GrokSurf's San Diego

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Posts Tagged ‘San Diego County Water Authority’

Dam problems at Lake Hodges won’t end soon

Posted by George J Janczyn on January 29, 2023

The dam at Lake Hodges Reservoir almost 10 years ago, in August 2013.

Emergency repair work on the damaged and deteriorated dam at Lake Hodges Reservoir that the City of San Diego started doing last year is expected to be completed by April 2023, but even after spending an estimated $14.3 million on repairs, the City will need to keep the reservoir level lowered indefinitely, according to a report presented at the January 26 board meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) by Eva Plajzer, SDCWA Director of Operations and Maintenance.

Because the dam’s risk factors will be excessive, even after repairs, the California Division of Safety of Dams requirement that the water level at Hodges should not exceed an elevation of 275 feet will apparently remain in effect (although the City of San Diego’s consultant recommends increasing the elevation limit to 280 feet). Normally, the reservoir’s water elevation would reach 315 feet if it were filled to capacity.

That means the City of San Diego will need to continue releasing excess water to the San Dieguito River in order to keep the Hodges reservoir level low enough, but according to SDCWA’s Plajzer, if we experience heavy rain again, like we recently had, runoff into the reservoir could be so great that it might not be possible to release water fast enough to prevent the water from rising above the 275 foot limit. That would potentially increase the risk of further damage to the dam or even a breach that would threaten people and structures downstream.

Plajzer said the quality of the released water is very poor and the downstream water agencies, San Dieguito Water District and the Santa Fe Irrigation District, are unable to treat and use the water, so the water will flow on to the ocean.

That’s bad enough, but there’s yet another problem:

The lower water level at Lake Hodges interferes with SDCWA’s ability to operate its pumped storage facilities located there. The pumped storage facilities, originally built at a cost of $200 million as part of SDCWA’s Emergency and Carryover Storage Project, connect Lake Hodges Reservoir (owned by the City of San Diego) to Olivenhain Reservoir (owned by SDCWA and the Olivenhain Municipal Water District) so that water can be moved between the two bodies of water for water storage purposes and for electricity generation.

During normal operations, water is pumped from Lake Hodges uphill to Olivenhain Reservoir for about 5 hours every day during periods of low energy demand, typically at night, when energy costs are lower. During daytime at peak hours, the flow is reversed, and the same amount of water is sent back downhill to Hodges through electric generators. This reverse flow generates 40MW of electricity which is sold to SDG&E at peak rates and provides on-demand power for up to 26,000 homes.

The problem is that the water intake system for the pumped storage facilities requires Lake Hodges water elevation to be 290 feet. Since the state has imposed a 275-foot limit, those facilities are therefore inoperable.

Diagram of SDCWA’s Lake Hodges Pumped Storage Facility

On top of SDCWA’s lost revenue of $3 million per year from the idled pumped storage electricity generation, it will be necessary to continue maintaining the idle facilities at a cost to SDCWA of another $3 million per year. It will also cost SDCWA an unspecified amount of money to maintain optimal water level at Olivenhain Reservoir with water transfers via a connection to the San Diego Aqueduct for as long as water from Lake Hodges is unreachable.

Plajzer also said that the pumped storage facilities are now operating under a “Force Majeure provision under the SDG&E Power Purchase Agreement.” According to Wikipedia, force majeure “…is a common clause in contracts which essentially frees both parties from legal liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties…prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.”

And indeed, the situation is nobody’s fault: we’re talking about a well worn century-old dam that needs to be replaced.

SDCWA Board members expressed hope that some way might be found to allow the pumped storage facilities to restart operations even with the restricted water level, either by building a new water intake system or perhaps with some kind of containment structure around the water intakes where the water level could be kept at a higher elevation. Even if some workaround would be feasible, it could take years to implement.

As for the impaired dam at Lake Hodges, it must be replaced at a preliminary estimated cost of $275 million. The San Diego Public Utilities Department envisions a 12-year process for that. Our local news outlets will likely continue covering developments on that front.




This story is based on the following agenda materials and the audio proceedings of SDCWA’s Engineering and Operations Committee at the January 26 board meeting.

