Roundtable: The state of San Diego’s water

S1: As San Diego enters the rainy season , do we have the water needed during the ongoing drought ? I met Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. Despite some recent rainfall , a historic drought is continuing its dry spell across California. Regulators are asking residents to conserve water wherever they can as millions of dollars are being invested in infrastructure. Local water officials say the San Diego region is better prepared , but that could be changing. For years , officials have known that local reservoirs and dams need some major improvements. And while emergency repairs are underway , there’s questions about their long term viability and the potential impact on already rising water rates. Joining us this week are KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson , voice of San Diego’s environment and energy reporter. MCKENZIE Elmer is back and David Garrick is here. He’s the city hall reporter with the San Diego Union-Tribune. I want to welcome you all back to roundtable. Eric , let’s start with what’s happening this week. We’ve had some recent rain , which you’d think would be a good thing during a drought , but it’s creating some issues at one of the city’s largest reservoirs.

S2: And the city discovered that about a year ago. They began a repair project. Once they lowered the lake levels to start their repair work , they found that , well , the dam isn’t in as good a shape as we thought it was. So , you know , we’re gonna have to do some more repairs on it. And they had to keep the water level at a certain level to I think it’s like 275 feet above sea level to make sure that there’s not too much pressure on the dam while those repairs are going on. And what happened was , as a big surprise , we got rain and rain meant that that 248 square mile watershed that that feeds the Lake Hodges reservoir started to fill it up and the city said , look , we need to raise the level of a lake by about two feet that some 250 million gallons. The math people figured that out for me. I didn’t do the numbers there , but 250 million gallons of water that they feel that they need to release to keep the water level at the safe level while these repairs are going on.

S1: And to be clear , Eric , I mean , the whole point of reservoirs is literally like to store drinking water or.

S2: Yeah , it is. It’s to capture drinking water. It’s because the water that falls out of the sky is basically free. So that makes it very cost effective for the city of San Diego , where the cost of water is very expensive. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more , I’m sure. But , you know , you have to recognize that the city has nine reservoirs , you know , kind of there are nine reservoirs scattered around the San Diego , and that’s only about 10% of the drinking water that we have. So we get we still import a lot of drinking water from outside of the region , as well as generating water , you know , along the coast at the desal plant. And and , you know , soon from the pure water plant that the city is building.

S1: And we’re going to jump into that in just a minute. David Garrick from the Union-Tribune is also here with us. And David , you’ve done a lot of reporting on all this. And it’s not just our water supply that’s being impacted.

S3: And I guess there’s no end in sight with these additional repairs that are necessary that that Eric mentioned , because when they lowered the level , they saw that there were more micro fractures than they had thought. And when they announced that this fall , they said that the typical opening in February every year of recreational activities there , boating and fishing was probably threatened and probably won’t happen. So , you know , if you’re if that’s part of your plan to stay fit and healthy , I would say maybe find a new plan.

S1: Mackenzie Elmar from Voice of San Diego is also back with us. And Mackenzie , can you give us some background here ? It sounds like a while back , reservoirs became a bigger piece of how San Diegans get their water.

S4: San Diego had experienced a huge cut in water resources because of that drought that went through Los Angeles. And so San Diego kind of went back to the table and decided , okay , we need to generate more local water for ourselves. We have to make some deals , we have to build some emergency storage. And so they they did they built a bunch of reservoirs they built and they made a big deal with Imperial Irrigation District out east to secure some Colorado River water through them. And in terms of reservoirs. So that was the original question. It looks like the County Water Authority , which manages water for the region , has 24 reservoirs total. And in terms of like their capacity and how much water is in there , it’s kind of all over the board. I was told that looking at reservoirs is not the best way it is to. To know how much water San Diego has. But in terms of water security , San Diego always points to this. This deal they have with Imperial Irrigation District that secures them enough Colorado River water to supply the region even in times of drought. Hmm.

S1: Hmm. And Eric , it sounds like we import a lot of water from the Colorado River.

S2: There was some reporting that was done in the West a couple of days ago that the West may be reaching this doomsday , may be getting close to this doomsday scenario where the water level in Lake Mead and Lake Powell drops so low that it can’t allow any water to pass further downstream , which , you know , if that happens deadpool’s what they call that. If that happens , then San Diego is not going to be able to buy water from the Imperial Irrigation District because there’s not going to be any water flowing to the Imperial Irrigation District. We are not there yet , but officials are talking about that possibility in a way that they have not ever before. Because we are getting closer as those lake levels drop down.

S1:

S4: I mean , that that is the concern that the Colorado River will be so stressed out and so overused that somehow water won’t actually make it down to Imperial Irrigation District , which is where we get most of our water right now. We could be at the San Diego do have kind of a poor relationship with Los Angeles. Over the years. They’ve really relied heavily more on that imperial water. But as far as I understand it from officials , because Imperial Irrigation District back in the early 1900s was , you know , Western expansion has moved out here and built canals and expanded the Colorado River water use. That imperial water has first priority , right.

