San Diego’s overabundance of water during one of California’s worst droughts has reached a new, absurd level. The San Diego County Water Authority has dumped a half billion gallons of costly drinking water into a lake near Chula Vista.

Now that drinking water has been poured into a lake, the water must be treated a second time before humans can consume it. And here’s another kick in the gut. The drinking water that’s now been dumped into the lake includes desalinated water, some of the most expensive treated water in the world. Water officials will now have to spend even more money to make the once-drinkable desalinated water drinkable once again.

Several factors are causing the bizarre outcome: stubborn water politics, pipeline physics, unexpectedly low demand and the restrictive terms of a contract the County Water Authority signed with water desalination company Poseidon Resources.

The result is that after spending money to make water from Northern California, the Colorado River and the Pacific Ocean drinkable, ratepayers will now have to shell out an additional quarter-million dollars to retreat the water so it’s again fit for human consumption.


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“Nobody wants to see any treated water going to a reservoir that would have to treated again,” said Mark Weston, chairman of the County Water Authority’s board of directors.

How This Happened

Several years ago, the County Water Authority imagined an ever-increasing demand for water. So, it embarked on expensive efforts to bring more water into the region, including its backing of Poseidon’s $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad.

The County Water Authority did not imagine an extensive drought would prompt Gov. Jerry Brown to order customers across the state to use less water.

As San Diego benefits from its new supplies of water, its customers are cutting their water use.
That means San Diego now has more water than it needs.

About 554 million gallons of treated water has been dumped into the Lower Otay Reservoir, a popular fishing spot near Chula Vista. That’s a very small portion of the County Water Authority’s annual water supplies, but still roughly as much water as 14,000 people use in a year.

Blame Games

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

Getting extra raw water isn’t such a big deal, because it’s relatively cheap and can be stored in open air reservoirs and treated later. Regional water officials welcome excess raw water and are storing it in case the drought continues and for emergencies.

But now there’s too much treated water, and that is causing headaches.

The County Water Authority blames its main supplier of water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for the treated water being dumped into the Lower Otay Reservoir.

In recent weeks, the County Water Authority has asked Metropolitan to stop sending treated water to San Diego from Metropolitan’s treatment plant in Riverside County.

Metropolitan said it cannot do that without making physical changes to its pipeline, which is designed to carry a few hundred gallons per second of water.

“The Water Authority, like, calls us out of the blue and says, ‘We want it lowered to zero,’” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager.

Water Authority officials said they did not want all the water Metropolitan sent and are not going to pay for it all.

The same pipelines carry two other kinds of treated water: desalinated water, and water the County Water Authority treated itself at its Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant in San Marcos.

The water that ended up in the Lower Otay Reservoir is a mixture of these three kinds of treated water.

Of those, the most expensive by far is desalinated water. It costs at least $2,131 for an acre foot, the standard measure used by water officials, which equals 326,000 gallons. Metropolitan’s treated water costs about half that much, $942 per acre foot. The water treated at Twin Oaks costs even less, about $830 per acre foot.

Why is the County Water Authority trying to turn away cheaper water while buying desalinated water? Because it has to buy water from the plant, whether it needs it or not. That’s the deal the authority struck with Poseidon Resources.

“There’s no incentive for Poseidon to shut down and we have to take the water, so this kind of thing, I can see happening more frequently,” said Livia Borak, an attorney who represented environmental groups that opposed construction of the desalination plant.

San Diego water officials said the current situation does not undermine the long-term rationale behind the desalination plant.

“We have built in resources not for this year, next year – but we have built in resources for the next 30 years,” said Weston, the authority’s board chairman.

The authority also expects the desalinated water to become cheaper than Metropolitan’s sometime between 2027 and 2042. The desalination plant is considered a reliable supply for the region, something San Diego can rely on even if there’s an earthquake or if Metropolitan cuts its deliveries, as it did during a prior drought.

“We discovered back in the early-1990s that we really didn’t want to be in that position again,” said Mark Watton, another member of the County Water Authority’s board.

Where This Is Heading

The County Water Authority and Metropolitan are already on bad terms, but officials at both agencies have expressed hope for a quiet resolution to what the authority calls “forced water deliveries.”

The County Water Authority has considered taking Metropolitan to court, although it is working to avoid that outcome because lawyers may cost more than the value of the water at stake.

San Diego officials said they could pay Metropolitan cheaper raw water prices for the treated water. After all, the water can still be used, it just has to be treated again.