The SDCWA Board January 26 meeting agenda and presentation materials:

The SDCWA brochure about the Lake Hodges Pumped Storage Facilities:


Posted in Energy, Water | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

San Diego water rates going forward

Posted by George J Janczyn on November 25, 2013

By now most San Diego water customers have heard that the City Council last Thursday approved water rate increases for the years 2014 and 2015 (Item-620 on the docket).


The main reason for the increase was that the price of imported water keeps going up and the Public Utilities Department (PUD), as we know, needs to purchase that high-priced water to supply over 80% of the city’s needs. PUD buys imported water from the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) which in turn buys its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and from the Imperial Irrigation District (IID).

Compared to price hike hearings in previous years, this time relatively few people were up in arms. Even though several of the 37 people who submitted protest slips at the meeting seemed quite indignant, many who spoke expressed disappointment and unhappiness but appeared resigned to the fact that PUD has little choice but to recover the price it pays for imported water. Even U-T San Diego, normally happy to throw gasoline on smouldering embers, refrained from inflammatory editorializing.

Still, there are some valid reasons for general dissatisfaction with the situation.

A seemingly abrupt and large price increase

In 2011 former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders directed PUD to absorb the higher price of imported water in 2012 and shield city customers from the rate increase. PUD managed this by cutting staff, creating new “efficiencies” in operations, and by drawing more water reserves that originated from local watersheds so that less imported water would need to be purchased.

In 2012 Sanders ordered PUD to continue absorbing higher imported water costs when imported water rates went up again for 2013.

For 2014 PUD was faced with serious financial and operational difficulties if forced to continue under the above constraints as the imported price continued to rise. Further, it appeared likely that the city’s credit rating could be downgraded as a result. Thus, the proposed rate increases.

At Thursday’s meeting before casting the only vote against the new rates, Councilmember Scott Sherman complained: “we’ve said all along that we’ve absorbed the rate increases on ratepayers for the last two years, but in this case we’re going back and trying to recover those rate increases” — as if to suggest that PUD absorbing the rate increase over the previous two years meant that in the future customers should never have to pay the true cost of imported water (or perhaps it was just political posturing).

In truth, Public Utilities did absorb the rate increases, to the tune of some $35 million in added water costs over those two years. But it should have been clear to all that by absorbing the rate increase for two years PUD was postponing the day when customers would have to pay the full price, not exempting customers from ever paying the real price.

PUD obviously cannot continue paying the full price for imported water as the price continues ever upwards while reselling it to city customers at below cost.

It’s wrong for Sherman and others to try to paint this situation as PUD covertly trying to recover the $35 million that it absorbed over 2012-2013.

Unfortunately it’s true that after being shielded from the rising price of imported water for two years, customers will feel the impact more acutely than if the price had incrementally increased in smaller steps over that period.

Reservoir storage impacted

PUD hasn’t publicized which reservoirs it has been drawing down as a result of the Sanders directive, but one can view the monthly report of reservoir storage published by SDCWA to see the general picture. In the city reservoirs that depend solely on local watershed and cannot be replenished with imported water (Barrett, El Capitan, Morena, Sutherland), storage levels are clearly low. Actually El Capitan does have a small capacity connection for imported water but it is rarely used — June 2009 was the last time a small amount of imported water was delivered to El Capitan. The other reservoirs have connections to receive infusions of imported water so their higher levels aren’t the best indicators of local conditions.

City of San Diego reservoir storage data October 2013 (source: San Diego County Water Authority)

City of San Diego reservoir storage data October 2013 (source: San Diego County Water Authority)


The city intends to withdraw even more water from Lake Morena reservoir in December in an attempt to save an additional $5 million in avoided imported water purchases. According to PUD Deputy Director of External Affairs Brent Eidson, the city will draw down and use water from the 50,694 acre-foot capacity Morena reservoir (now only 13% full with about 20,000 acre-feet of usable water left) until it reaches a virtual dead pool of 2,000 acre-feet, the point at which the intakes can no longer remove the water.

Miriam Raftery describes the resulting Lake Morena controversy in this East County Magazine report.

Still, while the city avoided buying some imported water over the last two years and will squeeze the last drops out of Morena, it cannot indefinitely draw down its other supplies without jeopardizing the reserves maintained for emergency (and I don’t think higher prices for imported water constitutes an emergency). Plus, the staffing cuts and other cost-cutting moves have surely taken a toll on the department’s morale and well-being. And, to the extent that the city may need to buy extra imported water in the future to compensate for the local reserves used up over the last two years, new imported water at much higher prices will be the cost.

