When I started in the water industry more than 40 years ago, providing water to the San Diego region was relatively simple. Imported water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California seemed plentiful and reliable, and the San Diego County Water Authority reliably conveyed those MWD supplies to local water districts.

The drought of 1987-92 ended that mirage. At that drought’s peak, the Water Authority faced 50 percent cutbacks from MWD, which provided virtually all of our region’s water. The 50 percent reduction was averted thanks to the Miracle March rains of 1991 – but we did endure a 31 percent supply cutback for more than a year.

We heard loud and clear from our communities that overdependence on any single supplier must end for the region’s long-term good. They knew that no region can prosper when its water supply availability varies wildly from year to year. Residents and businesses must be able to count on those supplies – and the infrastructure that delivers them – every day.

When considering water issues in San Diego County, it’s critical to remember that the big goal is long-term water supply reliability to support 3.2 million residents and a $218 billion economy in a semi-arid region with few naturally occurring water resources.


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Our long-term, prudent strategy is working. From 2009 to 2011, drought conditions and regulatory restrictions forced MWD to reduce deliveries to our region for 22 months. Our investments reduced the impact of MWD’s shortage by nearly half.

Now, just a few years later, drought conditions are gripping California again and forcing MWD to cut deliveries to the Water Authority this fiscal year by 15 percent – but we still have adequate supplies to meet 99 percent of normal demands in San Diego County.

That’s possible in part because our decades-long conservation-and-transfer agreements in the Imperial Valley will provide the San Diego region with 180,000 acre-feet of highly reliable water this year from the Colorado River, enough to serve about 1.4 million people.

Another major reason is the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which started commercial production in December and provides enough to meet about 10 percent of the region’s annual demand. It was built to serve the region for 30 years or more, and any attempts to gauge its value based on a few months of operations during temporary emergency regulations are short-sighted.

Our strategy has been lauded as a model.

“San Diego’s experience demonstrates that for communities reliant on imported water from vulnerable ecosystems, diversifying their supply portfolios with an emphasis on local sustainability is the smart path forward,” according to a 2013 report by Carpe Diem West, a non-profit think tank.

The major complicating factor is the emergency drought-response regulation adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in May, which should not have decoupled the historical link between water supply and demand. Instead, the regulation treated each region of the state as if it faced the same level of drought emergency, when in fact our experience in the 1990s had prepared us for this moment.

To their credit, the region’s residents and businesses have heeded calls for conservation and reduced water use by about 23 percent compared with 2013 (the state’s baseline year), beating the aggregate regional target. Since May, conserved water has been stored in San Vicente Reservoir near Lakeside for future use.

While adding to local storage reserves is a tangible benefit for the region, the state’s one-size-fits-all policy created unintended negative consequences. It forced residents who had invested in supplies to use dramatically less, forcing up the per-unit price of water so agencies could still cover the costs of keeping their systems running reliably. It also increased challenges for businesses to expand even though they use water very efficiently.

In addition, the regulations resulted in a temporary situation in which water we didn’t need and didn’t order from MWD was delivered anyway. Since November, the Water Authority has deposited about 1,700 acre-feet of unordered, treated water from MWD in Lower Otay Reservoir because the configuration of the MWD and Water Authority’s pipelines presents operational challenges to reduce flows to zero. That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of water used by 3,400 four-person families during a year.

We stored the unordered water in Lower Otay Reservoir where it will have to be treated again for use. The Water Authority and MWD are working cooperatively to find an equitable operational solution while ensuring that the stored water in Lower Otay will be put to beneficial use.

The lesson here is what happens when prudent, long-term planning collides with well-meaning but hastily constructed regulations. State regulators have acknowledged that they learned lessons during the drought-response process, and on Feb. 2 they updated their emergency drought-response regulation to provide credit toward meeting local agencies’ water-use targets for certified local, drought-resilient supplies.

These modifications – advocated for by the Water Authority and our community’s civic leaders – recognize the need to account for local water supply development efforts as well as increased conservation when implementing emergency drought response measures. They are expected to provide our region with the benefits of our investment in seawater desalination, part of a successful strategy this region embraced more than two decades ago.

Mark Weston is the chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors. He retired as general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa in 2012 and lives in Poway.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Water

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    10 comments
    Mark Robak
    Mark Robak subscriber

    To give some perspective, the early 1990's drought, could have resulted in a 50% cutback to the majority of the agencies in the Metropolitan Water District, including the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). 


    Rightly so, that early 90's crisis was an impetus to diversify our water supply throughout San Diego County.  The SDCWA has spent a lot of money since that time as have other local agencies to that end.  As well, during that time per capita use has steadily decreased and in the last few years has plummeted due to in part to the action of State Water Resources Control Board in limiting use, but more importantly, just the cost of water itself which has been spiraling upward.


    The reason water rates have gone up as much as they have, is due to many factors including such things as: 1) New supplies are more expensive; 2) All of the expensive infrastructure investments that SCWA has made; and 3) Water agencies (24 in the County) have a lot of fixed costs, as well as generous salaries and benefits for their employees.


