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Environment Report: The Wet Weather Is in San Diego’s DNA

Rain in downtown San Diego early 2019. / Photo by Ry Rivard

San Diego has been gloomy — cold, cloudy and rainy — pretty much since Christmas Day.

Communities in North County — Vista and Ramona — just had their coldest February on record, according to the National Weather Service.

So far, it’s rained three inches more than normal for this time of year in San Diego.

“People who are doing construction are sending me text messages saying, ‘When is it going to stop?’” said Alex Tardy, a weather service meteorologist.

While the climate is changing, all this, it turns out, is just winter.

“It’s special, but it’s just not unprecedented,” said Daniel Cayan, a climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The city of San Diego’s February was the coldest since 2008 but only the 55th coldest on record. The record was set way back in 1894. And heavy rains through the end of last month didn’t even break the top 25 wettest years to date.

Cayan said it is in the genetics of Southern California to go back and forth between wet and dry. California as a whole has historically bounced from mega droughts across some decades to extraordinarily wet periods that cause flooding in others.

There have been some exceptional moments this winter, but some of the gloom may seem more severe than it really is — a matter of perception — since we’ve just gone through a relatively warm and dry period that did bear the fingerprints of climate change.

“People probably forget that, but your body doesn’t forget that,” Tardy said.

Tardy is tracking the various extremes. Last year, he saw an eye-popping 117-degree day in Ramona, which was the community’s hottest day on record.

Every year from 2014 to 2018 was one of the hottest on record for San Diego and 2011-2016 was the driest period on record for the southern coast, according to figures Tardy has compiled. And, even though this year is off to a cold start, he expects the year could end up being another hot one, if coastal waters remain warm [1].

All the rain across the state will be good for water supplies and for generating hydroelectric power [2], though San Diego gets most of its water from far away mountains, not local rainfall [3].

As of Feb. 13, there was less water in local reservoirs than there was at that time last year [4], according to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Water Chief Stays on Payroll Through 2020

Maureen Stapleton, the longtime head of the San Diego County Water Authority, is expected to remain on the agency’s payroll through July 2020, earning $26,000 a month and receiving other employee benefits, including insurance. That’s under the terms of a deal between the agency and Stapleton [5], who recently announced her retirement after 23 years.

During then, the Water Authority will be led by one or more acting general managers. The current acting general manager is Sandra Kerl, who had been Stapleton’s deputy general manager since 2009.

Board Chairman Jim Madaffer said Stapleton has health challenges that would require her to take an extended absence. The deal also eliminated a “potential 18 months of severance in her current contract,” according to the agency. The Water Authority said Stapleton will be using her unused vacation days and sick leave. According to the terms of Stapleton’s contract, she was allowed to bank up to 150 days of vacation and accumulate sick days without limitation.

I profiled Stapleton last year [6]. She helped the region secure its own supplies of water, making her a respected civic leader.

But amid a water war she helped launch and its bitter, personal disputes, observers began to openly question whether Stapleton would be able to end her career on a good note. Last year, one of the Water Authority’s board members said an intoxicated Stapleton came up to him at an industry event and accused him of sleeping with an employee at a rival water agency [7]. There’s no evidence such an affair happened.

The Water Authority paid for an investigation of Stapleton’s behavior but never made it public. In August, during Stapleton’s annual performance review, the agency’s board of directors voted not to give Stapleton a raise or bonus.

Governor Eyes Utility Regulator Shakeup

Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering an overhaul of the California Public Utilities Commission and replacing its current leader, Michael Picker, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday [8]. The commission oversees the state’s powerful private power companies. In that capacity, the CPUC has taken heat in recent years, particularly for decisions made during the regime of former Commission President Michael Peevey [9].

But Picker has also faced criticism for his handling of recent energy issues, particularly the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric, which he said the state should not have let happen. Those comments were viewed as a regulator’s attempt to bailout a company he was supposed to be regulating [10]. Lately, a judge has taken PG&E to task for not doing enough to prevent wildfires [11], which is something the CPUC should have had a handle on.

Picker has also been notable because of his skepticism of government-run “community choice” energy agencies, like the one the city of San Diego is planning to form in coming months. He’s been vocal in suggesting these agencies could cause another energy crisis [12], in part because the CPUC doesn’t have as much control over them as it does companies like PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The CPUC has five commissioners appointed by the governor who make the decisions, and more than 900 staff members who help them. The CPUC regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit and passenger transportation companies, including Uber and moving companies. Most Californians get their energy from privately owned gas and power companies but their water from public agencies, which the CPUC does not regulate.

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