During the public hearing, Council President and Interim Mayor Todd Gloria said that forcing PUD to absorb those costs undermined the city’s creditworthiness and negatively impacted maintenance of water infrastructure.

Councilmember David Alvarez said “we basically underfunded the system for a couple of years and cannot continue to act in this irresponsible manner going forward.”

Bottom line: Mayor Sanders’ politically motivated directive only set up the water customers for a rude awakening, put PUD in a difficult financial position & jeopardized the city’s bond credit rating, and gambled with the city’s water reserves.

New pricing tiers

In addition to higher prices for imported water, the existing 3-tier pricing system will be replaced by a new 4-tier price structure (see chart). A somewhat confusing U-T San Diego story tried to explain the new structure. News 8, San Diego 6, La Jolla Patch, and 7 San Diego also weighed in.

Put simply, the intent behind the new tiers was to minimize rate increases for those who conserve and to penalize excessive consumption.

Existing and proposed monthly pricing tiers. HCF=hundred cubic feet (source: City of San Diego Notice of Public Hearing for the water rate increase).

Existing and proposed monthly pricing tiers. HCF=hundred cubic feet (source: City of San Diego Notice of Public Hearing for the water rate increase).

PUD’s Brent Eidson informed me via email that 20.1% of water customers are expected to fall into the lowest first tier, 51.6% will be in the second tier, 16.6% in the third, and 11.6% in the highest tier.

The problem is that as a means to encourage water conservation the tiered pricing structure can seem rather arbitrary.

At the public hearing Councilmember Mark Kersey sounded off about this, saying he thinks a tiered structure “is archaic and crude.” He suggested that San Diego should consider a water budget based billing system that takes into account various household sizes and needs, similar to the successful Irvine Ranch Water District’s billing system.

Kersey may have forgotten it was only recently (July) that the City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee (NR&C) reviewed PUD’s Water Budget Based Billing Report. After considering the report, NR&C decided to rule it out for residential customers because the report projected $5.7 million in one-time expenditures to design and implement the system, $3.6 million annually in ongoing costs for billing system enhancements, and unspecified labor and expense for handling individual variance requests from users who would seek adjustments to water budgets assigned to them.

The report also indicated that water budget based billing would also not be worthwhile because it would change the usage habits of only a small percentage of customers.

Note that Irvine Ranch’s customer base is much smaller than San Diego’s and implementing a water budget based system was less daunting than it would be for San Diego.

Still, water budget based billing remains attractive to many other people (myself included) and the idea is likely to be revived in the future. My earlier report on water budget billing discusses this billing method and related issues in more detail.

More rate increases in the forecast

It's still unknown what effect Poseidon's Carlsbad Desalination Plant under construction next to the Encina Power Plant will have on San Diego water rates.

It’s still unknown what effect Poseidon’s Carlsbad Desalination Plant under construction next to the Encina Power Plant will have on San Diego water rates.

It’s not over. Not only are more rate increases for imported water certain in the future, two other factors will push water prices even higher:

  • Desalinated water. While San Diego normally purchases only less expensive untreated imported water because it has its own water treatment plants, it definitely wants to be able to purchase treated desalinated water if the need arises. Therefore the city will need to pay “availability” fees to SDCWA for access to desalinated water, plus the price of desalinated water itself. Desalinated water will be much more expensive than the present cost of imported water, although SDCWA has not yet announced exactly what those prices will be. Presently the imported price is about $800 per acre-foot while desalinated water is expected to be in the vicinity of $2,000 per acre-foot.
  • The upcoming July 31, 2015 expiration of the EPA Point Loma waiver. The waiver allows the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant to discharge partially treated wastewater into the ocean (“advanced primary treatment”) instead of upgrading to secondary treatment as required by the Clean Water Act. The current waiver was granted on condition that the city recycle more water and greatly reduce the amount of wastewater discharged at Point Loma. So far not enough recycling is being done. In order to avoid steep financial penalties and be forced to upgrade the Point Loma facilities at great expense, the city will try to negotiate for yet another waiver by demonstrating its commitment to divert ever-larger amounts of wastewater from Point Loma into a large-scale potable reuse program. Regardless of how this all plays out, it will end up raising water and/or sewer rates. Click here for a detailed examination of this issue.

