Like newspapers facing economic facts, San Diego is facing water facts.
For years now, the news industry has searched for a way to profit (or survive) in the digital environment created by the Internet and still be able to produce high-quality journalism. The financial model that sustained print-only newspapers no longer works today.
Clay Shirky, a well-known analyst on the problem, worries that newspapers are irreplaceable for accountability journalism and hopes they’ll continue performing that function on the Internet but he doesn’t think they’ll ever be able to return to the old model they enjoyed. He doubts that fee-based news (“paywalls”) will work except possibly in certain specialized areas where information is jealously guarded, such as finance. Rather than continue searching for a way to replicate their economic model in a digital age, he says, newspapers need to adapt to the ways of the web by finding a new balance through “vast and varied experimentation” (see his insightful presentation “Internet Issues Facing Newspapers” at Harvard’s Kennedy School). Others have cited organizations such as ProPublica and Voice of San Diego as examples of worthwhile efforts to produce high-quality journalism in the new environment.
Similarly, our relationship with water is changing. Our old assumptions are being challenged. It is becoming more and more obvious that our supply of water has a definite limit in general and also that for whatever reason (e.g., climate change, Delta environmental issues), our supply of imported water could well be reduced in the future.
Certainly we’ve responded in many ways. We’ve negotiated agreements to buy additional water from farmers and others, we’ve increased voluntary conservation, we’re looking at possible new groundwater resources, we’re considering (sort of) using prices to influence water use, we’re recycling, we’re exploring Indirect Potable Reuse, we’re installing a desalination plant, we’re enlarging the San Vicente Dam. Despite these measures, as long as there is unrestrained growth in our demand for this finite resource we obviously can’t expect a good outcome. And growth is one thing we haven’t dealt with sufficiently in response to the situation.
San Diego’s pro-development position on growth has only softened somewhat. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) projects that the region will have 1.2 million additional residents, for a total population of 4.4 million by the year 2050.
In January 2010, SANDAG’s website had a Housing section listed on their sidebar, where they stated that “SANDAG is working to eliminate barriers to development…[which] may include complex development entitlement and permitting processes, construction defect litigation, and development standards that do not reflect the goal of providing more housing.”
Web page in Jan 2010. Note the Housing sidebar includes Funding and Incentives.
Their tone has changed somewhat now. That housing sidebar of their website is now incorporated in their Land Use and Regional Growth page, and the above quotation no longer appears. Instead, they say they’ll work to “manage our population growth, preserve our environment, and sustain our economic prosperity.”
Housing sidebar is now under Land Use along with Sustainable Communities and other like headings
And in a rare departure from its pro-development endeavors, SANDAG recently denied a permit for a proposed 2,632-unit housing development in the North County. Water availability was just one consideration for that decision, but we’ll need more actions like that in the future.
The City of San Diego has worked to increase its water independence and reduce consumption, although it still gives businesses special programs and discounts.
The Guaranteed Water For Industry Program enables some water customers to become “exempt” from potential mandatory water conservation measures adopted by the City. After certification, such firms are placed on a list of preferred customers who will not be forced to reduce their consumption of potable or reclaimed water during a drought (“water warning”) situation. It applies to all industrial firms located in an “Optimized Zone” which currently includes the communities of University, Mira Mesa, Scripps Miramar Ranch, and Miramar Ranch North.
* Provides a guaranteed supply of potable and reclaimed water for irrigation, cooling, research, product development, and production activities during drought conditions.
* Provides ongoing cost savings to businesses through discounted rates for reclaimed water usage (.80/HCF, currently a 50 percent discount).
There’s also a Business & Industry Incentive Program. In order to “improve the business climate of the city,” this program gives businesses a 40 percent reduction in water capacity fees and a 60 percent reduction in sewer capacity fees (Council Policy 900-12).
Both of these programs are ripe for reconsideration in view of the growth problems we’re facing.
April 16 update: Since publishing this story, I was told by a representative from the San Diego Water Department that their web pages contain incorrect information:
First, the Guaranteed Water for Industry Program no longer has any bearing on the price of reclaimed water. As things now stand, the discounted rate of $0.80/HCF applies to ALL buyers of reclaimed water. Here’s the updated flyer for the program.
Second, the fee reductions indicated in the Business & Industry Incentive Program were invalidated by a Supreme Court ruling and the City has not authorized any fee reductions under this program since 2007.
Third, the exemption from drought water conservation rules now extends to ALL users of reclaimed water–it is no longer a benefit of the program.
As author Robert Glennon observes “Our existing supplies are stretched to the limit, yet demographers expect the U.S. population to grow by 120 million by midcentury…To understand the depth of the water crisis, consider that more than thirty-five of the lower forty-eight states are fighting with their neighbors over water” (from Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, Island Press, 2009).
In addressing its water future, San Diego has been doing almost everything that’s been thought of. However, its entire water pricing system could use a complete overhaul with an eye towards incentives to conserve; and, San Diego has to redouble its resolve in confronting powerful forces for growth and expansion, because given the size of our population, even significant restraints could take decades before there is a visible reduction in the growth rate. It’s good to see that SANDAG is possibly reducing its aggressive promotion of development, but that’s not enough.
Just as newspapers need to face the realities of the digital world, San Diego needs to adapt to the realities of water. In his presentation, Shirky draws a parallel with the control of ideas, saying the news media ultimately cannot succeed in “attempting to treat an infinite good as if it were a finite good.” With water, it’s the same thing in reverse with a twist: even though water is an infinite (recirculating) good, we should be (but haven’t been) treating it as a finite good. Shirky said news needs to find a good balance. With water, well, they say it always seeks its own level.