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Water Conservation Helps San Diego Regional Supply During Drought

Water conservation is a way of life in the San Diego region, whether during drought periods or wet years. While the region is in drought like much of the Southwest U.S., San Diego County is not experiencing a water shortage. That’s because the Helix Water District, and the other water utilities serving the region, have worked together for 25 years to conserve water and invest in new water resources.

The San Diego County Water Authority, its 24 member agencies, and the water ratepayers of San Diego County, have made investments to increase water supply reliability.

June 2021 was the hottest June on record in the U.S.

High temperatures make drought conditions worse. The hotter it is, the faster water evaporates from soil and transpires from plants. This is why urban landscapes, crops and forests dry out and the risk of wildfires increases. The map below shows all of the wildfires currently burning throughout the West.

Map from InciWeb

InciWeb map shows current fires burning across the U.S. West.

On July 8, Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency everywhere except Southern California

The Governor called for all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%, but only declared a drought emergency in the counties in red in the map below. That’s because communities in central and northern California are more likely to rely on a single river, creek or well for their water and are more vulnerable to drought. It’s drier in Southern California and water agencies have been developing multiple water resources to meet water supply needs for more than 100 years. Today, this approach helps protect the region against drought and water shortage.

Map from Cal Matters

On July 8, 2021, Governor Newsom extended his drought emergency declaration to include all 50 counties in central and northern California.

In the San Diego region, water utilities work together to develop water supply

Helix and other water utilities in San Diego depend on the San Diego County Water Authority to import water from the Colorado River and Northern California.  When residents and businesses pay their water bills, their water utility pays the Water Authority for the imported water they use. Then, all the water utilities meet at the Water Authority and decide how to invest that money in water resources. By pooling our money over the last 25 years, we invested $3 billion and developed projects no single utility could afford on its own.

San Diego County Water Authority board meeting photo from Water News Network

Board members from member agencies work together as the board of the San Diego County Water Authority.

San Diego residents use half the water they used in the 1990s

Residents and businesses in the region have reduced their water bills by installing water efficient plumbing fixtures, appliances, landscapes and irrigation, and have taken advantage of rebates to save money. Today, San Diego County residents use half the water they used in the 1990s. As a result, water utilities have been able to reduce the size and cost of new water projects. Conservation eases demand when there is a water shortage due to drought or emergencies.

Water efficient landscaping at The Water Conservation Garden

Water efficient landscaping at The Water Conservation Garden.

Water supply from the Colorado River

In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell up to 200,000 acre feet of water annually to the San Diego County Water Authority. Water used to irrigate crops was now available to San Diego homes and businesses, and just one acre foot of water can sustain up to four homes for a year. And, the Imperial Irrigation District has the most senior water rights on the Colorado River. If the Colorado River Basin states renegotiate how the river’s water is divided up, those senior water rights will help protect San Diego.

Colorado River photo from KUER Public Radio

Muddy Colorado River flowing through Utah.

Drought-proof water resources

In 2014, the Water Authority completed the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant to turn Pacific Ocean water into drinking water. It’s the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere. Now, we’re focused on turning recycled water into drinking water by using reverse osmosis, just like at the Carlsbad plant, and other advanced water treatment technology.

New water supply projects underway

Helix is working with Padre Dam Municipal Water District, the city of El Cajon and the county of San Diego on the East County Advanced Water Purification Program, and the cities of San Diego and Oceanside are developing “Pure Water” programs.

Reverse osmosis cannisters at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Photo from Poseidon Water

Reverse osmosis canister arrays at the Carlsbad Desalination

More space to store water

The more water we can store during a wet year, when a lot of rain and snow falls on California and the Colorado River Basin, the more water we have available in a dry year. Diamond Valley Lake, which Metropolitan Water District of Southern California filled in 2002, stores enough water for Southern California for six months. With the construction of Olivenhain Dam and the raising of San Vicente Dam, we have an additional six month water supply just for the San Diego region.

San Vicente Dam photo from the San Diego County Water Authority

San Vicente Dam.

(Editor’s note: The Helix Water District is one of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region.)

San Diego Gets State Funding for Ocean Beach Pier Repairs, Energy Storage, Pure Water Program

A windfall of state funding is coming to San Diego, including money for Ocean Beach Pier repairs, an energy-storage project at San Vicente Reservoir, and the city’s Pure Water program.

Money from California’s state budget, signed last week, will fund the series of San Diego projects and programs.

“The dollars that San Diego is receiving from the state will upgrade critical infrastructure, help us fight homelessness, ensure a reliable supply of clean water, enhance our arts and culture and much more,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said.