There WAS something to chuckle about at Thursday’s public hearing: Councilmember Sherri Lightner said “Some day we will get to the point where our city is selling water, not buying it. That’s my vision.”


Posted in Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD), Water, Water rates | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A tour of Hoover Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct system

Posted by George J Janczyn on May 20, 2013

This past weekend about 30 San Diego County inhabitants and I were guests of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) for an inspection trip to visit Hoover Dam and Colorado River Aqueduct facilities. Our tour guides were Vincent Mudd (SDCWA Director and representative to MWD’s board), Marty Hundley (MWD Inspection Trip Specialist), and Debbie Espe (SDCWA Senior Water Resources Specialist).

We assembled at SDCWA headquarters at 6:15am Friday where we were seated in the board room directors’ chairs for a brief presentation about the Water Authority, then filed onto a chartered bus to the airport, submitted to the usual TSA indignities and boarding area wait, and boarded our one-hour flight to Las Vegas. There, we rode another chartered bus to Boulder City where box lunches from The Dillinger Food and Drinkery were ready for us, and continued on to Hoover Dam. We ate our lunches in the visitor center auditorium during a speaker presentation and short film about the dam’s history. Then we began our tour.

(your smartphones won’t do these photos justice; you’ll get a much better sense of scale on a large desktop or tablet display and click the pictures for enlargements)

Hoover Dam Visitor Center, awaiting the elevator to the bottom.

Hoover Dam Visitor Center, awaiting the elevator to the bottom

Generators in the powerplant. There are nine on the Arizona wing, eight on the Nevada side.

Generators in the powerplant. There are nine on the Arizona wing, eight on the Nevada side.

Lake Mead's water level is low so reduced pressure means generators vibrate more and produce less power. A new generator design is being tested and if successful all will be replaced.

Lake Mead’s water level is low so reduced pressure means generators vibrate more and produce less power. Our guide told us a new generator designed to maintain efficiency with less water pressure is being tested and if successful, all will be replaced.

View at the bottom of the dam from the powerplant on the Arizona side.

View at the bottom of the dam from the powerplant on the Arizona side.

From the base of the dam, the power plants and the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which allows traffic on U.S. 93 to cross directly into Arizona without having to drive over the dam.

From the base of the dam, the power plants and the new Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (Hoover Dam Bypass) which allows traffic on U.S. 93 to cross directly into Arizona without having to wait in a long line to drive over the dam.


Back on our bus, we backtracked a little to drive over the bypass bridge and continued southeast on U.S. 93 to Kingman, Arizona. There we turned toward the Colorado River on I-40, then SR 95, passing through Lake Havasu City (yes, we saw the London Bridge) and past Parker Dam.

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Posted in Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Water | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

San Vicente Dam will soon begin rising for real

Posted by George J Janczyn on August 30, 2011

Prepping the dam's face with water blasting to ensure a good surface for the new concrete (photo taken March 2010).

It has been two years since groundbreaking for the San Vicente Dam Raise Project took place, but the dam is still at its original height.

Everything is going according to plan, though, and right on schedule.

All this time has been devoted to prepping the dam and foundation, setting up the quarry where the ingredients for the concrete will be mined, constructing a new access road to the future new marina, and building a small “saddle dam” (because the eventual higher water level will reach a saddle-shaped depression in the hills on the reservoir’s west side).

San Vicente Dam is currently 220 feet tall and when completed, will be 117 feet taller, increasing the reservoir’s capacity from 90,000 acre-feet to 242,000 acre-feet. Although the larger capacity is billed as being enough to supply 300,000 households, the expansion is not really to accommodate additional customers from growth and development as might be implied by that statement.

Because around 80% of San Diego’s water must be imported it could be disastrous if something happened to cut off that supply. Our water managers take that risk very seriously. The real point of expanding the reservoir, therefore, is to have more water stored locally for use if something (like an earthquake) breaks the imported water infrastructure and repairs take months to complete. A secondary reason is to provide carryover storage to be used during extra dry years.

Reservoir level drawn down during construction. Large cleared area on left is site of quarry mining operations (photo from August 2010).

