GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Groundwater dispute between San Diego and Sweetwater Authority

Posted by George J Janczyn on December 8, 2010

Is the City of San Diego’s environmental lawsuit against Sweetwater Authority actually more about asserting water rights in the San Diego Formation aquifer? The lawsuit alleges defects and procedural errors with the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), but a Sweetwater Authority representative told me San Diego is positioning itself to assert its pueblo water rights over the aquifer and perhaps lay claim to work already done by Sweetwater. The staffer made the remark in response to a question I asked during a recent open house at the Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility.

If you look at the City’s lawsuit, it does focus attention on the EIR and procedural issues — there’s no mention of pueblo water rights. However, there are definite allusions to claims on the water such as: “The City of San Diego is committed to managing its water rights and the groundwater resources within its jurisdiction…” and “…as an entity with water rights in the Formation, the City has a special interest in managing this important resource…” (page 2 of the lawsuit).

It’s true that San Diego has a “paramount right” to all water within the San Diego River watershed, including the groundwater, based on the City’s pueblo past (the Journal of San Diego History has this background on that business). The question, though, is what about the groundwater in the San Diego Formation aquifer? The issue is much murkier there.

The Sweetwater Authority has been drawing an average of 2,727 af/yr from six existing wells in the Formation since 1999, and now plans to install five additional wells to roughly double the take.

The San Diego Formation aquifer is bisected by four different drainage basins, so rights to its groundwater are hardly clear, and there’s relatively little that is known about how it behaves and is recharged. True, it has been the object of widespread study (see the USGS San Diego Hydrogeology web page and the County Water Authority’s San Diego Formation Aquifer Storage and Recovery studies). Legal claims and project ideas have been made, but the bottom line on the whole situation, as observed by Wes Danskin, Project Chief for the USGS San Diego Hydrogeology Project, is: “What I know is that the science is not well founded yet.”

Certainly any large-scale groundwater withdrawals should be based on thorough scientific understanding of the aquifer and San Diego’s lawsuit credibly addresses potential problems with increased pumping, including overdraft of the aquifer, land subsidence, seawater instrusion, and increased waste brine discharge from the desal plant going into storm drains and ultimately into San Diego Bay.

No doubt San Diego wants some of that Formation water for itself and increased withdrawal by Sweetwater threatens the remaining supply. The lawsuit states “Also, the City informed Sweetwater of a project it intends to construct within 4 to 5 years. Sweetwater chose to ignore this project as well.” For some reason the City seems reluctant to say what that is. When I sent email to PUD’s Arian Collins asking for the name of the specific project, he referred me to Eric Symons. Symons didn’t reply until a week later and then vaguely only to “confirm that it is the San Diego Formation Basin.” I’ve gotten no reply to my followup request to name the specific project.

One can try to guess which project, I suppose: here’s a general San Diego Formation Fact Sheet and a Mission Valley Basin Fact Sheet. The City also has an interest in drawing from groundwater below Balboa Park. However, the Mission Valley site is complicated by the groundwater contamination from the fuel tank farm near Qualcomm Stadium. As for beneath Balboa Park, it appears to be somewhat isolated from Formation groundwater flow so recharge would be a concern, according to Danskin.

Little is known about how the entire San Diego Formation aquifer recharges itself, but it should be safe to say the recharge capability is limited and large-scale withdrawals raise questions about sustainability.

Dec 8, 2010: A copy of San Diego’s complaint is reproduced below. Today I spoke with a clerk at Superior Court who said that Sweetwater has not yet filed a reply brief (the U-T article said today was the deadline for that), but that settlement negotiations are ongoing. A Status Conference has been scheduled for Dec 17. Meanwhile, the clerk also informed me that a NEW lawsuit will be filed on Dec 10, but it is not yet known what party will file that suit.


There’s another area I’ve been looking at that’s potentially linked to the San Diego Formation (it’s certainly in the San Diego River watershed), but it’s playing out a bit differently. The City has a pilot well located near the foot of the dam at El Capitan Reservoir to determine if seepage from the reservoir can be captured. Presumably that groundwater travels through El Monte Valley and is ultimately linked in some way with the San Diego Formation.

Presently many property owners in the El Monte Valley have their own wells drawing groundwater. Theoretically San Diego could exert its pueblo water rights against those wells but probably does not consider their use to be a problem.

As for the consequences of Helix Water District’s plan to develop a 5 mgd groundwater operation with its El Monte Valley IPR Project, I got this statement from Kate Breece, Public Affairs Manager at Helix Water District: The El Monte Valley Project would be a “put and take” project. We would have the right to any water we put into the basin, and we would take out no more than we put in. So, the City would not claim any of that water as belonging to the “watershed.” Our staff works with the City’s staff to make sure we keep them informed of our project.”


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