State Budget Earmarks Millions for Pure Water, OB Pier, Other San Diego Projects

San Diego leaders highlighted some major projects and programs Wednesday that will receive millions of dollars from California’s $262.6 billion budget, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last week.

“The dollars that San Diego is receiving from the state will upgrade critical infrastructure, help us fight homelessness, ensure a reliable supply of clean water, enhance our arts and culture and much more,” Mayor Todd Gloria said at a news conference held at Ocean Beach pier.

San Diego Is Relatively Drought-Proof – and Has Prices to Prove it

The 2021 California drought is as bad if not worse as the one in 2014, which endured for five long, dry years. As of Friday, 33 percent is in a state of “exceptional drought,” the most severe drought category given by the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

Drought-Safe San Diego-San Vicente Reservoir-Drought-Water Supply Portfolio

San Diego Region is Drought-Safe This Summer

The San Diego County Water Authority announced June 21 that the region is protected from drought impacts this summer, and through 2045, despite continued hot and dry conditions.

Statewide drought conditions are highlighting the value of regionally and locally controlled water supplies in San Diego County. No shortages or regional water-use mandates are in the forecast, the result of three decades of strategic investments that create an aquatic safety net for San Diego County’s $253 billion economy and quality of life for 3.3 million residents.

WaterSmart San Diego

At the same time, Water Authority Board Chair Gary Croucher asked residents to continue embracing water-use efficiency practices that have become part of the regional ethic. Simple but important steps include turning off the faucet while brushing teeth, fixing irrigation system leaks, and using hoses with automatic shut-off nozzles.

“Thank you San Diegans for everything you have done to make sure that we have enough water to meet the region’s needs now and for decades into the future,” said Croucher. “You have invested through your water bills and your water-smart practices, and those efforts are paying off in tangible ways. The key this summer is to stay water-smart.”

Drought-Safe, Supply Investments-Carlsbad Desalination Plant-drought

The San Diego region’s diversified water supply portfolio includes highly reliable, locally controlled and drought-proof supplies from the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Diversified water supply portfolio

Key government, agriculture, business, and science leaders joined Croucher in thanking residents for their efforts, encouraging continued water-use efficiency, and marking the region’s progress over the past 30 years.

In the early 1990s, the county’s economy was crippled by drought, suffering 13 straight months of 31% supply cutbacks from the Water Authority’s wholesale water provider, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which controlled almost all of San Diego County’s water.

Today, the picture is much different: The region’s diversified water supply portfolio includes highly reliable, locally controlled and drought-proof supplies from the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant and the nation’s largest conservation-and-transfer agreement, which provides high-priority, low-cost water from the Colorado River. The combination offers significant protection against droughts and other emergencies so that the Water Authority’s newly adopted 2020 Urban Water Management Plan shows San Diego County will continue to have sufficient water supplies through the 2045 planning horizon, even during multiple dry years.

Drought-Safe “for the long haul”

“There’s no way around it: Our region’s economy runs on water – brewing, tourism, biotech, defense, farming and so many other key pieces of our economic engine require safe, reliable water supplies to function,” said Jerry Sanders, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We look to the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies to provide the fundamental water resources that keep us strong – not just for today, but for the long-haul.”

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By 2035, Pure Water San Diego will provide nearly half of the City of San Diego’s water supply using proven water purification technology to clean recycled water and produce safe, high-quality drinking water. Photo: City of San Diego

Pure Water San Diego

The region’s multi-faceted water portfolio strategy includes local projects such as Pure Water San Diego, the next major increment of water supply for the county. The City of San Diego expects its project to start producing 30 million gallons per day of drinking water in the next few years. By 2035, Pure Water will provide nearly half of the City of San Diego’s water supply using proven water purification technology to clean recycled water and produce safe, high-quality drinking water.

“By helping reduce the impacts of statewide drought on our communities and ensuring supply reliability, Pure Water is an investment that will create a more sustainable future for all of us,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “Our changing climate is challenging us to develop new, creative solutions. Thanks to our long history of regional collaboration and innovation, we can say with confidence that San Diego is up to the test.”

Water Conservation-Drought-Water Supply Portfolio-WaterSmart

San Diego County ratepayers have conserved more than 1 million acre-feet of water over the past three decades, and per capita water use across the region has decreased nearly 50% since the devastating drought of the early 1990s. Residents have saved water by converting landscapes to drought-tolerant and native plants. Photo: Helix Water District

Regional water use cut by 50% since 1990s

San Diego County ratepayers have conserved more than 1 million acre-feet of water over the past three decades, and per capita water use across the region has decreased nearly 50% since the devastating drought of the early 1990s.