While the City of San Diego owns and operates San Vicente Dam and reservoir, the dam raise project is actually being managed and paid for by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) which will also own the rights to the additional water. The dam raise is one of several projects SDCWA is doing as part of its countywide Emergency Storage Project.

Work on the saddle dam was recently halted halfway at about the 20 foot mark (again, as planned) because the conveyor system that will deliver concrete from the quarry and concrete mixing operation to the big dam needs to go through that space. The conveyor will cross right over the top of the half-finished saddle dam. After the main dam raise is completed, the conveyor will be dismantled and work on the saddle dam will resume to bring it up to its full height.

Since the precisely formulated concrete will be delivered by conveyor instead of trucks it will minimize contamination from soil and other material. By mining the aggregate for the concrete from the hills next to the reservoir and producing the concrete on site instead of another location, residents living in the vicinity will be spared the dust, noise, and traffic impact that thousands of truck trips would otherwise cause.

Concrete will not be made and poured into forms the traditional way; rather, a technique known as “roller compacted concrete” (RCC) will be used. SDCWA already used this method to build the Olivenhain Dam in northern San Diego County. As explained in the above-linked story about Olivenhain, “Roller-compacted concrete is similar to traditional concrete, but is less expensive, requires less water and is much thicker when placed…Roller-compacted concrete is placed in layers. The layers are compacted with rollers similar to those used in road building. Interruption of work must be minimised to facilitate bonding of the layers. Therefore, crews worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week during a 10-12 month period to construct the dam.”

Similarly, once concrete placement begins at San Vicente Dam (probably in mid-September), work will be non-stop 24/7 until the dam is finished. The dam will rise at the rate of about one foot per day. When I asked about viewing opportunities to see the dam as it goes up, SDCWA Senior Public Affairs Representative Gina Molise told me there’s a possibility that they’ll set up a camera overlooking the job to capture time-lapse images. However, that’s only a possibility at this time.

The project schedule and more information can be found at SDCWA’s project web page.

A few weeks ago SDCWA invited the news media to a photo opportunity of work underway on the saddle dam. I was invited too :-) so I get to share some photos. Click images for enlargements (it makes a big difference with some of them).

About half of the dam can be seen in this view from a nearby hillside.


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Posted in Environment, Water | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

San Diego: Friction with Taxpayers Association evident at Water Authority meeting

Posted by George J Janczyn on August 25, 2011

At the beginning of the marathon committee meeting sessions preceding the monthly board meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) today, General Manager Maureen Stapleton reported on her recent exchange about SDCWA labor costs with Lani Lutar, President/CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA).

Ms. Stapleton described originally having provided voluminous data in response to requests from SDCTA as well as from the San Diego Taxpayers Education Foundation (SDTEF), an arm of SDCTA. The Foundation used that data to produce a draft study which was then submitted to SDCWA for review. SDCWA apparently found numerous errors which led to their response that “the majority of the “Key Findings” and table data points in the report are incorrect, and in some cases, grossly misleading.”

Stapleton described her exchange of correspondence with Ms. Lutar about the disputed material (copies were distributed at the meeting) and described some difficulties during that period. She concluded, however, that she’s optimistic that SDCTA has indicated willingness to engage in further discussions to examine the issues.

Discussion among board members ensued with many comments that were critical of SDCTA, including an angry director Dion saying he felt the SDCTA analysis was “not only convoluted, but intentionally fraudulent.”

I tweeted that quote and it turned out that Ms. Lutar saw it and decided to make an appearance at the board meeting (which made me feel awkward because I hadn’t intended to stir the pot — not that much, anyway!). When the board meeting began, she requested to speak during the public comment period. In a nutshell, she stated that she wanted to make sure everyone understands that SDCTA has every intention of working closely with SDCWA staff to make sure all the facts and data are accurate.

That’s basically what happened. I obtained a copy of the letters in question and scanned them, reproduced below:


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Preview: City of San Diego 2010 Urban Water Management Plan

Posted by George J Janczyn on May 12, 2011

As part of its long-range water resources planning activities, the City of San Diego, like other large water agencies, is required to adopt and submit an Urban Water Management Plan to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) every five years. Here’s the 2005 version. The new 2010 plan was originally due by December 31, 2010 but a six-month extension was given and the July 1 deadline is now approaching.

Until recently, where public comment on the draft 2010 plan is concerned, the Public Utilities Department (PUD) kept a fairly tight rein on it (but you can get a copy below).

