- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

Environment Report: San Diego’s in Hot Water

Image via Shutterstock

Anyone who has been to the ocean lately knows the water is unusually warm for San Diego.

It’s actually a record-setting warm. Last week, the water off La Jolla [1] was 78.8 degrees, according to measurements taken by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography [2].

How hot is that? That’s nine degrees above the typical temperature for this time of year. The water in August is, on average, 69.8 degrees.

In 1931, the year the old warm water record was set in La Jolla, researchers saw temperatures climb to 78.4 degrees.

“Like other climate change trends, background warming enhances the probability and magnitude of extreme events,” one Scripps oceanographer, Reinhard Flick, said in a statement.

The water may keep getting hotter, too.

What does this mean for life out there? Since the 1970s [3], warmer water has generally been causing a decline in the health of kelp forests [4]. Like a forest of trees, which birds need, these forests of kelp are home to lots of marine life, like sea urchins [5] and fish, including baby fish.

Ed Parnell, a Scripps scientist [6] who studies coastal marine life, said warm water is bad for kelp for a variety of reasons. First, warming reduces the amount of nutrients available, in part because the deeper, nutrient-rich colder water doesn’t mix with the water [7] closer to the surface, which keeps food away from kelp. The heat itself also puts stress on kelp, causing them essentially shed and deteriorate [8].

kelp
In summer 2017, kelp had all but disappeared from the coastal waters off Point Loma. / Clip courtesy of Ed Parnell

Right now, the record-setting warm water is mostly at the surface, so water about 30 feet down is still over 20 degrees cooler, but Parnell is worried about an El Niño next year, which could heat all the water even more.

“If this continues for a much longer period, you’ll see much bigger losses in the kelp, again,” he said.

Community Choice Energy Advocates’ Mixed Week

A plan considered last week by utility regulators could be a big win for cities across California that have or want to start their own government-run agencies to buy and sell power. A draft decision by the California Public Utilities Commission may make power more affordable [9] for customers of these public agencies, but there’s ongoing debate over whether the fees on departing customers will blow up the whole idea.

Also last week, one of those “community choice” agencies, Desert Community Energy in the Coachella Valley, said it was delaying its launch, according to the NBC affiliate in Palm Springs [10].

In a statement, the agency blamed high natural gas prices and lower rates from Southern California Edison [11], the company that currently serves the customers that Desert Community Energy planned to serve.

“Under these conditions, the [Desert Community Energy] board could not guarantee lower rates than Southern California Edison, so we are delaying our start date,” the agency’s chairman said in the statement.

Colin Cushnie, an Edison official, told utility regulators last week that his company could continue providing power to the customers who were expected to leave. But he compared the situation to the energy crisis of the early 2000s, when the state’s three major power companies faced new competition but then ended up having to figure out how to serve customers who were supposed to get their power from elsewhere.

Preparing for Seemingly Inevitable Wildfires

When the County Board of Supervisors approved a new housing development in North County late last month, the question wasn’t whether the hundreds of new homes would be threatened by wildfire, but whether the first responders would be able to evacuate people before they are burned to death [12].

In the end, the board decided the new Harmony Grove development came with a good enough evacuation plan that it makes sense to put hundreds of new homes out there [13].

Kevin Barnard, a current Harmony Grove resident, disagreed and pointed to the dozen-plus fires that have struck the area since 1980. He pointed to a study paid for by the opponents of the new development that found catastrophic losses are not only probable but expected.

“If the roads don’t have the capacity, you’re not going to get the vehicles out, you’re not going to get the people out in time,” Barnard told the board.

But authorities said they had reviewed the evacuation plans and were sure they could get people out of the way of a fire before they were consumed by it.

Dave Brown, a captain in the county Sheriff’s Department [14], said some of the concern about evacuations came from people who didn’t understand how well past evacuations worked.

“It doesn’t always make sense to every person in their car, so you’re going to hear some of those stories of how long they had to wait, but nobody died getting out,” he told the supervisors.

An Imperial Water Empire

In San Diego, when we think about water we may think about the rivers of Northern California and the Colorado River, which is where we get most of it from. We might not think of all the people and politics between us and that water [16].

Sammy Roth, an energy and environment reporter at the Desert Sun, digs into one of those intermediaries, Mike Abatti, a powerful farmer in Imperial County who exerts enormous influence over the Imperial Irrigation District [17], an agency that controls more of the Colorado than the states of Nevada and Arizona. Abatti himself uses about one in every 300 drops of the Colorado across his thousands of acres of farmland.

The story has some twists and turns: A judge aligned with Abatti mysteriously is assigned to a major case that Abatti brought.

But for San Diego readers, it’s worth noting the role of former city attorney Mike Aguirre, who is now an outside attorney for the Irrigation District. Aguirre has litigated on the agency’s behalf but also handled an internal investigation of procurement problems.