San Diego County water customers are about to see their water bills jump to pay for some of the most expensive water possible. At the same time, cheaper water is about to be set aside, unused, in a reservoir where some of it will evaporate.

After years of fights and hurdles, the Carlsbad Desalination Project is expected to open this fall. But because of a quirk, the region is unlikely to need that desalinated water this year. Yet, the San Diego County Water Authority signed a deal promising that its customers will pay for it. Average water bills will increase by $5 or more.

Despite the drought, the Water Authority expects to have 99 percent of the water it needs to meet customer demands, even if customers don’t take any extra steps to save water.

But customers are required to take big steps to save water. The state Water Resources Control Board, at the direction of the governor, is asking municipal water users to reduce average consumption by 25 percent.

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This means San Diego County will have a significant chunk of water on hand that we can’t use this year. That water will be stored for the future at San Vicente Reservoir in the eastern part of San Diego County.

Besides having to cut our use, we will also be getting new water from the Carlsbad desalination plant.

The authority has to buy water from the plant, whether it needs it or not. That’s the deal the authority struck with Poseidon Resources, the $900 million plant’s owner. The authority will buy the company’s desalinated water even as the authority stores other, cheaper water.

The Water Authority expects to have between 50,000 and 80,000 acre feet to store this year in San Vicente because state regulations won’t allow it to be used. An acre foot is one of the big units water officials use when they talk about water – it’s equal to about 325,000 gallons. Carlsbad is expected to produce up to 153 acre feet of water per day.

Poseidon’s desalinated water costs at least twice as much our other water sources. We’ll be paying up to $2,140 to Poseidon for an acre foot of water.

The Water Authority pays the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies about half this region’s water, between $580 and $920 an acre foot, depending on whether the water has been treated enough to make it drinkable. Treated water is more expensive. All the desal water is treated.

Depending on whom I asked, this rather odd situation – buying expensive water, storing cheaper water and having extra water all while in a drought – provoked wildly different reactions.

Supporters of the desal plant – namely Water Authority officials – said it’s important to store water this year and that we will absolutely need desal water in the long term.

Others say the inability to really use the desal water is an immediate indication of an unwise deal with Poseidon.

After all, some of the cheaper water sent to San Vicente will evaporate, meaning we’ll be giving cheap water away to the air while we pay for expensive water drawn from the sea. During the course of a year, about 8 to 10 percent of water in our reservoirs evaporates.

“We are buying desal water to fill reservoirs with high evaporation rates,” said Richard Carson, an economist who studies water policy at the University of California, San Diego.

The Water Authority blames the desal situation on the state.

Keith Lewinger, a member of the Water Authority’s board of directors, used a common refrain from other San Diego officials: Mother Nature created a drought in California, but the state government created the water shortage in San Diego.

He compared San Diego to the ants in Aesop’s Fables, which gather food for winter as the grasshopper idles away the summer days. The ants of San Diego invested in the desalination plant, and the grasshopper is other parts of California that did not do as much.

Now, Lewinger said, the state’s cutbacks are making the grasshopper and the ants both tighten their belt, even though the ants have more water.

Bob Yamada, the incoming director of water resources for the Water Authority, used less colorful language, but said the county has been trying to get the state to give San Diego a break from cuts because it built the desal plant.

If San Diego got such a break, we could then use more water and conserve less, which means maybe lawns would be less brown, cars cleaner and showers longer – but there would also be less water stored in San Vicente in case the drought continues.

Either way, Yamada said, the desalinated water is going to come in handy.

“I think the long-term benefit of adding a drought-proof supply trumps the temporary nature of this regulation,” he said.

Some San Diego water officials have used similar arguments against the state cuts and gone a step further: They argue that by restricting San Diego’s ability to maximize its use of desal water, the state is discouraging investment in things like new desalination plants.

Max Gomberg, state Water Resources Control Board staff scientist, said that argument “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

A few other regions have tried to make a similar case, arguing they have new supplies of local water that should allow them to be spared cuts. Gomberg said the cuts this year are a statewide insurance policy for next year if the drought continues. The situation is stark across the state: Major water suppliers, including Metropolitan, are pulling water from their reservoirs even as San Diego plans to store water in its own.

So why doesn’t San Diego reduce the amount of water it plans to buy from Metropolitan or sell the water to other water agencies?

Yamada said the county wants to do whatever it can to store water during a drought. Desalinated water is expected to remain more expensive than water from Metropolitan until at least 2027, though it could remain a more expensive source for even longer, until perhaps 2042, according to the County Water Authority.

The Water Authority set up a deal so that Poseidon built the actual treatment plant. But the water authority guaranteed that if Poseidon took that risk, the company would buy at least 48,000 acre feet of water a year.

Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which studies water policy, said San Diego had options that were cheaper than the desalination plant and the county still does. Namely, Gleick argues San Diego should have first focused on conserving more water or building a plant to turn wastewater into drinkable water. Only after that has been done, he said, does desalination make sense for San Diego.

“Over time as you squeeze out inefficiencies and you treat wastewater, your options get fewer and desal looks more attractive,” he said.

    This article relates to: California Drought, Must Reads, Science/Environment, 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 or 619.550.5665.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    While san diego builds deal to pump water into a reservoir from the ocean, the state of california has been pumping 800k acre feet per year from Sacramento reservoirs into the ocean, with the goal of lowering water temperature in the rivers to save the smelt. The last smelt survey found 1 single smelt, so that fresh reservoir water was wasted.

