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?