Last month PUD announced the planned publication of the 2010 plan at an Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) subcommittee meeting and the Natural Resources and Culture (NR&C) Committee by offering a brief PowerPoint summary about it.

For the upcoming May 18 NR&C meeting the agenda packet includes a shortened PowerPoint summary but not the full draft plan. The committee will be asked to approve the plan and forward it to the full city council.

The only complete public copy of the draft (so far, that I know of) was just distributed yesterday to the IROC mailing list with its May 16 meeting agenda packet. Here’s a portion from the section discussing public involvement:

“The Plan was presented at public meetings to the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) Environmental and Technical Committee on April 11, 2011 and the San Diego City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee (NR&C) on April 20, 2011. These public meetings included a discussion of the Plan including the per capita water demand targets. The draft Plan was presented to IROC on______ and to NR&C on _______. The Plan was presented at a public hearing before the San Diego City Council at one of its regularly scheduled meetings on_______, where it was approved for adoption. A notice of the public hearing was provided to all cities within San Diego County and to the County of San Diego 60-days before the hearing. Public hearing notifications were published and copies of the Plan were made available for public inspection at the City’s office and on the web site two weeks before the public hearing. Copies of the 60-day notification, published public hearing notification and adoption resolution are included in Appendix A. The Plan will be submitted to DWR, the California State Library and San Diego County within 30 days after adoption. The Plan will be available for public review on the City’s web site within 30 days after filing a copy of the Plan with DWR. The City shall implement the adopted Plan in accordance with the schedule described in this Plan.” [from Section 1.6]

From the looks of it, that was the original idea, anyway. If you read it carefully, the draft plan wasn’t shown or distributed at the April IROC and NR&C meetings, it was simply announced with PowerPoint slideshow handouts. The blank dates for the draft plan apparently will be filled in with the May 18 IROC and May 20 NR&C meetings, although only IROC’s agenda packet actually includes the draft plan [note–see update below]. Presumably broader public access to and ability to comment on the draft plan will be possible once it is docketed for the City Council meeting.

Councilmember Sherri Lightner should be interested since she lately expressed the wish to develop a new water policy for San Diego.

The draft management plan emailed to IROC was sent in three parts; you can view it here:

Update: I sent email to the NR&C Committee Consultant regarding the absence of the full plan from the May 18 agenda packet and he arranged to add it. It’s now there, here’s the direct link:

I should also note that on May 16 I received an email message from Eric Symons, Supervising Public Information Officer for the Public Utilities Department, in which he said: “There was no intent on the part of the City to keep a “tight rein” on the UWMP. The Draft 2010 UWMP was inadvertently excluded from the Documents Available for Download section of the NR&C website on Wednesday when other supporting documents appeared.”


In contrasting related news, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) announced on May 9 that it is seeking public comment on its draft 2010 Urban Water Management Plan for San Diego County. The draft can be viewed at SDCWA’s website. Comments on the draft will be accepted through June 6.


Posted in Commerce, Land use, Water | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

San Diegans get a close look at their Northern California water lifeline

Posted by George J Janczyn on February 28, 2011

Last weekend I joined a group of over 30 people from a variety of professions and occupations in San Diego County participating in an inspection trip of the California State Water Project and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Our visit came just as a major storm had finished moving through the area Feb 26-27. It was nice to see lots of fresh snow accumulating in the Sierras.

The two-day educational trip was sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and hosted by the San Diego County Water Authority. The tour helped us gain a deeper appreciation of the complex system that supplies much of Southern California and gives San Diego about a third of its water (the Colorado River is the other primary source of our imported water) and a better understanding of the challenges faced by the system. The Delta plays a critically important role for California’s economy and energy and water, but for many San Diegans it’s a faraway place and easy to take for granted, so these informative tours provide a valuable experience that locals should take advantage of.

Diagram of the Delta

After our flight to Sacramento, we boarded a bus for a trip north to the Oroville Reservoir and dam. Oroville, on the Feather River, is the main water source for the State Water Project and is thus an important place for San Diegans to keep an eye on. Snow was visible in the nearby hills and it was quite chilly.

Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States — nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower — and can hold about 3 1/2 million acre feet of water and is the fourth-largest source of hydroelectric power in California. Oroville’s reservoir level had been dropping alarmingly over the past few years but with the wet storms that we’ve had this season the reservoir is well over half-full and still filling.