    Jerry Jones
    Jerry Jones

    Water is as complicated as it is essential. No one solution will give us the reliable water supply we will need in coming years. Recycling waster water is going to be expensive compared to what we get from the the Colorado and Delta but the expense gives us both clean and reliable water as well as a cleaner environment. Unfortunately up until recently the San Diego public was unwilling to accept the concept and we are now 20 years behind the curve. San Diego's Pure Water and Padre Dam's purification projects are leading the way in the state and the regulations that would allow the programs to operate don't exist yet.

    The bottle neck is less about financing and more about navigating the miles of red tape in Sacramento. While Orange county has been injecting their aquifers with purified waster water for years no regulations exist for direct or indirect potable reuse in California. San Diego is leading the way in this area. Perhaps this current drought crisis will speed the red tape process up. As they say “never let a crisis go to waste”. (no pun intended)

    In terms of population growth, keep in mind that growth mandates are not from SANDAG but the State. The growth figure you see from SANDAG is a number negotiated with the state. This is America and we don't tell people where they can live, what job they will have, who they can marry, how many children they can have and so on. To suggest otherwise is not the country I grew up in and not the American promise I was made. Unless we are willing to give away the freedoms we've fought so hard to maintain the suggestion that we can stop people from moving here is not realistic.

    In a free market it's the cost of things, standard of living, and job market that will determine our population growth. If we don't make provisions to house future generations then the population and market will make them for us. First you will see adult children staying at home longer ( as we do today) and then you will see multiple families living in housing meant for single family's. People often forget that the growing population they want to shut out are their own children.

    However future growth is accommodated water use will continue to raise with the population even if there is no expansion of housing. To say we don't have the water just isn't true. We have plenty of water supply options even if they are more expensive. I think back the the Mulholland days of LA and Water Flume days of San Diego and wonder if the dialogue was the same then.

    If the San Diego region isn't in the lead for developing local water reliability we are certainly near the top. What that will look like will continue to be debated but rest assured we will get there. As much as the future expense of water scares me the idea that my grandchildren would be told where to live by the government scares me more.

    George Courser
    George Courser subscriber

    This is premier and in-depth reporting on San Diego's key water supplier - San Diego County Water "authority". The curtains are being drawn back on this developer-serving union of 18 water districts.

    Our ratepayer financed "authority" never considered there would be no more any price.

    Yet we see the exact propaganda dished out by SANDAG//COUNTYPDS to never stop development

    based on SDCWA "guaranteed" water service. Ratepayers who have been calling out these lies, hypocrisy and contemptible manipulations are now being joined by an awakened San Diego media.

    Every "authority" expenditure, from dam rise to de-sal, has been accomplished for developers and speculators with ratepayer funding. These bumbling actions are no longer a question of mere incompetence...but blatant collusion. I salute VOSD's leadership and critical observations.

    Meanwhile, actual ratepayers brace themselves for water agency extortion and continuous developer traffic tyranny.     

    Those in dispute or agreement are free to contact me.

    George Courser

    3142 Courser Avenue

    San Diego, Ca 92117


    lorisaldana subscriber

    Thanks for a good summary of the insanity of our water policies. Only in the arid west does water (including ocean water) run uphill, towards money.

    A zero wastewater discharge policy (similar to those in place across the border in Baja California and elsewhere) would go a long way towards providing adequate water for this region. Tijuana has creatively leveraged funding from the US, and even Japan, to help build water/sanitation infrastructure, and reuse more of their limited water vs. Dumping it out to sea.

    The "indirect potable reuse" concept in San Diego was loudly and widely promoted a few months ago, but apparently not yet funded. While the proposal makes sense, no one has produced a financial plan to make it a reality.

    Related: when will cities begin promoting wider use of graywater for outdoor landscape irrigation, and make the permitting process as quick and inexpensive as possible?

    + Why not require all future home construction to offer (not mandate) graywater, with subsidies for those who opt in? Time after time, consumers choose these options, knowing water will only get more expensive, and early adopters of conservation methods realize the highest long term savings.

    So: be water wise San Diego policy makers. There are many examples to emulate, from Baja to Irvine.

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    Yes, Ry, good article. 

    Funny though to see Lori Saldana making comments about "the insanity of our water policies" relating to this article when she was all too willing to lend her then Assembly member signature to a letter supporting the desal plant (along with the rest of the local state office electeds). And for the record, another feather in her cap is helping to kill a proposed border wastewater treatment plant in Mexico (Bajagua) because it was "unnecessary" due to efforts of the Japanese, NADbank, and BECC  to build infrastructure that would clean up the TJ River sewage issues.... And of course, ten years later, the problem hasn't measurably changed.

    And finally, to be clear, we still have no idea exactly which ratepayers nor how much they will pay for the desalinated water. If the cost is borne by every ratepayer in the region (though some will get no benefit from it), then yes, each household will pay $5-7. However, if the water agencies that purchase treated water pay for this treated water (i.e. not the bulk of the City of SD ratepayers), then we're looking at significantly higher costs to those ratepayers. Sure would've been nice to have this issue resolved before committing to the "take or pay" contract, eh?