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Archive for the ‘Sweetwater Authority’ Category

Legal setback for Sweetwater Authority groundwater desalination project

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 9, 2011

The Sweetwater Authority’s plan to construct five additional wells south of the Sweetwater River in the San Diego Formation as part of its project to expand the Richard A. Reynolds Desalination Facility has hit a legal roadblock. In a ruling on the City of San Diego’s lawsuit challenging certification of Sweetwater’s Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), Judge Ronald S. Prager agreed with some of the objections raised by San Diego.

According to the court’s Minute Order, four issues were subject to review: 1) whether Sweetwater complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in approving the project and certifying the FEIR, 2) whether the FEIR contained an adequate project description re. brine discharge point, 3) cumulative impacts, and 4) whether the FEIR includes a reasonable range of project alternatives or discusses feasible mitigation measures.

On issues 1 and 2 the judge denied San Diego’s contentions, ruling in favor of Sweetwater.

On issues 3 and 4 the judge agreed with San Diego that Sweetwater did not take into consideration the cumulative impacts of any particular past, present, or probable future projects, and that the proposed mitigation and monitoring are inadequate.

While the judgment has not yet been made official, it will be based on the minute order, according to Glenn Spitzer, one of the attorneys working on the case for the San Diego City Attorney (click here for a copy of the June 28, 2011 Minute Order).

The foregoing represented Phase I of what is called a “bifurcated” trial. In addition to the CEQA issues, San Diego had also challenged Sweetwater’s water rights in the San Diego Formation. The water rights question will be addressed in a Phase II portion of the trial. A resolution on the water rights issue could take a couple of years, according to Mr. Spitzer.

I wasn’t able to get comments from San Diego or Sweetwater officials, but the issue is on the closed agenda for next Wednesday’s July 13, 2011 Sweetwater Authority Board Meeting.

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A sweet water resource but there’s some salt in the mix

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 8, 2011

On average, San Diego County imports a sobering 80% of its water supply from hundreds of miles away in Northern California and the Colorado River. That figure varies though, depending on which of the 24 member agencies of the San Diego County Water Authority you’re looking at.

Take the Sweetwater Authority. If you look at a map of the Sweetwater service area sandwiched as it is between the City of San Diego on the north and the Otay Water District to the south, you might be surprised it can make do with only 41% imports. What’s the secret?

Sweetwater’s service area includes the western and central portions of the City of Chula Vista, all of the City of National City, and unincorporated areas of the County of San Diego (Bonita). But in a long sliver from the northeast flows the namesake river that’s responsible for much of the liquid wealth.

Illustration courtesy of Sweetwater Authority

For starters, Sweetwater Authority commands the surface runoff from the 230 square mile Sweetwater River watershed, beginning at Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, about a 50-mile drive from Chula Vista. The entire watershed is fully appropriated to the Sweetwater Authority. Sweetwater also owns and operates two reservoirs in the watershed, Loveland Reservoir, and Sweetwater Reservoir, which together have capacity for over 53,000 acre feet.


Next, the Sweetwater Authority sits above productive groundwater aquifers. Its National City wells on the Sweetwater River Basin Alluvial Aquifer can supply up to 2 million gallons per day (gpd) of potable water, and additional wells drawing brackish water from the adjacent San Diego Formation aquifer are treated in a desalination facility with a capacity of 4 million gallons per day (gpd).

Looking to increase local storage capacity, Sweetwater Authority and the City of San Diego are cooperating on a proposed four reservoir intertie that could effectively allow them to share an additional 100,000 acre feet of storage without increasing reservoir size, through shared “load balancing” (my term). Some of the extra water could come from local runoff that individual reservoirs might otherwise be forced to spill during peak rainfall conditions.

As for future water requirements in the service area, the Sweetwater Authority’s 2010 Urban Water Management Plan looks forward to relative stability:

“Due to widespread conservation efforts, demands within Sweetwater’s service area have decreased over the past 25 years. Several changes in demographics are anticipated to increase water use in the future…This transition from undeveloped and formerly commercial to residential properties is anticipated to result in an increase in overall water demands within the service area. However, as new buildings replace existing buildings, water efficiency standards for toilets, showerheads, faucets, and urinals, as well as associated changes in outdoor irrigation practices to more “California friendly” landscapes, will cause the per capita water usage to decrease.”

Reverse-osmosis trains inside the facility.

