More than two decades ago, the San Diego County Water Authority heard a clarion call from the region’s ratepayers – a call demanding better water supply reliability. A call to never again let our region – our communities, our friends, our neighbors, our businesses – be vulnerable to crippling water shortages, as when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California cut water supplies to our region in 1991 by 31 percent for more than a year.

Commentary - in-story logoSince that time, the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have dedicated themselves to ensuring our region has safe, reliable water to keep our families healthy and businesses thriving. That dedication – in the form of a multi-decade, long-term strategy to invest in a diversified portfolio of water supply sources and more robust regional water infrastructure, including seawater desalination – is paying immense dividends for our region now. And it will continue to do so for decades to come. Through public opinion polling, the Water Authority also knows that the supply diversification strategy, including seawater desalination, is overwhelmingly and consistently supported, with more than 80 percent of the region supporting this strategy in 2015.

That’s the reality that is completely, ironically and unfortunately ignored in a recent commentary by Marco Gonzalez that criticized a San Diego County Taxpayers Association award for the Carlsbad Desalination Project.

To begin with, the local, drought-resilient supplies now available from the Carlsbad plant helped the Water Authority and its member agencies report to the State Water Resources Control Board that there will be enough supplies to pass its rigorous water supply reliability “stress test” should the state endure three additional dry years. The Water Authority demonstrated that it will have all the water supplies needed to support the region’s $222 billion economy and the quality of life of 3.3 million people.

The Water Authority’s commitment to include a supply as unshakable as the Pacific Ocean in its regional diversification strategy is a major reason why the area is no longer are under steep state-ordered emergency water cutback mandates. To be in this position after five straight dry years is a complete and positive reversal of the region’s fortune from 1991, when devastating emergency conservation measures were the only option.

While it’s true that seawater desalination is currently more expensive than traditional imported supplies, it is also far more reliable. Traditional imported supplies the Water Authority receives via MWD are becoming increasingly expensive and are regularly impacted by drought and the effect of our changing climate. This makes the value of the highly reliable supplies from the Carlsbad plant something that can’t be underestimated.


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

The Carlsbad plant is only one piece of the puzzle for meeting the region’s future water reliability needs, and it does not come at the expense of other important pieces such as water conservation and potable reuse. As I mentioned in another commentary last month, our region has been immensely successful using a variety of measures to improve water efficiency. Per capita potable water use declined nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015. Although emergency state water reduction mandates are no longer in place, the Water Authority will continue to support efforts to make the most of precious water resources. In late July, the agency launched its “Live WaterSmart” campaign designed to encourage residents and businesses to continue efficient water-use practices, no matter the weather.

The Water Authority also strongly supports plans by its member agencies to add potable reuse to our region’s supply portfolio in coming years. The Water Authority’s record for supporting projects such as Pure Water San Diego and Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s Advanced Water Purification program is well-documented, and remains unchanged. It’s important to note that potable reuse does have similar cost and energy requirements to seawater desalination, and will require higher water rates to pay for them. But, just like seawater desalination, they are a locally controlled, drought-proof supply. We are counting on projects like these in our long-term water management plan to be our next source of supply to help our region meet its growing water needs in coming decades.

I’d like to thank the San Diego County Taxpayers Association for recognizing these benefits for our region’s ratepayers and the value of our partnership with plant developer Poseidon Water, which was precisely designed to protect ratepayers from the risks of constructing and financing the project. I’d also like to thank the people of San Diego County who’ve shown their unwavering support for prudent investments such as the Carlsbad Desalination Project that will help keep the region supplied with clean, reliable water for generations to come.

Mark Weston is chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors and he lives in Poway. Weston’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Water

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    22 comments
    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    In support of the opinion:


    Do not understand why some peoples believe that a $1 Billion industrial plant can be constructed to find if there is a market for additional water (without guarantees).  If government institutes a 20 year water program (See Pure Water link below) to do the same (government vs. commercial) it will cost customers far more.


    The Pure Water program “…The Pure Water program, estimated to cost up to $3.5 billion…” is expected to provide essentially the same amount of water as Poseidon – 20 years from now. 


    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2014/nov/17/environment-pure-water-san-diego/


    Poseidon is a bargain, which should be replicated for the benefit of customers. 

