Start with this: San Diego was built in a desert. If not for generations of landscaping and piping in water from the Colorado River and the Sierra Mountains, the city's terrain would resemble that of Tijuana. Today, half the water that allowed San Diegans to construct this green paradise originates hundreds of miles away, in the Colorado River, or the Sierra Nevada.
But that water supply is shrinking, most dramatically and immediately by a judge's order in August to cease pumping water out of the Sacramento River Delta to protect the endangered delta smelt. The order will reduce water supplies by 25 percent for much of Southern California. As promised in his State of the City speech, Mayor Jerry Sanders convened a meeting of local officials to discuss water. Actually, what he really wanted to discuss was sending a letter to state lawmakers, asking them to give the Southern California Metropolitan Water District (MWD) permission to build a smelt-protecting canal around the delta and keep the water flowing. MWD and other water agencies have even offered to pay for a multi-billion-dollar canal, financed by user fees.
Sanders lured 11 officials to his meeting, including the deputy mayor from L.A. and the mayor of Long Beach. The mayors were divided over whether they needed to enforce harsh conservation measures, particularly on outdoor landscaping and whether they should sign off on the letter—or whether to do both at the same time. Sanders said he hadn't expected to accomplish much more than that.
“You can't expect mayors to do anything without checking with their staffs,” he said.
The meeting produced a few other fascinating nuggets:
• 2007 is the driest year on record since the 1970s. The Colorado River is considered only half full.
• In California, 80 percent of all water goes to agricultural uses. The Central Valley produces 20 percent of the world's supply of fruits and vegetables (45 percent of the nation's).
• The levees and dikes that route water to the pumping stations in the delta, along with a major pipeline that ships the water southward, are all on earthquake-prone turf. Curt Schmutte, an MWD engineer, said an earthquake that reached 6.5 on the Richter scale could flood the entire delta within minutes and cut off the pipe. For context, the Loma Prieta quake that interrupted the 1989 World Series was a 6.8. So—yikes.
• Thanks to investments in storage made by MWD, Southern California has enough reserve water to last 18 months. But drink slow.
• The Sacramento River Delta is urbanizing. Schmutte said people are building houses in the flood plain, often below sea level. These people might want to review video footage of New Orleans after the levee broke.
• Los Angeles has invested so successfully in water conservation that L.A. consumes the same amount of water it did 25 years ago, despite adding millions of people.
• The state has been taking far more water out of the delta in recent years. Schmutte said if we do nothing to fix the problems with the delta, it will turn into an inland lake within a decade.