There’s one uncertainty, though: a planned expansion of the Richard Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility.
“The Desalination Facility commenced operation in January 2000. The facility was designed to extract groundwater from four alluvial wells and five deep San Diego Formation wells, located on the north side of the Sweetwater River. A sixth San Diego Formation well was constructed in 2006. The Desalination Facility treats brackish groundwater using reverse osmosis (R/O) technology. The Desalination Facility was initially designed to produce 4.0 MGD of drinking water; however, it was constructed with space to accommodate an expansion to produce up to 8 MGD.” (2010 Sweetwater Urban Water Management Plan)

Empty pods in center would allow three more reverse-osmosis trains for a total of six.

One brackish water wellhead is just outside the door to the desalination facility.


As planned, Sweetwater’s Board did develop a plan to drill five additional San Diego Formation wells and increase capacity in the desalination facility. It certified a final Environmental Impact Report and approval for the well project last year, Feb 24, 2010.

An obstacle

The City of San Diego promptly filed a lawsuit March 26, 2010, challenging Sweetwater’s certification of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and approval of the project. San Diego complained that its concerns about groundwater depletion/overdraft in the San Diego Formation, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, brine discharge, and other issues were rejected or ignored by Sweetwater.

Meanwhile it was discovered that Sweetwater’s Findings and Facts in Support of Findings had not been included on the CD distributing the EIR. The oversight meant the Board would need to again adopt the Findings and Facts and reapprove the project. This was done at the Oct 27, 2010 Board meeting.

Following this turn of events, San Diego filed a second lawsuit in order to challenge the reapproved project, Dec 9, 2010.

San Diego’s second lawsuit went further than just challenging the new EIR certification and project reapproval. It also asserted that San Diego holds Pueblo water rights to all water within the boundaries of the Pueblo, that the San Diego Formation aquifer underlies parts of the Pueblo, and that the proposed wells would tap the San Diego Formation. The City therefore asked the court for “a declaration regarding its rights to the San Diego Formation vis-a-vis Sweetwater.”

Because of overlap between the two lawsuits, the Court decided to consolidate the two cases on Dec 21, 2010.

San Diego probably feels it has no choice but to press a challenge. Presently San Diego imports 85-90% of its water. According to its Long Range Water Resources Plan (LRWRP) 2002-2030, “By 2030, the City’s reliance on imported water could be as low as 57% if most of the alternative resources options available to the City were implemented.” San Diego is investigating a number of groundwater possibilities. However, as the City’s LRWRP notes, the San Diego Formation “does not appear to recharge naturally at a useful rate.” It also observes “there could also be potential interjurisdictional and water rights issues regarding the City’s use of the basins because they extend beyond the boundaries of the City’s overlaying land.” The City’s lawsuit certainly speaks to that point.

For now, things have been quiet. At Superior Court the only thing pending is a Status Conference scheduled for Aug 12, 2011 in Dept 71, Richard S. Prager presiding.

[late word: although it wasn’t in the court record when I reviewed it last week, I just heard that there was a preliminary decision in June…that the judge agreed that there are several problems with the EIR. If correct, this could mean back to the drawing board for Sweetwater. I’ll post an update tomorrow.]


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San Diego-Sweetwater intertie could boost local reservoir storage by 100,000 acre-feet of water

Posted by George J Janczyn on April 18, 2011

Since the end of California’s severe 1987-92 drought it has taken a 1993 Army Corps of Engineers reconnaissance study, U.S. Senate and House legislative support from Rep. Duncan Hunter (Sr.), Rep. Susan Davis, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Proposition 50 grant via the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, and negotiations between Sweetwater Authority, the City of San Diego, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — plus another major drought — just to reach this stage.

This stage is a proposal for a pre-feasibility study of a four-reservoir intertie between the City of San Diego and Sweetwater Authority systems.

The proposal will be presented today (Apr 18) at the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) [agenda] and Wednesday (April 20) at the Natural Resources and Culture Committee [agenda] where support will be sought in bringing it to the San Diego City Council. If full Council approval is obtained an agreement will then be executed by the City of San Diego, Sweetwater Authority, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

As described in a San Diego Integrated Regional Water Management document:

“Connecting the San Vicente, El Capitan, Loveland, and Murray Reservoirs would create an enhanced and integrated reservoir system to more efficiently use the reservoirs and increase accessibility to approximately 100,000 acre-feet of surface storage without creating new reservoirs or new storage capacity. The environmental effects of the future conveyance system would be minimal because each reservoir has been in place since the 1940s or earlier, and reservoir footprints would not increase. The Sweetwater Authority is serving as the lead agency for the regional intertie project.”