Widespread adoption of water-efficiency measures were not the only result of that drought. In fact, the biotech industry advocacy group Biocom California was founded in San Diego to help ensure that the Water Authority would never again risk the region’s economy by over-dependence on a single source of water. Today, Biocom California works on behalf of more than 1,400 members to drive public policy, build a network of industry leaders, create access to capital, introduce cutting-edge workforce development and STEM education programs, and create robust value-driven purchasing programs.

“Biocom California was founded on the issue of access to water – our members depend on reliable, constant access for sensitive research and manufacturing processes,” said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom California. “Water supply reliability and diversification in our region has given the life science industry a firm foundation and the confidence to grow and thrive.”

Agriculture industry makes “the most of every drop”

The San Diego region’s multibillion-dollar farming industry also has flourished thanks to a reliable water supply. Today, the county is among the most productive in the nation with more than 5,000 family farms, the most of any county in the United States. Innovative practices – including water-use efficiency measures – allow local farms to be productive by focusing on high-value crops such as ornamental trees and shrubs, bedding plants, succulents, and indoor plants.

“San Diego County farmers have done their part by investing heavily in water efficiency so that they can produce an amazing cornucopia of products,” said Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “Our members are stewards not just of the land, but of the water as well. They make the most of every drop through high-efficiency irrigation systems and other strategies.”

Climate Change and water supply

The changing climate means that San Diego County will need to continue to evolve to meet the water needs of the future through continued efficiency efforts, strategic investments, and scientific advances. That’s why the Water Authority and the City of San Diego are partnering with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego to better predict atmospheric rivers and improve water management before, during and after those seasonal storms. Scripps’ Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) last year launched the Water Affiliates Group, which brings together cutting-edge science and hands-on water industry experience to enhance reservoir operations in light of the changing climate.

Drought-atmospheric rivers-science-climate change

Scripps Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes reports that more atmospheric rivers have made landfall on the U.S. West Coast in the first four months of Water Year 2021 compared to Water Year 2020. Graphic: Scripps Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes.

“It is vital that the Water Authority, the City of San Diego and our other affiliates are helping to improve modeling in ways that will continue to produce practical, real-world benefits for water managers statewide,” said Margaret Leinen, vice chancellor for marine sciences at UC San Diego and director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “With continued research we can utilize the latest science to develop strategies for mitigating flood risk and increasing water resilience through improved reservoir management. This will aim to decrease the impact of dry years by improving forecasts that lead to capturing more water produced by atmospheric rivers. Applying science to action will help protect San Diego County and the rest of California from droughts, as California’s climate becomes increasingly volatile in the future.”

For more information about water supplies in the San Diego region, go to www.sdcwa.org/investments-protect-san-diego-region-from-drought/.

Drought-desalination-water supply portfolio

The Water Authority added desalinated seawater to its supply portfolio in 2015 with the start of commercial operations at the nation’s largest seawater desalination plant – the result of a public-private partnership in northern San Diego County. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Water Usage Down Sharply in San Diego, Shrinking City’s Reliance on Expensive Imported Supplies

San Diego’s vulnerability to water shortages and drought is shrinking significantly because residents and businesses are using less water and city officials are boosting the local supply.

A new city analysis shows local water use dropped sharply from 81.5 billion gallons in 2007 to about 57 billion gallons in 2020, even though the city’s population has grown about 1 percent per year over that time.

Pure Water Oceanside-New Virtual Video-Oceanside

Pure Water Oceanside’s New Virtual Reality Video

To celebrate Water Awareness Month in May and highlight the value of water, the City of Oceanside has unveiled its new virtual reality video tour. The 360-degree video shows the water recycling process that prepares water for Pure Water Oceanside. The advanced water purification project will create a new local source of high-quality drinking water that is clean, safe, drought-proof and environmentally sound.

The video provides an immersive 360-degree look at Oceanside’s San Luis Rey Water Reclamation Facility in anticipation of opening the first advanced purified water project in San Diego County. The water for the project will be sourced from the reclamation facility. The virtual 360-degree video allows viewers to engage and look all around by simply using a computer mouse or touch screen or moving their phones in order to see all around.

Virtual reality video is “educational resource”

Viewers who have a virtual headset for cell phones can take it one step further by “stepping into” the video much like a simulation. In June, the City of Oceanside will begin scheduling opportunities for schools and scouts to view the video using city-provided virtual reality goggles.

