agency mismanagement problem. However, I agree with Jerry Brown's emergency declaration because I firmly believe in water conservation.





    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "For instance, we don’t build freeways to handle traffic on Sunday morning, we build them to accommodate rush-hour traffic," said Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Water Authority.

    Do restaurant owners build their dining areas big enough so that there's never a waiting list on Friday and Saturday nights? No, because they don't want any of that expensive dining area to go wasted. Yet for some reason we as taxpayers are willing to overbuild our roads, and then we wonder why we can't afford to keep them free of potholes.

    You just can't make this stuff up!

    Founder subscriber

    Derek — We don't over build our roads, SANDAG does that for us because they (our regional Leaders) have never seen a Big Construction donation they did not like, despite the public begging for more personal mobility roadways to lessen the number of vehicles using our roads.

    FYI: A few less miles of new highway lane could pay for many thousands of electric bicycles that would enable urban commuters to make the switch from using cars.