GrokSurf's San Diego

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

On the proposed overhaul of San Diego’s water policy

Posted by George J Janczyn on March 3, 2011

At yesterday’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee meeting, Councilmember Sherri Lightner unveiled her proposal for an overhaul of San Diego water policy. Click here to see the draft policy.

I addressed the committee during the public comments period. Here’s what I had to share:

Good afternoon. My name is George Janczyn. I publish a San Diego water blog and I would like to share some comments on the overhaul of San Diego’s water policy.

First, although we’ve experienced a fairly wet rainy season, the policy should not succumb to popular pressure to ease water use restrictions. Despite our efforts to develop more local supplies like desalination, Indirect Potable Reuse, and groundwater resources, the fact is that San Diego will always get most of its water by importing it. But our northern California supply is being reduced because of limits on pumping from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta; and our current Colorado River allocation is threatened because demand by the lower basin states exceeds what the river can sustain, even if one leaves climate change out of the equation. Eventually there could be reductions in water from the Colorado River as well.

As demand for water grows in San Diego, providing a reliable supply will become more challenging.

San Diegans need to develop a mindset for living in an arid region and discard the notion that strict conservation is needed only periodically when there’s a severe drought. San Diego needs a policy of more rigorous conservation practices…and permanently, not just when there’s a dry year.

Second, the policy should be more assertive in supporting potable reuse for high-quality and reliable local water. Despite the fact that the previous city councils strongly promoted a potable reuse policy, some committee votes more recently have actually hindered development on that front and the new proposed water policy only half-heartedly offers this:

“Support indirect potable reuse if the Water Purification Demonstration Project is successful.”

We need to look forward on the use of IPR.

The original plan was to have full-scale IPR reservoir augmentation that will produce only 16 million gallons per day. What the committee should do now is look into the feasibility of increasing that amount to a meaningful number, say 50 million gallons per day using Direct Potable Reuse, so that it would be on a par with the output of the upcoming Poseidon desalination plant.

Planning for an eventual 50 million gallons per day for San Vicente reservoir augmentation would require study. In order to accommodate that much capacity, the use of San Vicente Reservoir as a six-month environmental buffer might not be possible. While the reservoir could still be used for storage of the purified reclaimed water, the higher volume of water would mean more turnover in the reservoir so the time period would have to be shorter – in essence the indirect potable reuse aspect would cross over into being Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) which would raise new questions about safeguards.

On that topic, note that California Senate Bill 918 (Pavley) would require the State Department of Public Health, in consultation with the State Water Resources Control Board, to investigate the feasibility of developing water recycling criteria for DPR. More immediately, I’ve learned the WateReuse Research Foundation might soon support a study on DPR feasibility. The NR&C committee should consider asking the Public Utilities Department to support or coordinate with the Foundation on such research.

In any case, San Diego water policy should more firmly promote Potable Reuse as an integral component of our water strategy.

Thank you.

See also:

4 Responses to “On the proposed overhaul of San Diego’s water policy”

  1. Burton Freeman said

    As we have come to expect, George, you’ve provided a concise and well presented argument in favor of more IPR (and DPR). And, as usual, while I certainly agree with your exposition of our water problems, I am prompted to set out some cautions about your water reuse proposal.

    The current IPR Phase 3, based on NC-3 of the 2005 water reuse study, is problematic with respect to both cost and volume of water available. Both of these factors need to be carefully investigated and presented to us as water users.

    All current information points to Potable Reuse, as proposed in Phase 3, as being expensive compared, for example, with imported water costs. More cost information has been promised, but not for some time to come.

    Regarding volume, we both agree that the current Phase 3 proposal would provide only a small fraction of the potable water need at the time of possible completion of an IPR system. To increase the amount of water would require augmentation of the volume of feedwater, or the abandonment of the purple pipe reuse water reuse program. Neither of these options is desirable for reasons either of cost or of the denial of current beneficial water reuse.

    Clearly, the above is just an outline of the argument that could be set out in much greater detail.

    Finally, the current IPR experiment is deficient in understanding the role of water sequestration in San Vicente. Modelling is fun, but we will not know the actual performance of the reservoir unter after Phase 2 has been built and operated.

    • I thought I made pretty clear that a feasibility study should be a precursor to any proposal for DPR.

      With cost, as the Equinox Center report from last July indicates (, the estimated cost of indirect potable is a little less than the cost of desalination. I think both of them will end up costing about the same.

      Overall, money is definitely a concern, especially now that Carl DeMaio’s mayoral campaign is stirring public sentiment over price of water by pitching a water rate reduction of 15% with a five-year freeze, which I think would introduce dysfunction in water infrastructure maintenance and development.

      • Traci said

        Of course potable reuse costs more than imported water. It must be treated before entering the reservoir, and again, after leaving. But there will only be more people, and the same amount of water. So upstream will take more and there will be less for us here at the end of the line. What do you not understand about needing to use what we already have?

        As for desal, entire plants will have to be built (which will suit certain companies and contractors just fine, I’m sure. There’s always good money to be made off government contracts.), regulatory and environmental quagmires navigated and entirely new infrastructure put into place.

        If we could just get people to understand that lawns as we know them; vast expanses of useless (do you ever see kids playing on them anymore?), unsustainable grass, are a luxury we can no longer afford in a semi-arid environment, we probably wouldn’t even need this discussion. I personally find grass boring now and would much rather see a more visually engaging xeriscape instead.

        And of course money is a concern. But shortsighted (although I agree with many of his proposals) politicians making promises to an uneducated public that is either unwilling or unable to see any farther than the next paycheck, won’t help. How can we possibly reduce rates 15% for five years and even begin to come close to the mere maintenance our infrastructure will demand, let alone developing new?

        Water is essential and until only recently, quite unappreciated by the general population. Why are we not willing to allocate a fraction of the money we so handily would spend on something as unnecessary as the latest game or 4G phone? Have we completely lost sight of things that are truly important? What happened to politicians convincing us that the best choice to make would be one that benefits not only the environment, but future generations as well? Have we become so selfish and shallow as to no longer be able to see the “big picture?” Come on people, we can do better than this. It may take some sacrifice and a change in what we consider aesthetically pleasing, but we should do it now, while it’s still a choice. Because at this rate, pretty soon it won’t be. It’ll be a necessity and people will be moaning and whining like they didn’t even see it coming. And how lame will that be?

  2. Bobbi said

    Much of the groundwater in San Diego is polluted or too isolated to take advantage of. During dry weather ground water could be pumped to local sewer mains that are tributary to sewage treatment plants that convert water for reuse. This would increase the supply of water to the head works of the sewer plants and take advantage of a currently untapped water source and with little infrastructure costs. Our plants are underutilized both at night and in dry weather. The only restriction would be the level of pollution in the water and the sewage water can only be diluted so there is still sufficient nitrate to keep the plant bacteria healthy.

    The City could also give information to property owners that are near a clean ground water table and provide estimates of what it would cost to install a well to encourage them to get off of the potable system. The costs of the well could also be paid for by developers seeking water offsets.

    Right now we could build a wetland mitigation river that could receive blended re-purified water and raw CWA water. It only needs to be located above a reservoir and be long enough to meet live stream discharge requirements. Once established the wetland mitigation could be sold to other agencies for their mitigation needs. The project could be a money maker for the City if the manmade river was located on city land (no land acquisition costs). It could also provide needed recreation opportunities.

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