GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Is San Diego’s drought permanent?

Posted by George J Janczyn on June 22, 2010

[update: Frye hopes to have this item on the City Council Docket by October]

San Diego City Councilperson Donna Frye has proposed an ordinance that would make the city’s drought-level water use restrictions permanent. The measure is currently before the Community Planners Committee which is gathering stakeholders’ input before it goes to the full Council.

One of those stakeholders, Navajo Community Planners, a city neighborhood advisory group, met in Del Cerro yesterday where board members were asked to vote their position on the proposed ordinance. Disappointingly, a large majority voted to oppose it. Discussion lasted just a few minutes with only a couple of members briefly expressing support for the ordinance.

The vote appeared to be based mostly on personal interest, not on the facts behind San Diego’s water supply. Most everyone was ready to vote in opposition without comment, although one member said she’s been using water sparingly long enough and she doesn’t want to continue using water “as if we’re in a drought.” Another member declared that the drought is over, nothing to worry about now. So that was that.

Perhaps part of the problem with the proposed ordinance is its basis in what is perceived as a temporary drought condition. But California’s years-long drought isn’t the main reason for San Diego’s water insufficiency and there will be future droughts, perhaps worse, and other significant considerations also govern the amount of water San Diego can import.

The City of San Diego imports about 90% of its water from hundreds of miles away under incredibly complex legal agreements. San Diego (indeed, all of Southern California) is struggling to cope with permanent cutbacks in the amount of water it can import from the Colorado River, having taken more than its share for many years when Nevada and Arizona were not yet taking their full allocation of water. We still haven’t gotten used to that.

Then there are the cutbacks in water from Northern California. Drought conditions certainly contributed to the cutbacks, but legal restrictions on pumping from the Delta because of environmental requirements are an equally significant cause of reduced water deliveries to the south.

The fact is that laws, contracts, and agreements can supply San Diego with plentiful water; and laws, contracts, and agreements can be changed to limit our supply of water. This will always be the case; there are no permanent guarantees.

Another consideration is the scale of extremely complicated infrastructure required to make delivery of water possible over such long distances. Any number of things can go wrong that could cut supplies quickly and dramatically. The recent magnitude 7.2 earthquake near Calexico caused considerable damage to canals and pipelines in that region, cutting water supplies to many. That could easily happen closer to home with a real possibility that canals and pipelines supplying our water could be seriously damaged. Or a major earthquake farther north could damage or destroy levees in the Delta and flood the entire area with seawater, in which case a cutoff of water to Southern California would certainly be long-term. With a cutoff of imported water, what do we do?

Cutoffs to our imported water supply would require us to rely entirely on our local reservoirs. Over the years our water managers have struggled to expand reservoir capacity in an attempt to create enough storage to give us a six-month emergency supply, but especially in the case of a Delta catastrophe, a cutoff could last much longer than that.

When we find ourselves relying on our emergency reserves, we’ll be under more severe water use restrictions than we’ve had so far, and it will be much harder on us if we are accustomed to habitually using water “as if there’s no drought.”

There’s yet another factor we’re all aware of but seem to push to the back of our minds: increasing demand due to population growth and development. That is a condition that does not change quickly and it slowly and surely reduces our available supply.

All of the points I’ve raised above are good reasons for us to permanently adjust our water use. The drought restrictions we’ve been under for the last year have been pretty easy to handle and the water conserved translates into more water in the reservoirs in case of emergency. It was easy to do because we cut back on unnecessary or wasteful use. Normal life hasn’t really been disrupted.

We could refer to the proposed ordinance as a “permanent drought restriction ordinance” or we could call it something like “living within our means ordinance” or “scarce water supply ordinance” but to the question “is San Diego’s drought permanent?” the answer is, for all practical purposes, yes.

So it’s best we continue the modest conservation we’ve been doing, and further, we should more actively support the development of new water resources like the Indirect Potable Reuse/Reservoir Augmentation Demonstration Project.

[update: I just received word from the Public Utilities Department that they are renaming the project to Water Purification Demonstration Project for publicity purposes. The original name will still be used for city council business.]

There shouldn’t be any question about how to vote on Frye’s proposed ordinance. Why in the world would anyone support a return to wasteful water use?