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    Mark - you missed the point of my OpEd (of course, given your position at CWA). First, it's not good for taxpayers. Why didn't the County Water Authority go through with its own plant in Carlsbad? Because Poseidon lobbied the heck out of all the politicians to make sure it would get the $$. Why was Poseidon given a take-or-pay contract? If CWA had negotiated more strongly on behalf of taxpayers, we would only be paying for what we need, in which case the cost wouldn't be as big of an issue. The fact is, from a taxpayer perspective, the whole Poseidon situation stinks of corporate welfare and more the same politico palm greasing that's caused the current disdain for government pervasive among the public nationally.


    And second, I argue for a loading order. Conservation first, maxed out. Recycling second. Water transfers third. And desal a distant fourth, if done with renewable energy and sub-surface intakes. Your OpEd glazes over the CWA's lobbying effort to reduce conservation mandates despite the lack of evidence of harm to the local economy from our evolving water efficiencies. And why is that? Because the CWA wants more ratepayer $$ to cover spending on things like the Poseidon plant! We've shown we can conserve, so why in the heck is CWA up in Sacramento lobbying for more wasteful practices?


    Environmentalists have all along admitted that desalination done right may play a part in our future, diverse water supply portfolio. But there's a reason Poseidon is struggling to build its second plant and why they are the bane of the desal industry -- because they were approved on politics, not science, policy, and economics.

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    One huge oversight in building the plant:was the energy source.  If it was solar powered (we do have an abundance of sunlight), the cost of operating the plant would be reduced substantially.  I have to think that the oversight was purposeful, with the plant builders and SDGE working in cahoots.....

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    In support of the opinion -


    The City of San Diego’s rational for the Pure Water program (another water purification effort)  identifies why desalination is a good idea for San Diego.


    https://www.sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/pure_water_san_diego_fact_sheet_1.pdf


    “Why is Pure Water San Diego Being Implemented?

    San Diego relies on importing 85% of its water supply from the Colorado River and Northern California Bay Delta. The cost of this imported water has tripled in the last 15 years and continues to rise. With limited local control over its water supply, the City of San Diego is more vulnerable to droughts, climate change and natural disasters.”


    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Mr. Weston, instead of building expensive desalination plants, why can't water shortages be prevented with variable water rates that rise when reservoir levels are low and fall when reservoir levels are high? Or is demand for water perfectly price-inelastic?

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann  --Which reservoirs are you referring to?  Local reservoirs, or those farther to the north?  Or maybe even Lake Mead?  Who will make that decision?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley Are there any reservoirs where variable water rates could not prevent water from being overconsumed?

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann Water is not just a private economic good that can be distributed with a simple market mechanism. A large scale complex water system is a public good that involves an increasingly scarce natural resource. What would substitute for water when the reservoirs dried up? We need to increase supply and improve that supply (reliability) as we increase conservation. It is not a straightforward economic proposition that will be solved by higher prices in a drought.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Richard del Rio "What would substitute for water when the reservoirs dried up?"

     Why would they dry up when the water rates "rise when reservoir levels are low and fall when reservoir levels are high"?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley San Diego County's reservoirs have a total capacity of 745,971 acre-feet. Last year, we used 419,459 acre-feet of water, which means our reservoirs can hold about 1 year and 9 months worth of our current consumption. Please explain why variable water rates could not be used to stabilize water levels in our reservoirs and procure additional water from MWD when the need (demonstrated by the variable rate) justifies what MWD is charging at the time?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley So the Carlsbad desalination plant, operated by Poseidon, is protection against being overcharged by MWD, even though MWD charges $830~942 per acre-foot while Poseidon charges $2,131. That'll show 'em!

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley Whoever it is, if the reservoirs dry up, it proves that the rates were lower than what was needed to reduce demand enough to keep the reservoirs from drying up!

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @David Crossley When water becomes prohibitively expensive. I can't just substitute an alternative product. There are social, cultural and human dimensions to a safe, low cost and reliable water supply that your rigid analysis misses. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Richard del Rio "When water becomes prohibitively expensive..."

    Why would it become prohibitively expensive? Is MWD's asking rate prohibitively expensive?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley So the desal plant is part of a strategy to diversify our water sources so we aren't overdependent on MWD. I will accept that. But remaining unanswered is my question of why pricing water inversely proportional to reservoir levels would not have prevented our past water shortages.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I didn't have to read far to conclude that Weston was either (1) an executive of the water authority or (2) a flak for SDCTA.  Stilted politically correct rhetoric, but I agree with his position.