Four Lessons From the Front Lines of California's Water Wars - Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Four Lessons From the Front Lines of California's Water Wars

From mandatory drought restrictions to billions of dollars’ worth of drought-proofing projects, San Diego and the entire West has for years had a complicated relationship with its water – and it’s not going to get any easier or any cheaper any time soon.

There isn’t enough water in San Diego to go around. / Photo by Ry Rivard

Four and a half years ago, during the height of the California drought, I started writing about water.

Gov. Jerry Brown had just ordered mandatory reductions for cities across the state. He told the public we must use 25 percent less water, a somewhat arbitrary number that came out of one of the many meetings going on at the time.

Outside of California, the general misimpression was that our taps would run dry and we’d move back to Oklahoma, a futile experiment in settling this state ended not by earthquake or fire, but by thirst.

In reality, Californians became more conscious about their water habits. Some people drought-shamed one another: Your showers are too long, your grass is too green, your car isn’t dirty enough.

In the end, we used less water.

And, then, the drought was over, at least officially. Though some farmers suffered during the drought and water officials began eyeing expensive ways to drought-proof themselves in the future, the overall economy remained intact and we’re still here.

My first story for Voice of San Diego was about where the water we use comes from. This, which will be among my last, is about what I learned since then. I’m off to New York to cover water issues there.

Our Water Supply Is Fragile

The Colorado River as it divides Arizona from California / Photo by Ry Rivard

Were San Diego on its own, there wouldn’t be enough water to go around. Only about 5 percent of urban San Diego’s water comes from local rainfall, an almost meaningless amount that wouldn’t support our region’s 3 million residents.

So, decades ago, during an era where the country built big things, like the Hoover Dam, and before modern environmental regulations existed, Southern Californians began building lots of ways to import water. Los Angeles built an aqueduct to take water that runs off the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Then Los Angeles, a bunch of its suburbs and, eventually San Diego, paid to tap the Colorado River.

As we grew, most of our water came from the Colorado and it still does, even though we’re nowhere near the river itself.

A few decades later, San Diego helped pay to get its straw in a second cup to get water that runs off the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. That water has helped balance the region’s supply, in part because more water is more water and in part because it’s fresher than the Colorado, which can be too salty for sensitive crops like avocados.

But the Colorado has always been San Diego’s lifeline, and what a lifeline it is. The river flows from Wyoming to Mexico, where it used to end in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Now, it’s sucked up before it reaches its natural end, leaving a vast denuded wasteland, a symbol of the destructive power of ingenuity. Customers on both sides of Tijuana-San Diego border use water from the Colorado, which arrives in separate systems, one for Americans, one for Mexicans, though there’s a pipeline that allows the U.S. to send water to Mexico in the case of an emergency.

The Colorado, though, has long been a mirage of a river. It was divided up among seven states and Mexico following a wet era, so officials gave everyone more water than the river carries, a stupefying miscalculation that has never been formally corrected. Now, likely because of climate change, it carries less. And because of climate change, it will carry even less in years to come.

The river was divided up based on a first-come, first-served rights system that generally gave earlier, rural settlers better “rights” to the river than cities and suburbs where tens of millions of people now live.

Since the early days of farming, California, Arizona, Mexico and Colorado have grown substantially, and so have their cities. Officials have struggled to figure out how to deal with this and have settled, for now, on a series of legal workarounds that usually end up with users who have money – like the wealthy water agencies in Southern California, Las Vegas and Denver – paying other people around the Colorado to use less water.

There is a persistent belief among big city water officials that, eventually, they can buy off the farmers or that laws will change so that farmers must use less, saving more for cities.

San Diego water officials successfully did such a deal about 15 years ago when they agreed to lease top-notch water rights held by the Imperial Irrigation District, which serves a vast inland farming valley between here and Arizona. The deal ended up in court, like so many issues, and some farmers still think they didn’t get a good enough deal, but it’s a landmark deal that may be replicated in years to come.

Several nonprofits are focused on making such deals happen, hoping that farmers will cut back their water use in exchange for cash. There are also companies that want to make money from these rights.

Some farmers just want to farm and aren’t interested. For others, these can be easy money – they’re getting paid not to farm, after all. Others may just want to wait until a worse drought comes along, cities get more desperate and the price for their rights goes up.

There are also lingering concerns about the Sierra water, which is also becoming less reliable because of climate change and increasingly demanding regulations meant to protect dying fish trying to swim in emptied rivers.

There’s (Probably) Enough, If You Can Treat It

Project engineer Chris Stiedemann looks at the secondary pre-treatment area of the Carlsbad desalination plant. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

This was one of the stranger things to discover during the middle of the drought: Because of stubborn water politics, pipeline physics, unexpectedly low demand and the restrictive contract terms, regional water officials actually wound up with too much water – so they dumped costly drinking water into a lake near Chula Vista during the drought.