“As we enter into another dry summer, Water Awareness Month provides a reason to reflect on how valuable Oceanside’s investments in water supply reliability and water use efficiency are,” said Cari Dale, City of Oceanside water utilities director. “The 360-degree video is an educational video resource for the community to have a better understanding of the City’s efforts to create local sources of water including recycled and advanced purified water, which will provide up to 50% of the City’s water supply.

“Pure Water Oceanside and recycled water expansion projects are examples of how the City works efficiently to provide safe, local and sustainable water resources while keeping water rates among the lowest in the county for our residents and businesses,” she added.

Water recycling and reuse projects

Pure Water Oceanside is one of several potable water reuse or recycling projects under development in the San Diego region.

The East County Advanced Water Purification project is a collaborative partnership between the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, County of San Diego, City of El Cajon and the Helix Water District. Once operational, the East County AWP will provide up to 30% of East San Diego County’s drinking water demands, or almost 13,000 acre-feet of water per year, while eliminating the discharge of 15 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

Pure Water San Diego is a $5 billion project designed to generate 83 million gallons of water per day by 2035, nearly 50% of the City of San Diego’s water demand based on the new 2021 urban water management plan.

Drought safe and sustainable supply

The combination of Pure Water Oceanside with the City’s recycled water expansion project exemplifies the value the City of Oceanside places on water. The project will safeguard against drought, provide a local and sustainable source of water, and reduce the city’s dependence on increasingly expensive imported water from the Sacramento Bay Delta and the Colorado River.

Scheduled to be completed in 2022, Pure Water Oceanside will be the first operating advanced water purification facility in San Diego County. The $71 million project will use advanced technology to replicate and accelerate the natural recycling process to provide 3 to 5 million gallons per day to the City of Oceanside.

(Editor’s note: The City of Oceanside is one of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region.)

Water Reuse Projects Highlight Sustainable Building Week

Three potable water reuse or recycling projects under development in the San Diego region were highlighted this week during the San Diego Green Building Council’s inaugural “Sustainable Building Week San Diego.”

The Sustainable Building Week programs focused on sustainable practices and creating collaboration and networks among San Diego professionals involved with environmental stewardship and green building.

Pure Water San Diego is anticipated to provide 50% of the City of San Diego's water supply by 2035. Photo: Courtesy City of San Diego Water Reuse Progress

Water Reuse Projects Highlight Sustainable Building Week

Three potable water reuse or recycling projects under development in the San Diego region were highlighted this week during the San Diego Green Building Council’s inaugural “Sustainable Building Week San Diego.”

The Sustainable Building Week programs focused on sustainable practices and creating collaboration and networks among San Diego professionals involved with environmental stewardship and green building.

The panel discussion, “Potable Reuse: New Local Sources of High-Quality Drinking Water for San Diego County,” updated the development status and future benefits of three projects: Pure Water Oceanside, Pure Water San Diego, and the East County Advanced Water Purification program. Attendees learned how the technology works and how it reduces reliance on imported water, while increasing local supply.

Multiple benefits to the environment

Panelists provided the latest updates on Pure Water San Diego, Pure Water Oceanside, and the East County Advanced Water Project. Photo: Water Authority

Panelists provided the latest updates on Pure Water San Diego, Pure Water Oceanside, and the East County Advanced Water Purification program. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

“Potable reuse has multiple benefits, including sustainability and drought resilience,” said Lesley Dobalian, principal water resources specialist for the San Diego County Water Authority and the panel moderator.

Pure Water Oceanside

“Water supplies are subject to lots of vulnerabilities, including rising costs, energy consumption, natural disasters, and eco-system and environmental issues,” said Cari Dale, City of Oceanside water utilities director. “Pure Water Oceanside replicates and accelerates Nature’s natural recycling process.”

The City of Oceanside is working toward creating 50% of its water supply locally, including Pure Water Oceanside, by 2030.

Cari Dale, Water Utilities Director, City of Oceanside, explained to the viewers how the process works. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

East County AWP

Kyle Swanson, director of advanced water purification with the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, said the East County Advanced Water Purification project would recycle 15 million gallons of annual wastewater discharge into a resource. Currently, wastewater from East County travels 20 miles to be discharged into the San Diego metropolitan wastewater treatment system and eventually into the Pacific Ocean.

“Redistribution of this water would meet 30% of the demand for potable water in East County,” said Swanson. “It is sustainable, uninterruptable, and competitive in costs.”

The East County AWP will produce 30% of the region’s water supply. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Pure Water San Diego

Pure Water San Diego is the $5 billion project designed to generate 83 million gallons of water per day by 2035, nearly one-half of San Diego’s water demand based on the new 2021 urban water management plan.