S1:

S3: Well , it’s a big picture , though , and that’s the reason why there’s been so much focus on pure water , which is basically recycling sewage and then desalination. The idea is you don’t want to have to be dependent on all these deals and other outside things. The idea is first to have local water independence , which is tough when you’re in a desert , but that’s been San Diego’s goal and they’ve been focused a lot more on in the last decade or so with the desal plant in Carlsbad and with the city launching pure water.

S1:

S2: Maybe there’s an earthquake that interrupts the supply of water for the Metropolitan Water District. They said We’d like to have , you know , a six month supply of water available to the region , an emergency supply. And that was one of the reasons why that project was built. And the city does have in its reservoirs that emergency supply , but it’s not a long term supply. And if you rely exclusively on the reservoirs for the region’s water , it’s going to run out pretty quickly.

S1: And David , you’ve done a lot of reporting on the reservoirs and you found that San Diego’s have some of the oldest dams in this state and also the nation. And it sounds like city officials have known for a while that there’s some problems here.

S3: The officials always reassure us that there’s no risk of a burst. But yeah , we have nine city dams There range in age from 62 years to 110 years old. So there hasn’t been a new one built in a long time. The last one was a Lake Miramar in 1960 , and the city last year launched a $10 million assessment of the nine dams just to see , you know , if there are maybe greater problems than we think and how much they’re going to cost to fix them up and maybe how to prioritize which one should come first and which one should maybe come last. But only three of them are rated poor. That’s Lake Hodges and then El Capitan and Lower Otay. And there are none in the city of San Diego’s dam system that are rated unsatisfactory , which is the lowest rating. So those could be worse , I guess , but it also could be a lot better because , you know , there’s there’s not a lot of money to fix these up. The city is hoping that maybe they’ll get some money of the big bite in federal infrastructure bill , because that did include a lot of money for dams and there’s some state low interest loans. But , you know , it’s not a lot of money to fix these up. And the Hodges is the most in need of repair. There’s a plan to build a replacement dam for that about 100 yards downstream , but that’s going to take a decade. And then the other eight , we don’t have long term plans yet.

S1: So it sounds like the city is saying that we need to replace these dams.

S3: And some of them may not be replaced. I mean , the evaluation will determine which ones need to be replaced , which ones maybe could be fixed up , you know , which ones could be adjusted in another way. But. HODGES definitely the decision there is it’s got to be replaced.

S1: And I’m curious , has anybody heard from water officials ? We touched on this a little bit. If. Reservoirs can’t operate at full capacity. What’s the ripple effect for consumers ? I mean , I think one of the guys touched on this earlier. It sounds like using reservoirs is certainly cheaper than importing water.

S2: I’ll just take a stab at this. I don’t think it’s going to affect the cost. First of all , just because the water is cheaper , free because they collect it from rainfall and it accumulates in the reservoirs and then it’s available for use for drinking water , It doesn’t really substantially lower the bill of buying drinking water for consumers. San Diego pays some pretty hefty prices for the water because water that’s generated in Carlsbad at the desalination plant is very expensive water to generate. It takes a lot of energy to force the seawater through the filters that remove the salt. So that’s a very expensive way to get water. The water that we import is also very expensive. Water that deals with the Imperial Irrigation district are escalating water prices over time. Not only do we get a little bit more water from them , but the price of that water per acre feet , which is a measurement that the water agencies use , the price of that water goes up as well along the life of that contract. So water is not going to be getting any cheaper and there’s not enough capacity in the local reservoirs to kind of offset the cost for consumers.

S3: As we mentioned before , there are only about 10% of the local water they supply. So while the 10% is something , you know , they don’t impact the bills that much because it’s only 10% of the supply.

S1: And Mackenzie , go ahead.

S4: Well , there was an example , though , with Sweetwater Authority that recently transferred water between its two reservoirs in response to the drought. They’re one agency that actually relies probably the least on Colorado River water. They have their own local sources. They have a desalination plant. They use aquifer water. But they said , you know , as actually being a Tribune story , that transferring this water to use more of that like local supply that they have is is cheaper than purchasing it from San Diego County Water Authority. And increasingly , I see water agencies looking for their own local supply , these different cities. Obviously , San Diego is doing pure water and eventually they say that that will be cheaper. I know like some agencies in Eastern I forget Eastern Municipal Water district there. They’re doing their own recycling plant. So we increasingly , I think they’re placing bets on local recycling , being cheaper than importing water to the region and having to go through the San Diego County Water Authority.

