As a worsening drought forces millions of Californians to face mandatory water restrictions, one corner of Southern California has largely spared itself from supply-related woes: San Diego County.
For Western water planners, the path they took to get there served as either a blueprint or a cautionary tale.
Over the past three decades, San Diego County has diversified its water supply, increased conservation and invested in big-ticket water infrastructure, including the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, which removes salt and impurities from sea water. removes. As a result, the water agency, which serves 24 water utilities, including the city of San Diego, says it can avoid cuts until at least 2045, even during dry periods. But that protection has come at a cost.
San Diego County water is one of the most expensive in the country, costing about 26% more at the wholesale level in 2021 than the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and surrounding counties. Now, San Diego County’s two rural irrigation districts with large avocado industries are seeking to break away from the regional water supplier, saying they can buy cheaper water elsewhere. If they are successful, water could become even more expensive in San Diego County.
“The situation in San Diego is very surprising, very striking,” said Michael Hahnemann, an environmental economist at Arizona State University who was recently commissioned to study the area’s water costs for the California agency. “I think it’s a harbinger of something that’s going to happen in California and elsewhere in the US”
San Diegans didn’t always rest during a drought. In the 1990s, a severe dry period cut the area’s water supply by 30%. At the time, almost all of its water came from the Metropolitan Water District, the country’s largest water provider. California water experts say that experience and the strained, dysfunctional relationship with water officials in Los Angeles prompted San Diego County’s aggressive, decades-long pursuit of water self-sufficiency.
“At that point, our community came together and said, ‘We’re never going to be in this situation again. We need to plan for our credibility,'” said Sandy Kerl, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
So in 2003, the water authority cut a deal in Southern California to get water from the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of the Colorado River. San Diego County funded repairs to the leaky canals belonging to Imperial and signed a historic water transfer deal. Today, it receives about 55% of its total supply from Imperial as part of the deal.
The water authority also helped farmers to use less water. It built dams to increase the storage capacity in the reservoirs. This provided a discount to homeowners who raked up grass lawns for water-efficient alternatives.
In 2012, San Diego County entered into an agreement to receive 10% of its water supply from the Carlsbad Desalination Plant for the next 30 years. The plant produces 50 million gallons of potable water – enough for about 400,000 people – every day and is the region’s most expensive water source.
“In rounding terms, it is twice as expensive as imported surface water,” Hahnemann said. “On the other hand, it is a very reliable supply because it is not affected by drought and low flows in rivers in northern California or Colorado.”
While those efforts took hold, demand continued to decline, even as more than half a million people moved to San Diego. Statewide water cuts during droughts, more efficient showers, toilets and taps, exemptions to tear down grass and the use of recycled water did what they should have done – sharply reducing per capita water use. By 2020, San Diegans used 30% less water than in 1990.
Water officials, however, did not anticipate the fall in demand and continued to estimate how much water was needed. Today, San Diego County says it is no longer seeking more water, a situation that some in the West might consider enviable. But they won’t be jealous of the water rates.
Thanks to selling less water, San Diego County has raised rates — an average of 4% for each of the past five years — to cover fixed costs, including the San Vicente Dam and desalination plant. Such costs make up the lion’s share — about 90% — of the agency’s annual spending.
The price of water, Hahnemann said, is largely determined by the infrastructure that carries and stores it. “If you suddenly deliver fewer gallons of water you’re screwed because your costs don’t come down.”
“Water is a terrible business because we have to encourage people to use less of our product and charge them more when they do,” said Tom Kennedy, general manager of the Rainbow Municipal Water District. To secede from the San Diego County Water Authority.
Rainbow and Fallbrook, another city whose agency is trying to source its water elsewhere, say doing so will provide them with cheaper water, although the potential savings are not yet known. A state agency is considering whether they can go through with a decision expected by the end of the year. If their exit is approved, the next step will be a vote among residents. If that vote is passed only then both the districts can leave.
At a recent public hearing, angry residents shouted at officials about how long the process was taking – and how expensive their bills had become in the meantime.
Rural towns cut a significant gap in contrast to the constellation of San Diego’s beach towns and waterfront skyline. To the northeast of the city, steep, dry hills and broad canyons dot the landscape.
Standing water costs in Fallbrook and Rainbow, once the largest producer of avocados in the country, have hurt farming. Between 2016 and 2020, Fallbrook lost about a fifth of its avocado trees due to urbanization and downed trees, government records show.
Jason Kendall, a Rainbow farmer whose family took out their avocado trees years ago, said growing the fruit without supplemental groundwater is a losing business.
“You may not be profitable in buying district water and growing avocados, which are widely grown in the region,” said Kendall, who owns 350 acres (142 ha) of cut flowers.
San Diego County water officials say higher water costs are coming to California and other parts of the West, even though desalination is less popular today than it used to be. Recently, a California Coastal Commission denied a permit to Poseidon Water to build another decades-long desalination plant about 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the coast in Huntington Beach. The rejection came after years of protests from environmentalists.
The rest of the state has work to do, San Diego County officials said, as climate change is accelerating droughts and shrinking California’s reservoirs and the rivers that feed the Colorado River.
“There is no more cheap water available,” said Kerala.
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