“That’s pretty exciting, half our water supply is from this project,” said John Stufflebean, assistant director, City of San Diego Water Utilities Department.

Phase 1 will produce 30 million gallons of water per day by 2025; Phase 2 will deliver the remaining supply.

Potable reuse will provide a new source of safe, high quality drinking water in San Diego County. This local supply is sustainable, drought resilient, and benefits the environment. It will also help prepare the region for future droughts and a changing climate.

Drought-Water Supply Diversity-investments

Drought: Why Water Supply Diversity is Critical

Drought is back in California. Federal and state agencies are warning of potential water shortages in the months ahead. Because of investments made by the San Diego County Water Authority, its member agencies and the region’s water ratepayers, San Diego County is safe from the threat of multiyear droughts.

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in early April. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

The San Diego region relies far less on supplies from Northern California than in previous decades. A severe drought in the early 1990s forced the region to confront the fact that continuing to provide safe and reliable water demanded a diverse portfolio of supplies instead of near-total reliance on a single source.

“We have sufficient water supplies whether it’s a normal year, which means normal rainfall,” said Jeff Stephenson, water resources manager at the San Diego County Water Authority. “A single dry year. Or a period of five straight dry years. Under those scenarios we have more than sufficient water supplies to meet the needs of the region.”

Investments and planning pay off

Stephenson credits three decades of efforts by the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies to diversify water sources, including contracts for water transfers with the Imperial Irrigation District and the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, as well as the development of additional water storage capacity in the region.

There are also several water reuse or recycling projects in development throughout San Diego County. The region’s dependence on imported water supply will decrease as these local supply sources are developed and become operational.

Pure Water Oceanside-Potable Reuse-Sustainability Sustainble Building Week

Construction is underway for Pure Water Oceanside, one of three potable reuse or recycling projects in San Diego County that will reduce the need for imported water while creating a sustainable, local supply. Photo: City of Oceanside/Jeremy Kemp

Approximately 43,000 acre-feet of recycled water is expected to be reused within the Water Authority’s service area annually by 2025. As the new and expanded potable reuse plants come online, they are projected to produce more than 112,000 acre-feet per year of new drinking water supplies by 2045, enough to meet nearly 18% of the region’s future water demand.

“Our member agencies throughout the region have developed more local supplies, such as recycled water,” Stephenson said. “In addition, the member agencies are developing potable reuse projects, including the city of San Diego’s pure water program which comes online in the future, and all of those supplies really make the region much more able to withstand drought periods.”

Revised drought contingency plan

As a result of the persistent drought conditions, and in accordance with its permit for the long-term operation of the State Water Project, DWR has submitted a revised Drought Contingency Plan to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The plan provides updated hydrologic conditions and outlines areas of concern for the joint operations of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, water quality, and environmental impacts.

In late-March, the State Water Resources Control Board mailed approximately 40,000 notices to water right holders, warning of persisting dry conditions and asking them to plan for potential shortages. Officials said the warnings, a result of two years of below average precipitation and below average state reservoir levels, will prompt early action to help minimize short term drought impacts.

“Planting crops and other decisions that are dictated by water supply are made early in the year, so early warnings are vital,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Water Board’s Division of Water Rights. “These letters give water users time to prepare and help minimize the impacts of reduced supplies on businesses, farms and homes.”

The agency suggested in the letter that agricultural water users can implement practical actions now to improve their drought resilience, including reducing irrigated acreage, managing herd size, using innovative irrigation and diversifying water supply portfolios. Urban water users can conserve by putting in drought-resistant landscape, reducing outdoor irrigation and replacing older house fixtures and appliances with more efficient ones.

Increasing local supply sources

The San Diego County Water Authority and its member agencies continue to increase local supply sources and make investments to ensure a plentiful, safe, and reliable water supply for the region’s 3.3 million people and its $245 billion economy.

“Current conditions are a reminder of why the Water Authority and its member agencies have invested in locally controlled water sources and facilities such as dams and pipelines that can move water when and where it’s needed,” said the Water Authority’s Stephenson.

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The Carlsbad plant uses reverse osmosis to produce approximately 10 percent of the region’s water supply; it is a core supply regardless of weather conditions, and it is blended with water from other sources for regional distribution. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Ever since the drought of the early 1990s, the San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have been leading advocates for water-smart strategies such as low-flow toilets, low-water landscapes and other conservation tactics. One result is that per capita water use in the San Diego region is down by more than 50% over the past three decades.

Reservoirs-Drought-Water Supply Diversity-DWR

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in early April 2021. Graphic: California Department of Water Resources