During our bus ride, Phyllis Ortman from Metropolitan and Keith Lewinger from the County Water Authority plied us with details about environmental, political, legal, and logistical factors in the management of the Delta and the State Water Project. Phyllis is apparently well-known for having lots of handouts and it’s a good thing we were given sturdy bags to carry them all!

After lunch we took a brief drive across the dam and proceeded to a tour of the nearby Feather River Fish Hatchery where we saw a barrier dam, fish ladder, rearing raceways, and other mitigation facilities for spawning salmon and steelhead trout.

You can click any of the following photos for an enlargement.

On top of Oroville Dam looking west

On top of Oroville Dam looking east. Note the bathtub ring is greatly reduced.

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Posted in Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Water | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

San Diego’s water future: who has the helm?

Posted by George J Janczyn on August 11, 2010

As noted in yesterday’s water rates story, the main supplier for most of San Diego County’s water is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and it holds great power when it comes to the cost and reliability of our water supply. So when MWD announced a stakeholder forum to examine the 2010 Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) Update there were naturally going to be many local water professionals in attendance. The IRP makes major changes to MWD’s strategy for water reliability through the year 2035, including a bold plan to create a large storage “buffer” to serve as a backup supply against virtually any scenario.


Held at the Ramada Conference Center on Kearny Mesa Road Tuesday, Aug 10, this was the third in a series of four stakeholder forums held in different Southern California cities, the objective being “to present Metropolitan’s Draft IRP resource strategy and to hear stakeholder input and feedback.”

There were about 75-100 individuals in attendance.

The morning session was delivered in segments with a brief question period after each presenter finished. After lunch it was time for the Q&A and comments from the audience. The public comment period was moderated by Paul Brown who did an excellent job of managing the process, facilitating discussion, drawing out comments, and summarizing/recapping statements being made.

Since the plan had been available online well in advance of the meeting, it was apparent that most people there had already seen it, processed their personal reactions, and had thoroughly analyzed it. That preparation showed in the comments which were delivered very diplomatically. You can view the plan at MWD’s IRP page.

Mark Weston, General Manager of Helix Water District pointed out that local water agencies are much better at mobilizing conservation efforts than the Met dictating from a distance. He suggested the Met might be less involved in conservation programs and focus more on reliability of imported water.

Other individuals posed questions that tended toward two themes: MWD’s financial transparency or lack thereof (“Exactly how does Met plan to allocate or distribute supply project costs?”) and authoritarian management style (“It seems like Met is always dictating to us”).

I wasn’t counting but numerous individuals wanted to know about costs of projects being contemplated by MWD.

One gentleman rose to complain about water shortages caused by population growth and rapid development.

Chris Cate from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA) said he was unable to find a database of every project contemplated across all service areas; same for a comprehensive list of assumptions used for MWD ‘buffer’ projects: He said “the cost information provided in the Draft IRP is wholly inadequate to form the basis of decision-making by the MWD Board of Directors.” SDCTA also submitted written comments in this letter for the Chairman of the MWD Board.

Other questions and comments from attendees ranged from “What’s the reason for the rush with an October deadline for the IRP?” to “Where are the emergency plans?” to “We need more help with purple pipe infrastructure” to “What’s it going to cost?”

The feedback most representative of the general sentiment in the room was undoubtedly given by Dennis Cushman, Assistant General Manager at San Diego County Water Authority. His statement is below. For your convenience, here’s the 1994 Blue Ribbon Report that he refers to.


Thanks to Mr. Cushman and to SDCTA for providing me with a copy of their statement.


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Possible water for SoCal from Mexico?

Posted by George J Janczyn on August 3, 2010

Since San Diego has an agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District for some of its water, I always read stories about IID when I find them even if they might not appear that interesting on the surface. So I was skimming an article in last week’s Imperial Valley Press innocuously titled IID to unveil new logo, review new administration building proposal when I came to a paragraph that said:

“The IID board will also hear about a proposal to allow Southern California water agencies to fund quake repairs on Baja California’s water infrastructure in exchange for a portion of Mexico’s Colorado River water allotment.”