“The treatment value is lost, but the water value is still there,” Watton said.

Kightlinger, the Metropolitan head, also expressed interest in a compromise. The compromise proposed by San Diego would cost his agency about $400,000 in lost revenue – which is roughly the value of the treatment done to the water by Metropolitan.

Staff at both agencies are also working on ways to permanently reduce the minimum amount of water that needs to go through the main pipeline involved in the dispute. Any flow below a certain number cannot be read by Metropolitan’s meter.

One solution to all these problems? Just let San Diego use more water.

The County Water Authority has been lobbying against the governor’s water conservation mandate, even though state officials are looking to lock in the water savings so that Californians don’t backpedal and find themselves unprepared for yet another drought.

Last week, the authority sent an 11-page letter to the State Water Resources Control Board that continued to plead San Diego’s case, which is basically that San Diego should have a choice about saving water, in part because it has worked for years to buy itself out of droughts.

“There is no substantial evidence in the record that the Water Authority’s use of water from existing sources is unsustainable, wasteful, or unreasonable because its use will not injure any other water user or the environment,” the letter said. “All evidence is that water is available to the Water Authority and that this water can be used safely and efficiently.”

    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 land use. You can reach him at ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

    20 comments
    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    What is absurd is complaining about the effort made to secure reliable supplies, including desalination.  How you can credibly say "several years..." ago the water authority saw a need for reliable supply is insulting to the long term planning process.  It took 15 years, at least, to have a producing desalination plant.  How much foresight, or crystal ball effectivity do you need?  If Moonbeam  had not falsely declared a water emergency as to San Diego county, we would not be having this conversation.  I prefer lush, green, colorful landscape, long hot showers to having a bucket in the shower, and no need for rain barrels cluttering the back yard.  If others prefer rocks, grey plants, or few to no plants, that is their choice.  Please do not restrict mine, when I am willing to pay the rate it takes to have my choice.  Our water rates would be LESS today, than they are given the running desalination plant, had the state not illegitimately  intervened.  We cannot "conserve" our way to greater supply reliability.  Unless you think retiring to the caves is preferable, let's say, to applying technology as have places like Dubai and Israel.  

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    "Please do not restrict mine, when I am willing to pay the rate it takes to have my choice." I think that says it all. The system cannot be run to benefit the few. 

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    I have been saying for years that we have plenty of water and didn't need desal.  The drought has proven this is true.  The problem is that our local government would not take action to reduce water use.  It just wasn't politically acceptable.

    Though people have cut their usage, they still use way more than they need to, mostly on landscaping.  Sadly, even in the height of the drought, I could walk around my area and see daily water waste (improperly aimed sprinklers, defective equipment, overwatering so it was running down the street, etc.)  I'd say about 40% of the people here water on a schedule daily or every other day all year long.  But they don't deep water their trees, and many of those are dying or fell over in the storm.  


    All kinds of actions could have been taken to conserve, but nothing really happened until the state mandate.  It was just more sexy to overpay for desal.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Bill Stoops @Janet Shelton No, I prefer a more free market approach, where the people who want huge lawns pay the real end to end cost for them.  Like desal, which was only needed if people wanted thirsty landscaping.  So make the higher tiers more expensive to cover that.  Don't put the expense for that off on all ratepayers, including the poor.  It's fine if people want whatever they want, but those desires require more infrastructure, more water sources.  You want it.  Pay for it.  Don't ask those of us who choose to conserve to subsidize you.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Janet Shelton @Bill Stoops I do pay for it, and the tiers are already higher for greater use.  You have a choice, just use less.  I choose to use more, and will pay the higher rate that greater usage should pay, assuming the cost to provide that greater amount of water is accurately reflected in the cost structure of the water agency.  I object to paying a higher rate , though, if someone's political point of view says I am "a bad person" for using more than someone thinks I should.  Desalination adds about $5 per month to a water bill, or so says the analysis.  Not so much, I think, for flexibility, growth, and greater independence from stone age dependency on the weather.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Bill Stoops @Janet Shelton The question is whether the people pay the real end to end cost for the water they use.  We needed desal to provide water for high usage customers, development and business.  I suspect that it was approved so that the development machine could keep going, bringing in fees and property tax for local govs. 

    But who is actually paying those extra $?  Should I and other low use customers be paying to fund development water?  To me, it isn't a question of people paying more when they use more just because they should.  It is a question of them paying the full cost of the additional sources of water and infrastructure that are required to support these habits.

