There's More to Drought-Proofing Than Water Mandates

Opinion

There's More to Drought-Proofing Than Water Mandates

Extreme mandates aren’t the only way to achieve water savings. The Water Authority has worked to increase water-use efficiency statewide and to ensure a diverse, drought-proof supply of water.

As the regional water supplier, the San Diego County Water Authority is responsible for providing reliable, long-term water supplies to support the region’s 3.3 million people and its $222 billion economy, rain or shine.

The public demands it, and we have delivered using a two-fold strategy: reducing demand through conservation and water-use efficiency, and securing a diversified water supply portfolio and regional water infrastructure that meets our needs day in and day out.

We appreciate Coastkeeper’s focus on beaches and bays, but its recent commentary about water management is incomplete at best by only focusing on draconian water conservation measures.

At the Water Authority, we take a different view. Water management involves developing drought-resilient supplies, maintaining robust infrastructure, promoting long-term water-use efficiency and – in extraordinary times – mandating water-use reductions.

Let’s start with making the most of every drop, since that’s where we began 25 years ago coming out of another serious drought. Since then, few places in California can match our region’s record of accomplishment and advocacy to improve water-use efficiency. Per capita potable water use declined nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.

In contrast to Coastkeeper’s assertion that meaningful water savings can only be realized through extreme mandates, we achieved this through numerous strategies, including legislation to increase water-use efficiency statewide. One landmark Water Authority-sponsored bill – SB 1224 of 1991 – required that toilets sold or installed use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, a standard adopted nationally in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The Water Authority also supported successful legislation to require water metering and volumetric pricing statewide, establish statewide water conservation targets and develop water-efficient landscape ordinances across California.

In addition, the Water Authority works with its 24 member agencies and other partners to offer programs under the WaterSmart brand (developed by the Water Authority) that improve water-use efficiency for residential and commercial users as a way of life in the San Diego region. These programs and incentives have included rebates on highly efficient toilets and turf replacement, free home water-use audits and classes that help homeowners design and install low-water landscapes.

This summer we’re rolling out a new campaign to promote WaterSmart living every day no matter the weather. We also have joined with the Surfrider Foundation and others to launch an initiative designed to transform more urban landscapes into mini watersheds that incorporate climate-appropriate plants, storm water capture and other features to achieve multiple environmental benefits.

One result of our collective efforts is that the San Diego region was on pace to beat the state’s 2009 legislative mandate to reduce per capita water use 20 percent by 2020 even before state-ordered water-use reductions started in 2015. Then, we beat those emergency mandates after the Water Authority and its member agencies deployed a suite of resources and reminders to help the region respond to the state’s call for extraordinary conservation. Water use dropped by 22 percent during the state’s emergency regulation period, far better than the state’s regional target of 13 percent.

But as the regional water provider, our charge is to assure that we don’t live in a perpetual state of emergency. Over the past decade, our region has invested more than $2 billion in drought-resilient supplies, including the largest seawater desalination plant in the nation and landmark conservation-and-transfer agreements precisely to avoid the kind of situation that we faced in 1991.

That’s when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California presented us with a real and imminent water crisis by cutting our supplies by 31 percent. No one who remembers that period of actual water shortages wants to go through that again, and we work every day to maintain a diversified and drought-resilient portfolio of water supplies to support our economy and quality of life.

The region’s residents and businesses should benefit from our significant investments in water supply reliability. That’s why the Water Authority advocated for the state to take a balanced approach to water management by accounting for supplies and demands instead of simply ordering emergency conservation across the board, including in areas where no water supply emergency exists.

Thankfully, state regulators agreed that effective, long-term water management is much more than just mandating cuts, and they issued new rules for how water suppliers must forecast supply reliability over three more dry years. Due to our region’s investments, our projections show that we pass the state’s “stress test” without needing to resort to water-use mandates.

Every San Diego County resident should celebrate these accomplishments by renewing our collective commitment to continue improving water-use efficiency and maintaining a drought-resilient water supply portfolio that serves our region for generations to come.

Mark Weston is chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors. He lives in Poway.

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