When it comes to wasting water amid historic drought, Californians are good at pointing fingers. Last month, criticism was showered on Hollywood’s elite, including Sylvester Stallone, Kim Kardashian and Kevin Hart, who were accused of using water excessively. Some celebrity households consumed thousands of gallons of water per day during particularly dry times, bolstering Southern California’s reputation for recklessly indulging in big lawns, pools and shiny, clean cars. But given the bad rap that Southern California gets, is the Bay Area really that much better at stewarding its water?
Aug. 11, 2022 – Sandra L. Kerl, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, issued the following statement in response to the water supply strategy released today by Gov. Newsom.
“Gov. Newsom has shown remarkable leadership dealing with extreme drought conditions, and his new strategy to improve California’s water resilience is another important step to protect the state’s economy and quality of life. The governor’s approach aligns closely with the Water Authority’s 30-year strategy that combines new supplies, infrastructure upgrades and conservation.
“While conservation has become a way of life in San Diego County, it’s clear that we cannot conserve our way out of the more frequent severe droughts afflicting the arid West. Both here and across the state, we must continue making strategic investments in supply reliability. We support state efforts to promote long-term thinking and the development of infrastructure to increase our capacity for water storage, water production, and water distribution. Those efforts are already well underway in the San Diego region, where our member agencies are developing repurification plants that extend our supplies by treating wastewater to drinking water standards.
“We applaud Gov. Newsom and the state for continued coordination and consideration of the unique hydrology of California’s different communities as they address long-term water supplies and the aridification of the West. We also welcome former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the governor’s water leadership team. His experience and know-how will be critical to rapidly deploying solutions that are so urgently needed statewide and securing federal funds for that work.
“As we collectively work to improve California’s water supply, state and federal agencies have an opportunity and a responsibility to help pay for needed upgrades to ensure that safe and reliable water supplies are available and affordable for every Californian.”
— Sandra L. Kerl, General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority
California Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a new water strategy on Thursday that plans for a future with 10% less water and shifts the emphasis from conservation to capturing more water that otherwise flows out to sea.
Climate change has contributed to more severe drought but has also set the stage for more intense flooding when rain does fall, as was demonstrated last week in California’s Death Valley, one of the hottest, driest parts of the United States.
Some of San Diego’s neighbors to the north are facing tough water restrictions. Others are in dispute over whether to move forward with a big, expensive water project. Meanwhile, levels at some huge reservoirs have never been so low.
The impacts of the yearslong drought on water supplies are growing across the state, as is the dilemma about how to address them.
But not in the San Diego region. That’s been the case for years, but it’s becoming more apparent as the state appears to be taking a more nuanced approach toward water restrictions. Rather than statewide mandatory cuts, California leaders are considering taking into account the status of local supplies.
Neighborhoods across northern San Diego will be disrupted by tunneling and pipeline construction this summer when work kicks into high gear on Pure Water, the largest infrastructure project in city history.
With contracts totaling more than $1 billion recently awarded for eight of the 10 major projects that make up Pure Water’s first phase, city officials say nearly the entire project will be under construction starting in late summer or early fall.
In the rolling hills around San Diego and its suburbs, the rumble of bulldozers and the whine of power saws fill the air as a slew of new homes and apartments rise up. The region is booming, its population growing at a rate of about 1 percent a year.
This, in spite of the fact that Southern California, along with much of the West, is in the midst of what experts call a megadrought that some believe may not be a temporary, one-off occurrence, but a recurring event or even a climate change-driven permanent “aridification” of the West. The drought is so bad that last year federal officials ordered cuts to water provided to the region by the Colorado River for the first time in history.
Water officials in San Diego, though, say they are not worried. “We have sufficient supplies now and in the future,” said Sandra Kerl, general manager of the San Diego Water Authority. “We recently did a stress test and we are good until 2045” and even beyond.
More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, but only 0.5% it is actually accessible to us. Removing salt from ocean water, known as desalination, can create drinkable water during a time of extreme drought and soaring demand. So what’s the problem?
San Diego’s top water managers have pleaded for months with state officials in Sacramento not to adopt mandatory drought restrictions similar to those imposed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015.
For now, it appears their concerns have been heeded. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently laid out a pathway for curtailing water use that gives local jurisdictions significant flexibility over how hard to push residents to conserve.
Every year at this time, water agencies launch the long and thoughtful process of setting rates for the next year. It’s always complex and challenging – and 2022 is an even more challenging year due to larger economic uncertainties that are compounded by inflation.
The good news is that the San Diego County Water Authority strategically invested in supply reliability in decades past when costs and inflation were lower – and we are reaping the benefits of those investments during the worst megadrought in 1,200 years.
Further, the Water Authority’s locally controlled sources have cost-control measures built into the contracts to help guard against sudden price increases.
Carlsbad State Beach is a Southern California idyll. Palm trees adorn the cliffs above the sand, and surfers paddle out for the waves. From the beach it is impossible to tell that a huge desalination plant not half a mile away is sucking in seawater to produce 50 million gallons of new drinking water each day. It is the largest in America—for now. Soon it may share that title with a proposed sister plant 60 miles (97km) north in Huntington Beach. But only if that one is built.
Poseidon Water, the developer that also built the Carlsbad plant, first proposed the Huntington Beach facility in the 1990s. But it has taken the company more than two decades to persuade Californians of the plant’s necessity.