Executive Summary for February 5th

We analyze key developments in the California drought, including how San Diego County has ended up with a troublesome water surplus. Plus, this week’s drought report shows that drought conditions in California are still serious, despite above-average precipitation so far this year.

Published on Feb. 5, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s hard to believe that after more than four years of drought, any water agency in California, especially Southern California, could have too much water. But that’s what’s happening in San Diego.

Years ago, the San Diego County Water Authority decided to contract with Poseidon, which built a $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad. Anticipating rising water costs and increasing demand, the agency thought it would be a good investment.

But when mandatory drought regulations were put in place last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, San Diego residents cut back on their usage, thereby decreasing their water demand. And now it seems at the moment that supply exceeds demand. The Water Authority recently had to dump 554 million gallons of already treated drinking water into a nearby lake. The water won’t be wasted there, but it will need to be treated again before it can be used for drinking, which is an added expense.

Part of the problem is that San Diego has multiple sources of water. And according to a story by Ry Rivard in the Voice of San Diego, the Water Authority blames one of its suppliers, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for providing water it doesn’t need. But Metropolitan contends that it can’t simply stop sending the water without changes to its pipeline.

To make matters worse, “The drinking water that’s now been dumped into the lake includes desalinated water, some of the most expensive treated water in the world,” wrote Rivard. “Water officials will now have to spend even more money to make the once-drinkable desalinated water drinkable once again.”

The desalinated water costs $2,131 an acre-foot, and the treated water from Metropolitan costs $942, Rivard reports. But according to the Water Authority’s contract with Poseidon, the desalination plant, it can’t ask for cutbacks there.

So what’s the solution? Likely some legal wrangling between San Diego County Water Authority and Metropolitan to curtail deliveries, or more expenses incurred in retreating water after it’s dumped in the lake. Or a third option, letting San Diego residents simply use more water despite the conservation mandate, which seems to be the way the Water Authority is leaning after a recent letter it sent to the State Water Resources Control Board.

For whatever it’s worth, the San Diego Union-Tribune weighed in on the matter in an editorial, saying that despite the record snowfall in the mountains and the oversupply in the county, “Now is not the time to ease up on water conservation efforts, in San Diego or elsewhere.”

No Celebrations Just Yet

Tuesday’s news that the snowpack in parts of the Sierra was at 130 percent of the historical average was welcomed news. But despite the great skiing conditions, the state is not out of the woods yet when it comes to the drought.

A weekly drought report from the United States Drought Monitor says that “although El Niño-related precipitation has been bountiful so far this winter, the drought situation in California remains very serious.” In its map of drought conditions so far, just El Dorado County in northern California has edged its way out of the exceptional drought designation in the last week.

“This is because it takes time to assess the impacts all this moisture will have on long-term deficits and other hydrological considerations,” the report explains. In other words, despite the seemingly good news falling from the sky, we still have to wait and see for awhile.

Tackling Drought in the West

A new report, Improving the Federal Response to Western Drought: Five Areas for Reform, from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), lays out how the federal government can better assist with tackling drought in western states. The federal government is a huge player in the west – “the largest landowner, major supplier of irrigation, principal supporter of the farm sector, primary source of water information, and chief environmental regulator,” the report explains.

As such, the federal government needs to more effectively coordinate with state and local governments, the report maintains, and lists the five best avenues to do so:

  1. Leveraging federal authority to resolve key water conflicts;
  2. Coordinating federal actions to align agency efforts and priorities;
  3. Changing agricultural support programs to create watershed-scale benefits;
  4. Improving headwaters management to protect water sources and reduce impacts of catastrophic wildfire;
  5. Modernizing water information to help all phases of planning and operations.

The report acknowledges that Westerners are often resistant to federal involvement in issues, but proposes “modest, pragmatic federal actions” that can make western states like California more resilient in the face of climate change and drought.

Top image: In this Sept. 4, 2015 file photo is the Carlsbad, Calif. desalination plant, which produces 50 million gallons of drinking water for the San Diego area each day. San Diego County Water Authority currently has more water than its service area needs. (Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press)

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