S1: You’re listening to KPBS roundtable. We’re taking a closer look at the state of water in San Diego. Our guests this week are Eric Anderson from KPBS News , Mackenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego , and David Garrick from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Eric , you had a story back in May where you spoke with an official from the San Diego County Water Authority. And his quote , sort of stood out to me. He was saying , even though we may be positioned better than the rest of the state , it’s never okay to waste water , especially now. But isn’t that what’s being done when these millions of gallons are being dumped from the reservoir ? Is it just going to waste or.

S2: Matt , we prefer you not look behind the curtain at this point and just kind of ignore that. The thing about back in May , right , California was already getting word that we’re going to have another drought condition that’s going to extend through this water year. And local officials , you know , had been investing billions in their water supply network over the last 15 or so years. And they were , you know , kind of puffing their chest out a little bit and saying , look , we’ve got plenty of water here in San Diego. It’s not a concern we have. We have enough water. Even if the drought continues to supply water to the region for five years. But that was kind of a a message that was a little bit discordant with what we were hearing from the state of California and Governor Newsom , who was calling for water use restrictions in metropolitan areas. And one thing that they said , they kind of acknowledge that it’s never okay to waste water. They were , you know , continue to have their water conservation pleas and turf replacement programs. But , you know , I think a little of that was was bragging by the San Diego County Water Authority. I hope they don’t get mad at me for saying that. But but , you know , recognizing the investment that they had been made in specifically for a time like we’re going through now.

S1: And Mackenzie , some of your reporting reveals that cost to import water , like from places like the Colorado River have almost tripled. But also your reporting reveals that San Diegans are actually using less water compared to just a few decades ago.

S4: It’s all about the cost to get it here. So because we’re in a coastal desert with no real water sources for ourselves , with a growing city , we have to import it all from the Colorado River and we have to generate it from the ocean. We have to pay for all of that infrastructure to do that. And so those costs continue to rise , especially with inflation , with all the fixes that David and Eric we’re talking about to things like the dams. So that kind of upkeep cost is really what continues to push the price up. So San Diego is did and have cut their water use. They used to use it , I guess in 1990 , 235 gallons of drinkable water per day. And by 2021 , San Diego’s cut that almost in half to 130 gallons per day. So , indeed , you know , megadrought sort of , you know , flowing through the region have taught San Diegans to use less water. But , yes , the price is increasingly rising due to , you know , building that infrastructure and maintaining it , which are costs that just probably won’t stop rising. No.

S3: No. And I think the idea is even if you’re using less water , the infrastructure cost the same. The infrastructure is there. It costs to build in a cost to maintain it. So if you’re using less water , you’re not really lowering your cost that much because the infrastructure cost the same to maintain , even if less water flowing through it.

S1:

S2: You’re taking out bonds that are 40 year bonds. So , you know , we’re paying today in our water bills. Projects that were initiated ten , 20 , sometimes even 30 or 40 years ago. Those those stranded costs still exist. The question I had for you , Mackenzie , was you talked about how the price of water or the use of water has has fallen over the last couple of decades.

S4: And so really , while Northern California and into Los Angeles have had to cut back on their water supplies , San Diegans really haven’t been asked to do that , maybe on a voluntary basis. There’s been a lot of ads to like replace your lawn with desert landscape , which is a really good thing to do because that is truly the landscape here. Grass is not really a natural property of San Diego , but I’m sure that there is room for San Diegans to reduce their worries , especially with outdoor irrigation and that. Seems to be something that a federal government might be looking at to further define what is a best use and a reasonable use of water.

S1: In fact , I just saw an email from the City of San Diego reminding residents that in the New Year to expect an increase , that in the following year or two. But that could be changing. There’s a plan to help with that , and you guys have alluded to it. San Diego officially began its pure water project in 2021. It’s the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history.

S3: There’s pipeline being laid , you know , through much of the northern San Diego University City and Claremont. And there’s a giant recycling plant that’s being built in Miramar. And then Lake. Lake Miramar and Scripps Range is getting ready to store that water. So there’s a lot of work being done. Phase one is the high flying construction part of it. And the idea is to recycle , you know , millions of gallons of sewer water that gets purified through like eight different processes to make it potable drinking water. It’s a it’s been done in other places. It’s been proved successful. And San Diego’s finally gotten around to it. This has been in the works for about 15 years. Really.

S1: And Mackenzie , it sounds like a goal of the project is to supply 50% of San Diego’s water by 2035. To your knowledge , is the project on track to meet that goal ? Sounds like that’s a big jump.

S4: Well , yeah. And actually , as I said , you can serve more water. That number continues to rise , right ? Like they used to. I think the city was saying maybe 40 to 45%. And then with the recent numbers being updated about how much less water San Diegans use , then the city could say , oh , actually we could supply 50% of our water.