    Some of the major projects we did in San Diego County to drought proof ourselves was build in a new dam (Olivenhain), greatly raise another (San Vicente), line canals in the Imperial Valley (QSA), build a water treatment plan (Twin Oaks Valley) and agree to buy the entire production of water from a desalination plant (Carlsbad).  Other local districts also expanded their potable treatment capabilities and expanded their recycled water systems.


    What we have today from all this infrastructure investment and decreased use, is too much treated water as well as recycled water, that in some cases, we can't use.  This has caught water agencies somewhat flat-footed as their budgets are predicated on somewhat predictable water sales levels that continue to drop. Because most of those agencies aren't willing to undertake significant restructuring of their organizations like a private company would, they pass along the costs to their ratepayers.


    So no question we have way more reliability today than 25 years when we started on this journey.  But it came at a very steep price that San Diego County residents will be paying for years to come.  So time will tell the wisdom of those decisions.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    So to clarify, the Water Authority makes no apologies for increased water rates or oversupply. It’s all somebody else’s fault. 

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Chris Brewster Mr. Brewster, the "over supply" is hardly the water agency's "fault", as you put it.  The illegitimate restrictions placed by the state on water commerce for this county are the source of the current surplus beyond planning over the past few years, as well as the higher rates we are all paying.  There never was a shortage of supply in this county, despite the state's actions to create an emergency.  And customers always had the choice to buy water, not buy, as their preferences on an individual basis would establish. It took some 15, maybe almost 20, years, to bring the Carlsbad desalination plant online.  How much crystal ball credibility to you expect planning functions to have in order for families, businesses, and tourists, to be able to turn on a tap whenever and have safe water on demand?   I applaud the work the water professionals have done to meet growth and lifestyle choices we make, as opposed to having restrictions forced upon us.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Stoops: I appreciate your point of view, but part of the role of public water authorities is indeed to anticipate need. When they succeed, they trumpet their acumen. When they fail, I guess they blame others. 

    The Water Authority appears to have anticipated increases in need based on fairly consistent per capita use and population growth. In fact, per capita use has apparently declined markedly due to a number of factors. Plenty of public officials (including the Water Authority and its constituent districts) have encouraged conservation and a variety of factors (including drought, rebates, etc.) have caused people to heed the advice. Blaming unanticipated levels of conservation by consumers or blaming the Governor is a convenient foil, but the reality is that we have too much water at the present time and some of it is very expensive. Drought cycles are inevitable. Reactions to them are inevitable as are the long-term impacts of public awareness of the need and desirability of conservation. 

    The bottom line is that the Water Authority failed to anticipate that people would conserve as effectively as they have, whatever the reason, and we are all now in the unusual position of paying more for less. Nevertheless, the gist of this op-ed is that it is all someone else's fault.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Chris Brewster Well, I suppose I won't alter your view, but will comment one more time.  The Governor's April 1, 2015 declaration was unprecedented in California history.  In the past, declarations like his drought mandate were based on locally accurate situations.  Not a blanket state wide edict that failed to examine local facts on supply.   One cannot reasonably expect a water agency to predict the unprecedented.  Had the declaration not be made, our local usage would likely have met predictions, our rates would have remained as they were, and people could choose how much water they want to buy as always.  In our retail district, we were at level two conditions on use, level one on prices, until Brown's mandate.  So the state certainly owns the increased rates I pay.  And I buy however much  want, within the limits of the level two regulations on days and run times, dependent on emitter type.  I would likely buy more if we went off level two restrictions.  I agree that drought cycles are inevitable, but shortages most certainly are not.  And that is what I want the water agencies to do primarily, as they have done successfully to date.  Insure supply that supports growth, commerce, life style choices, and individual freedom.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Stoops: Thanks for the reply. A question though: What happens if people, conditioned to be more water efficient (and perhaps encouraged to save by higher rates), continue to be more conservative in their water use even after the drought eases? Also, as the drought eases, will our natural sources of local water increase? I guess my question is, might we continue this mismatch of supply and demand for years?

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Chris Brewster We certainly could be in a mismatch for some years, a common result when government interferes with markets.  However, should a surplus become the  status quo, I would think some industries, or agriculture, perhaps residential use, would resume  previously seen  productivity levels (agriculture primarily) or possibly increase, assuming the removal of government restrictions, allowing free market commerce as opposed to controls due to a chosen particular policy.  I won't willingly use a bucket in the shower, but others are welcome to make a different choice.  We also enjoy gardening, given the lengthy growing season here, and so would plant more lushly, and with more variety.  Nice to have the choice, and as mentioned before, others are free to make different ones, including ever more conservation if that suits their interest.  


    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    OK, I'll do my part. I'm going to take a long, hot shower.

    Signed,

    Be back in 30 minutes

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    I appreciate the good work done by the county water authority and the retail agency we are supplied by (OMWD).  We have confidence based on past performance that absent arbitrary and likely illegal acts of emergency being declared at the state level, we can choose how much water we want to buy, as opposed to being restricted in that choice.  Certainly as a rate payer we have paid to have that choice, and I am pleased to have it, as opposed to being dictated to by others with a different political view or life style view.