    It's like going out to dinner with a group.  Some people order lots of extras and then think the whole bill should be divided equally.  I didn't order the champagne and lobster and I don't want to pay for it. 

    And then there are related issues, such as the destruction of the delta so people can waste water in SoCal.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Janet Shelton So you oppose personal freedom to engage in commerce between a willing seller of water and a willing buyer?  You prefer to dictate your morality, your chosen life style, on others, as opposed to letting a value for value exchange between people take place?  You prefer government force to freedom?  You have no right to tell anyone else what they "need".  There is no drought in  reality as it affects San Diego county, due to the foresight of the water professionals and the rate payers being up to funding the price to insulate us from the real effects of low snowpack in the mountains.  It is "more sexy", to borrow your phrase, to have freedom, to have choice, than to be dictated to by others.

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    @Bill Stoops @Janet Shelton This is the kind of wasteful attitude we were taught not to have in kindergarten. This is the kind of wasteful attitude that will eventually bring ruin to this little planet we inhabit.

    Jeremy Ogul
    Jeremy Ogul subscribermember

    I understand that this "lake" is actually a reservoir. What happens when we need to get the water from this reservoir? Where does it go to be treated to make it drinkable again? How much does that cost? I assume the cost of re-treating the water is less than the original cost of getting the water from MWD or Carlsbad?

    Ry Rivard
    Ry Rivard

    @Jeremy Ogul Jeremy - The story touches on this a bit -- it will cost an additional quarter-million dollars to retreat the water. The reservoir is owned by the city of San Diego's water department and adjacent to the department's Otay Water Treatment Plant, so this treated water will just go from the lake to the plant, as raw water normally does. Before this story ran, the city's water department said it does not know what kind of water is being put there by the San Diego County Water Authority. The city typically spends about $150 to $200 per acre foot to treat its water. I am not sure if there is a difference in the price to retreat the already treated water, in part because I'm told it actually had to be de-chlorinated before it was put into the reservoir.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    The buck stops with the General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, Maureen Stapleton. She's paid more than than the city manager of any city in San Diego County and has been on the job for a very long time. Her primary role is ensuring an adequate supply of water at a reasonable price. Looks like we got a surplus of water at a high price, while most of us have been doing "our part" to save water. When the drought abates, will the cost and waste be even greater?

    tarfu7
    tarfu7 subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster Actually, if you're going to assign blame to the County Water Authority, it more appropriately belongs with the Board of Directors. The General Manager runs the day-to-day operations, but the Board of Directors makes the big decisions.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Chris Brewster Place the blame on the governor for his false declaration of an emergency, where none existed, or exists.  Ms. Stapleton and the water professionals did exactly what the area needs to project a secure supply, growth as people choose to move here, and how they choose to live where water is a factor.  I applaud the work the county  water authority has done, and place the responsibility for higher water costs while using less completely with the state's illegitimate emergency declaration as it relates to San Diego county.

    Peter Brownell
    Peter Brownell subscriber

    This is why it is such a terrible idea that the Water Authority agreed to a 30 year contract to buy the incredibly expensive, energy intensive, and environmentally problematic desalinated water, regardless of whether it is needed or not. We, the ratepayers, took on all the risk, which we are all now paying in higher water rates, while for-profit Poseidon reaps the benefits. If we are going to be dumping water into reservoirs, we should have invested to speed up the development of the indirect potable reuse (aka "Pure Water"), not put ratepayers on the hook to buy expensive desal water regardless of demand. 

    Grammie
    Grammie subscribermember

    @Peter Brownell Ratepayers are always on the hook. Does the construction of San Onofre, and now its decommission ring a bell? Or how about taxpayer-built Qualcom stadium, subsequent enlargement, and now possible demolishment?

    bcat
    bcat subscriber

    Consider that the water table may also be depleted.  I wish we could take this water and replenish the water table.  Natural filtering would enable well water users to use the water without treatment!

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    In 2009 the Evaporation Rate for San Diego County Reservoirs showed a loss of more than -5  Feet for Surface Water evaporation per year.  This is an incredible amount of wasted Evaporation of expensive treated water that is literally being lost into the atmosphere by  heating from the Sun. 


    Wondering how much created drinking Water is lost due to Evaporation during 2015 the Hottest year on record?  


    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    God Poseidon is the God of earthquakes and believe me you don't want his displeasure shown or manifested in any way. 

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    So should Chula Vistans update their flood insurance?