S3: Actually , we can’t because it was one third when it got approved. Okay.

S4: Okay. Thank you.

S3: Because of what you said , though , people are using less water. So , I mean , went from one third to a half. By the time it’s actually complete , maybe it’ll be three quarters. Maybe.

S4: Maybe. And I mean , David , you’re kind of the expert on really where the progress is with the Pure Water project. But I know that there was a big problem where a sewage pump had some. Maybe you can talk about that.

S3: Now , there’s been there’s been a million problems. I mean , just this week , the city lost a lawsuit with SD Annie about how they have to move their their utilities to help make pure water happen. And those are just costs that keep getting pushed on to the ratepayers. But yeah , it’s been it’s been a nightmare. There was a problem with Labor about whether the city was going to do a project labor agreement. And then the bet the we’re talking about is in the marina area , there was this basin that they were going to be , you know , basically a pump station and they could not get it to stop flooding and they could not get it to stop flooding. So now they have to build like a bathtub around. This thing is going to cost at least $20 million. I mean , it’s it’s good that they came up with a clever fix , but all these costs just keep adding to the end price tag for pure water , which , you know , it’s unfortunate , but the city wanted an independent water supply and that’s that’s what they’re going to get.

S1: Eric , earlier we mentioned that San Diego was doing better than other neighboring counties and initially saw less water restrictions than like Los Angeles or even Orange County. Is that still the case ? Yeah.

S2: We haven’t been forced to curtail the use of water in San Diego. It’s been kind of gentle reminders from water officials. It’s been gentle reminders from City of San Diego officials. But if you’re , you know , dead set on using as much water as you can , there’s no there’s no stick out there right now. And that’s something that could change as the drought deepens , both in the west , where the Colorado River has an impact. And here in California , where the you know , the state water supply state water project has an impact.

S1: And Mackenzie , our region is still in some drought restrictions or recommendations maybe. I remember seeing things about watering lawns and washing cars.

S4: That’s just like bad environmental practice because all of the crap from your car will flood into the ocean drain and pollute the region. But that aside , yeah , the city of San Diego has , as far as I understand it , kind of like this permanent drought restriction in place. So you can go to their website and read about what you should and shouldn’t do. And I someone maybe can fill me in , but last I heard , there were restrictions in terms of like when you should water your lawn or when you can water your lawn after a rain. So like that triggers some kind of you know , you need to wait X amount of hours before you can water your lawn. I think the other thing is that each city or water agency has their own drought conservation plan. So they kind of based on the larger drought components that triggers different restrictions based on where you live. So it can get a little complicated. But as far as I know , there’s no drought. Police walking the streets and ticketing people for washing their car in their driveway or something. So.

S1: And as we wrap up here , a question for everyone. Where do you all see this developing or what are you looking for moving ahead here ? And Eric , we can start with you.

S2: Well , I think that the big thing to watch is whether or not our ambitions about water use stay in line with the supply. And what I mean by that is , you know , is the Colorado River water supply as secure as local officials hope ? Is the trade off of spent , you know , generating extra water from the ocean at the Cal Carlsbad desalination plant ? Is that tradeoff worth the environmental impacts that are in place there ? How big does the pure water project end up being ? I think that’s the big question. You know what ? They said something like 80 million gallons of water a day in the first phase , but they could easily double the size of that if it works well. So those are all kind of questions that are out there. I will say this. I think that San Diego is in a little bit better position than our friends to the north because of the investments that have been made over the last decade or so.

S3: I would say long term for from a consumers perspective , bills are roughly $100 a month for a typical family now. And with all these new costs , I mean , I just wonder in ten years whether people are going to be paying 200 a month or 160 a month , I don’t know. But I think it’s going to definitely be higher by a significant margin.

S1: And Mackenzie , go ahead.

S4: Well , in terms of the climate , I mean , we’re headed for , I think , another winter of La Nina conditions , which just means largely dry winter. So there’s concerns across the state that the drought is going to continue to intensify. And , you know , there’s problems up north with the state water project there that that is producing less and less water for that region’s. That just further puts more demand on the already stretched Colorado River. And I know that , you know , San Diego is in a good position because it made all those investments to secure the water that it has. But all eyes right now are kind of on the federal government , which kind of has the ultimate stick to decide , you know , if if the larger negotiations over Colorado River water use between the states and nations that use it , if that doesn’t produce enough savings in the future , that they’re going to have to start , you know , stepping in and forcing conservation in a big way.

S1: We’re going to have to end it there. But it sounds like there’s a lot more to come. I want to thank our guests for this week’s edition of KPBS Roundtable. Erik Andersen , Mackenzie Aylmer and David Garrick. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast. Roundtables produced by Andrew Bracken and Adrian Villalobos is our technical director. I’m your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us. Have a great weekend.

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