The amount of water dumped was small, but it could be an odd taste of things to come. While all the natural systems that provide water to San Diego are stressed, there was also a spending spree following a drought in the early-1990s. The Imperial deal was part of that, and so was the deal with a company that runs a plant in Carlsbad that makes ocean water drinkable.

Essentially, San Diego water officials decided to buy their way out of future droughts.

What they didn’t foresee was the extraordinary conservation efforts that people would take during a drought, which meant that as supplies rose, demand was falling, or at least failing to grow as quickly as anybody expected.

Now, the city of San Diego and several suburban cities are working on projects to make drinking water out of sewage, politely known as wastewater. This will create yet more water.

There are also ideas to do more to capture stormwater runoff – that’s a fancy word for rainfall that runs through cities – but, while Los Angeles is looking at that seriously, San Diego officials seem to be focused on recycling wastewater.

At one point, one consultant to San Diego’s regional water agency put out a study warning that Southern California could soon have too much water if all these planned projects happen.

There’s another theory, though, which is that cities can never really have too much water.

Not only have there been so-called mega droughts in the West – even before climate change – but there are all kinds of things that can happen to our supplies. Earthquakes could cut off our access to water from distant mountains. Environmental regulations can decrease the water available to cities. Infrastructure could also fail for entirely human reasons – regulators could forbid officials from filling reservoirs created by old shaky dams or treatment plants could break down, like the desalination plant has from time to time.

Water Is Going to Cost More

Water comes to San Diego from far away, like the Sierra Nevada mountains. / Photo by Ry Rivard

Water in San Diego is some of the most expensive in the country. That, in and of itself, isn’t that shocking. We live far away from most major water supplies.

Rain and snow are free.

After that, everything else costs money.

Pipelines cost money, dam repairs cost money, paying off farmers costs money, treating water costs money, upgrading pipes costs money and building things like water recycling and desalination plants costs a lot of money.

That hasn’t stopped several major projects from touting themselves as long-term money-savers. That’s how the desalination plant was sold. Officials certainly said it would increase rates but would eventually become less expensive than importing water, which would become more expensive. So far, that hasn’t happened. A recent analysis by two North County water agencies that want to leave the regional San Diego water agency argue that water here could cost families hundreds more a year because of major projects meant to increase reliability.

To their credit, most water officials are open about this: Reliability is costly in an area without much rain.

That hasn’t stopped the city from talking about how its recycled water will eventually be cheaper than imported water – several decades from now.

It seems mostly safe to say that new water is more expensive water, because if any water was cheap and easy, it’s probably already taken.

Water Is Personal

The Salton Sea is beginning to dry up. / Photo by Ry Rivard

After Gov. Gavin Newsom took office, his new secretary for natural resources’ first trip out of Sacramento was to the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley.

To get there, Wade Crowfoot, who fortunately had been stuck with a Ford F-150 at the San Diego airport Enterprise Rent-A-Car, drove through an unexpected late-night snowstorm. He said he must have passed hundreds of cars stuck on a snowy Interstate 8 before he dropped into the Imperial Valley where, the next day, it was 75 and sunny.

The trip meant something to Imperial officials who hold up the dying sea as the legacy of unmet expectations. As less water runs to Imperial from the Colorado, less water runs into the sea, causing dusty parts of exposed lake bottom to blow away, mixing with the valley’s already bad air.

It’s a minor thing, but water politics is often retail politics. There have been dramatic, often quiet falling-outs between longtime water officials, prompting tiffs that turn into lawsuits that could affect who gets water and who does not.

The long-running legal dispute between the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which delivers water here from Northern California and the Colorado, has created a generation of bad blood, an intense dislike that helped sully the end of a long-time Water Authority general manager’s career.

Often, though, disputes are patched over. The Colorado is run not by politicians but a group of water officials from across the West who meet in Las Vegas at the end of each year, usually at Caesars Palace. There, often over drinks – and sometimes over perhaps too many – the future of the West is talked about, in not so many words.

Who gets water and who does not isn’t just something for water officials to worry about, though. It’s something for all of us to learn more about because a deal that sends water one place rather than another can guarantee a future for one place over another. There are still people in the Owens Valley – the swath of land Los Angeles dried out to get water for itself from the eastern Sierra – who bitterly lament the city folks who came out and exported the water.

Water in the West has rarely been cheap or easy and it’s not going to get any easier or any cheaper. There will be more winners and more losers, but the biggest losers will be those who don’t pay attention.

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