The Baja Earthquake could mean water for Southern California water agencies? I knew there was a possible deal with Westlands that could help replenish the giant but half-empty Diamond Valley Lake reservoir and my first thought was that a deal with Mexico could top it off.

Trying to learn more, my emails to the reporter and to IID went unanswered, but I received a response from Halla Razak, the Colorado River Program Director at San Diego County Water Authority. She confirmed that there have been talks about extensive earthquake damage to canals and water facilities in northern Baja and possible mitigation assistance. When I pressed her about which water agency proposed this idea and who is coordinating discussions, she replied that the whole idea is “very preliminary, discussed during informal conversations.”

I did find something related in this Executive Director’s Report to the Colorado River Board of California although it only mentions temporary storage, not a water transfer:

“As reported at the April Board meeting, with the large magnitude earthquake that occurred in the Mexicali Valley in early April, water deliveries from a large number of the canals in the Mexicali Valley have been disrupted. To assist Mexico in coping with this situation, the United States has suggested that, in the interest of international comity and as a one-time program, Mexico would be allowed to store up to 200,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir system in the United States this year and then be allowed to request the delivery of the stored water during calendar year 2011. This would mean that in 2011 Mexico could request a deliveryof up to 1.7 maf. Mexico has considered this offer made by the United States and is proposing that this offer by the United States be incorporated into a more comprehensive deal that includes the concepts that are currently being discussed by the two countries to pursue Bi-National projects that could benefit both countries. Thus, Mexico has proposed that within the next 90 days that agreement be reached on a proposal for International Cooperative Measures in the Colorado River Basin and that this agreement be documented in a new minute to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty, Minute 318.”

Further digging led to a little more. From Metropolitan Water District’s Colorado River Program Manager, I received this reply:

“Mexico and the United States are negotiating an agreement that would provide Mexico with additional tools to better manage its water supply. Included in the discussions are a proposal for Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, for the United States and Mexico to jointly develop water conservation programs in Mexico, and for Mexico to temporarily provide water to the United States in exchange for receiving funding for earthquake repair. [emphasis mine] The proposal is still being developed; at this time no formal agreement has been reached. If the United States and Mexico reach agreement, then agencies such as Metropolitan could begin discussions with Mexico about how to move forward on specific aspects of it. It is hoped that an agreement could be reached by the end of 2010.”

As for the damage to water infrastructure caused by the quake, the Baja California Earthquake Clearinghouse website has detailed illustrated reports. The summary below is from a newsletter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute:

Damage to agriculture in the Mexicali Valley as a result of liquefaction is considerable. An estimated 300 km of canals are damaged, and most of this year’s crops are expected to be lost because of an inability to water them. Flooding of agricultural land with water from sand boils and other sources has resulted in standing water, which kills plants. Fields are no longer level, and will require earthwork and leveling before gravity-controlled irrigation can resume. 300,000 families are thought to be largely out of business because of the earthquake.

[Added] See also this July EERI comprehensive report surveying the quake damage.

If something does emerge from the preliminary talks it will no doubt require high-level involvement because of the international treaty with Mexico and the complex laws governing Colorado River water, but if MWD is right about an agreement by the end of the year, Mexico could soon get some needed assistance and Southern California might be able to supplement a large reservoir or two. Win/win.


Aug 4 update: I received this followup note from Bill Hasencamp from the MWD General Manager’s Office:

The International Boundary and Water Commission oversees the 1944 Treaty with Mexico regarding water deliveries between the 2 countries. Since the Original Treaty, more than 200 Minutes have been added to either amend or clarify the Treaty. For the current effort, the IBWC is leading negotiations between the 2 countries to draft a minute that will handle the provisions of any water and currency exchange between the two countries. The Bureau of Reclamation is coordinating the Colorado River Basin States’ input to the negotiations, as we would be the ones providing any money for water. It’s the ultimate responsibility of the IBWC, however, to complete negotiations, which is hoped to finish in the next few months, so that Mexico can start receiving U.S. money to fund infrastructure repair.

There is a meeting in Las Vegas this Friday between the 2 countries to further the discussions.

[Aug 11: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports on the upcoming meeting]

[Dec 20: Salazar, Elvira announce water agreement to support response to Mexicali valley earthquake]


Posted in Imperial Irrigation District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Water | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

San Diego County water use data for June 2010

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 20, 2010

chart from San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors Agenda July 22, 2010

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