10 Responses to “Is San Diego’s drought permanent?”

  1. John Pilch said

    I am a member of the Navajo Community Planners, Inc. Board and voted in favor of opposing making the Level 2 Drought Conditions permanent. The blog made no mention of my comments that making the conditions permanent removed any flexibility for change in the future. While I agree that we should all conserve water and am a member of the 20-gallon Challenge Club and conserve water, especially for irrigation, I disagree with the permanency being pursued. Given the comments by Mayor Sanders that San Diegans are conserving at 11%, we should keep the Level 2 Conditions in place until and unless the drought can be shown to be over. Further, the blogger uses only a few inane comments by Board members that favor his position, but presented nothing on the opposite side of the issue. BTW, the discussion took more than just a few minutes as indicated above and the vote was 14-0 in opposition to the permanency of the Level 2 Conditions. The local politicos are doing little to spread the use of recycled water from the North City plant and should focus on getting more purple pipe into the system or construct more mini purple pipe units throughout the city. Perhaps some action on their part would have resulted in a different vote.

  2. George said


    To tell the truth, your voice was so quiet from where I sat that I couldn’t hear a thing you said. Anyway, the planning group was just an anecdote to accompany the larger point I was making.

  3. Burt Freeman said

    George outlined the factors that make Southern California water supply both uncertain and expensive. In the event of a catastrophic interruption of that supply we would have to make do with the small amount of local and, potentially, 91,000 a/f of emergency water storage being created by the Water Authority. Please note that energency storage has reduced capacity when the reservoirs are not full, as is currently the case.

    We can all endorse the program for intelligent and conservative use of water in order to reduce the demand side of the water equation. It seems very reasonable to continue the “level 2” use regulations for the interim. But nothing in this world is permanent; why pretend that it is?

    George also puts in a plug for IPR and labels it as new water supply; clearly, it isn’t supply at all, but a way of reducing demand. If true supplies were cut off, IPR would be too. The issue with IPR is cost/benefit and engineering feasibility. Truely new supply needs sources of reliable new water; too bad we have few aquifers, but we have lots of ocean.

  4. George said


    You’re right that I’m stretching things to call IPR new water, but to the extent that we have water to use, any potable water recovered via IPR gets added to the reservoir (unlike conservation which avoids taking water in the first place although it is commonly considered an additive in supply projections) so in a sense IPR is new.

  5. George said

    Although the following quote from On the Public Record is in the context of climate change, I like how it also applies to our own circumstances (the entire article is worthwhile):

    The end of narcissism is always trying; no one wants to become aware of limits and the consequences of our actions on things around us. I’ve said for a while that for privileged westerners, this will be one of the main costs of climate change induced scarcity, that we will all have to start thinking like the poorer people we are becoming. It seems like a minor cost, but everyone will pay it.

  6. crowdiff said

    According to the SDCWD there is plenty of water. In fact, enough for another million more folks. Which is great news for all the large developers looking to upzone and take the huge government created windfalls associated with increased densities (and no the “mitigation” costs are nowhere near the extra value created by the increases in density… and they aren’t making developers mitigate the impact on water demand… because there is plenty of water).

    Don’t believe me watch the SANDAG video here:


    this commentary written by a former planner here:

  7. crowdiff said


    There is no actual effort in San Diego to reduce the aggregate demand. There is an effort to reduce individual demand, sure, but that will be quickly offset by increased population density. So why are we giving up our orchards and gardens in the name of conservation?

    People should be allowed to build on their land and execute their development rights. Well connected developers should not be given upzones that result in an increase in aggregate demand. The upzones should be contingent upon conditioning the upzone on the developer finding new supply or limiting the demand of the upzone. There would need to be strong recourse for any agreements with the developers. Good luck in this town.

  8. crowdiff said


    You wrote: Why in the world would anyone support a return to wasteful water use?

    Do you consider use, consumption, the same as waste?

  9. Burt Freeman said


    So IPR goes first into a reservoir (for various optional reasons) before being sent (at some expense) to the filtration plant. There is now a reduced demand and less imported water is bought. So what is so different from conservation (reducing demand) in which less imported water is bought?

    Like conservation (drip irrigation, Xeriscape, let the plants die, dig up the garden) and greywater and fewer showers, IPR is a way to reduce demand!

  10. George said

    Crowdiff: No.

    Burt: as far as reservoir water being treated “at some expense” is concerned, that’s not a new expense due to IPR. The raw imported water in San Vicente Reservoir has always gone to a treatment plant.

    Bottom line: I think IPR should be a higher priority in the public’s mind, but in no way does that mean I consider conservation or desalination strategically less important.

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