The numbers describing San Diego's drinking-water supply are oft-repeated: The city imports 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River and from Sierra Nevada runoff via a pipeline that transports water from the Sacramento River Delta to Southern California.
A judge's decision last summer to protect a small endangered fish, the delta smelt, will likely lead to a 30-percent reduction in San Diego's water supply and compound problems caused by a decade-old drought that's plagued much of the American West.
An order from the Secretary of the Interior and the population explosion in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado prevents California from receiving excess water from the Colorado River, as it has in the past. Even Lake Mead, one of the few local water supplies, is in imminent danger of desiccation. The city's Water Department expects rate increases from water suppliers as soon as January 2009. High snowfall in the Sierra Nevada this winter has water officials thankful for a little extra time, but no one thinks it means we can stop worrying.
The dire statistics are probably what motivated the San Diego County Civil Grand Jury to lambaste San Diegans and their government for not taking clear action to shore up water supplies. In a report released Feb. 12, the grand jury argues that the city isn't taking the water crisis seriously, and the time has come to get to work. Consider the report's title: “Sober up, San Diego, the water party is over.”
Among its recommendations, the report advocates triggering two of four water-conservation stages described in San Diego's municipal code. Stage 1 calls for residents to voluntarily reduce their water use, especially with regard to landscaping and outdoor uses. Stage 2 makes the restrictions of Stage 1 mandatory and forbids residents from using so much water that it flows off their properties and onto neighboring properties or down the street. The criteria for triggering either of these stages is vague, but the mayor can enact a water-conservation stage at any time pending a City Council hearing.
Right now, Mayor Jerry Sanders doesn't think there's a need to go ahead with either of the stages; nor does City Council President Scott Peters, though spokespeople for both promised they'd monitor the situation carefully.
“We have a difference of opinion,” said Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, referring to the grand jury report. “Part of the problem is, at one of the stages, there is in essence a construction moratorium. When you're dealing with a region that is developing very quickly, you need to be able to build. If we have to go there, we will. It's a policy decision you have to make, but to all in this community, it's incredibly important that we grow [as] a region and we continue adding to our community.”
Sainz is referring to Stage 3, which forbids the city from installing any new water meters.
Some water-conservation advocates are concerned that Sanders is merely looking out for the many developers who have donated money to his mayoral campaign. California law requires that all new housing projects of 500 or more units have a guaranteed 20-year water supply. In San Diego, the city Water Department issues that guarantee.
“If you declare a water emergency, that seems inconsistent with telling people we've got enough water for 20 years,” said Tom Zelany, a lawyer in the City Attorney's office who works on water issues. “If I were an attorney opposing a big project, that would be one of the first buttons I'd push.”
City Councilmember Donna Frye believes the city should go at least to Stage 1, if only to have the city government speak with one loud voice.
“It would at least get the message across,” she said.
Bruce Reznik, executive director of the clean-water advocacy group San Diego Coastkeeper, can't imagine why Sanders won't implement Stage 1.
“It's somewhat ironic that somebody like the mayor would talk about the need to tighten our belts on a fiscal basis,” he said, “but when you talk about water, a resource you'd die without, there's none of the belt tightening.”
Sainz argues that the mayor is doing everything but call for a water emergency. “What we're doing now is essentially calling for voluntary conservation measures,” he said.
Last fall, Sanders called for all residents and businesses to reduce their daily water consumption by 20 gallons. And lately, he's taken to holding weekly press conferences to raise awareness of water-supply problems: He held a “water summit” with local mayors and asked restaurants to serve water only when requested, and this week he showcased a Kensington family that uses drought-resistant landscaping.
The jury is still out on the success of his campaign. In October, Competitive Edge Research & Communication released a poll that showed that 52 percent of San Diegans had never heard of the 20-gallon challenge. But the San Diego Water Authority, which serves the county, said water usage dropped from 47,000 acre-feet in December 2006 to 34,000 acre-feet in December 2007. (One acre-foot equals 325,581 gallons, enough to serve a four-person family for a year.) Some of the reduction, but not all, can be attributed to an unusually wet December, which reduced the need to irrigate.
“We're seeing savings, which is great,” said Dana Friehauf, a conservation expert at the Water Authority.
Beyond voluntary conservation, the City Council has been trying to add to the city's water supply by pushing water reuse, in which wastewater is cleansed to drinkable standards. In October, the City Council received a report from the Assembly on Water Reuse, a 67-member citizen group that spent a year examining San Diego's water options. The group decided that sewage water recycling was the most cost-efficient and environmentally sound method for increasing the local water supply.
The council passed a resolution ordering city staff to study the cost of augmenting the North City Water Reclamation Plant so that it can purify water to drinking-water standards. Sanders, arguing that it was not the best use of city funds, vetoed the measure. The council overrode the veto in November and ordered city staff to report back in January.
January has come and gone—no report. Under the executive-mayor form of government, city staff report only to Sanders. Frye, who chairs the city's Natural Resources and Culture Committee, plans to force the issue by putting it on the agenda for the committee's next meeting.
What makes the delay so galling for Frye and others is that much of the key research was done eight years ago as a result of litigation between the city and the federal government. As part of a deal with environmentalists, the city built the North City Water Reclamation Plant to treat wastewater to irrigation standards and created a test project that converted sewage into water pure enough to drink. David Schlesinger, the then-director of the Metro Wastewater Department, used to drink it while giving testimony to the City Council, he told CityBeat.
After reading the City Council's November ordinance, Schlesinger wondered why it needed a year to even build the pilot project—and he doesn't understand why city staff couldn't produce cost estimates by the January deadline.“In 1998, we were ready to go with the final design. We had the pipeline routing; we just needed the funding,” he said. “I cannot see what new information is being obtained from the pilot study other than to update the project costs, which are now 10 years old.”
Water Department spokesperson Arian Collins said that producing the report is time consuming and that staff needs to check for updates to state regulations.
“We're proceeding forward in a deliberate manner so that nothing is overlooked, because it's an issue of public health,” Collins said. Sanders “wants us to make sure that we've got everything that we need to know in order to have the proper report to council so that no stone is left unturned.”
Frye thinks the delay stems from Sanders' opposition to the project.
She resurrected Sanders' own words from his first State of the City speech, in which he promised an end the previous regime's operating philosophy.
“It's the old delay, deny, deceive,” she said.