[Update: at the IROC presentation it was announced that the lead agency has been changed from Sweetwater to San Diego]

Since that report was written, of course, one reservoir footprint is increasing due to the San Vicente Dam Raise Project currently underway that will give it a more significant role within the potential intertie system.

As things are now, overall reservoir capacity is underutilized. To give one example, San Diego’s El Capitan reservoir (110,120 AF) is rarely full because its small imported water supply connection has very limited ability to supplement local runoff. An intertie connection would facilitate more optimal reservoir levels.

[I’ve since learned that another reason El Capitan water levels often appear to be low is that its catchment area produces the greatest amount of runoff of all the reservoirs in the San Diego area, so the city intentionally keeps water levels low there in order to capture the maximum amount of water during wet years and not lose any to spillway overflow].

Further south, Sweetwater’s Loveland Reservoir (25,225 AF) relies solely on watershed runoff which is usually not enough to keep it filled. An intertie would allow adding more water during drier times. On the rare occasions that very wet seasons such as we recently experienced result in spillway overflow, excess runoff at Loveland could be diverted to the larger El Capitan or San Vicente reservoirs instead of being lost.

A bay in the San Vicente Reservoir. Water cascades down the fill chute from the San Diego Aqueduct tunnel portal. Water level has been drawn down while the dam raise project is underway.

San Diego’s much smaller Murray reservoir (4684 AF) was included because of its Alvarado Water Treatment Plant supplying a large part of the city.

The shared connections would permit more water overall to be stored in local reservoirs. That translates into increased reliability in the event of a cutoff of imported supplies due to disaster or other problem. The 1993 Army Corps of Engineers reconnaissance study of San Diego’s water supply (not available online*) also estimates that 23% of the total benefits from an intertie system would be from increased flood control.

Because an intertie system would be an immensely expensive and complicated undertaking, the pre-feasibility study would carry out “an appraisal investigation to determine the prudence of a full-scale feasibility study for the proposed intertie system” according to the Army Corps study.

(A subsequent Army Corps Executive Summary of Lessons Learned from the California Drought (1987-92) says one confirmed lesson is that “local and regional interconnections between water supply systems are effective and flexible options against severe water shortages.”)

If the pre-feasibility study recommends it, then a full feasibility study could be performed as a phase 2 project.

Funding for the pre-feasibility study will be shared between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ($344,332), state grant funding from Proposition 50 ($112,832), the City of San Diego ($171,500), and the Sweetwater Authority ($60,000) for a total of $688,664.


* Thanks to Marguerite S. Strand, Assistant General Manager of Sweetwater Authority for allowing me to examine the Army Corps reconnaissance study and answering my questions.


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San Diego files second lawsuit in groundwater dispute with Sweetwater Authority

Posted by George J Janczyn on December 21, 2010

The City of San Diego’s ongoing legal dispute over Sweetwater Authority’s project to expand groundwater pumping from the San Diego Formation aquifer has escalated with the filing of a second lawsuit.

The City’s first lawsuit, filed March 26, 2010, challenged Sweetwater’s certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and project approval (for background and a copy of that lawsuit see my October 28 report as updated December 8). The City alleged that its formally stated concerns about groundwater depletion/overdraft in the San Diego Formation, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, brine discharge, and other issues were rejected or ignored by Sweetwater.

Subsequently, after some procedural errors in the approval process were discovered, Sweetwater Authority revisited its decision and again approved the project on November 10 (the U-T reported on that in this report).

San Diego’s newest lawsuit filed December 9 again challenges Sweetwater’s EIR certification and seeks to set aside Sweetwater’s November 10 action reaffirming project approval.

Significantly, going further, the new lawsuit also seeks the court’s declaration of San Diego’s Pueblo water rights in the San Diego Formation. Specifically, it asks:

For a declaration that the City was at the commencement of this action and now is the owner in fee simple of the prior and paramount right to the use of all the water of the San Diego Formation underlying the former Pueblo of San Diego, including all waters tributary thereto whether beneath the Pueblo or not, for the use of the City and of its inhabitants for all purposes and that Respondent Sweetwater and all other respondents have not and no one or more of them have any estate, right, title or interest in or to said waters, or any part thereof, or in the use of the same, or any right to take or use said waters, or any part thereof, save in subordination and subject to said prior and paramount right of the City.

Here is a copy of the new lawsuit:


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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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