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Water Conservation Is Alive and Well in San Diego

San Diego County has embraced water conservation and been a statewide leader on the issue, says the board chair of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Written by Mark Muir Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
The Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir are important part of the San Diego County's water supply. Construction on the dam began in August 2000, and the first water flowed into the reservoir in August 2003. The Olivenhain Reservoir has a storage capacity of 24,000 acre-feet of water.Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources

Water conservation is already a way of life in San Diego County, and San Diego County Water Authority has a lot to do with that. But an op-ed in Water Deeply by Matt O’Malley of San Diego Coastkeeper didn’t give that impression.

The truth is that Coastkeeper and the Water Authority share many goals, such as making our region more resilient to drought, but we sometimes disagree about the best way to accomplish them. Coastkeeper tends to support mandates by state regulators, whereas we advocate for decision-making at the local level to ensure alignment with local supply conditions and minimize unintended consequences. Coastkeeper emphasizes conservation “above any and all” other solutions, whereas we take a balanced approach that includes complementary efforts to manage demands and supplies.

It’s unhealthy and unproductive to demonize agencies such as the Water Authority that have provided a safe and reliable water supplies for decades during significant regional growth, a changing climate, multi-year droughts and countless new regulations. At the end of the day, we – not environmental groups – are responsible for ensuring that water comes out the taps that serve our region’s 3.3 million people and a $222 billion economy.

So, in the spirit of civil discourse, let’s clarify some things:

  • San Diego County has embraced conservation. In June 2017, water use in the region was 21 percent below June 2013 despite the fact that there have been no emergency water-use mandates in place for more than a year. That figure is not an aberration: for the 25 months that ended June 2017, water use in the San Diego region is 20 percent below 2013 levels. More than nine in 10 respondents (92 percent) to our most recent public opinion poll predict they will use less (33 percent) or about the same (59 percent) volume of water in 2017 as they did in 2016 – evidence that recent conservation gains are not likely to fade anytime soon.
  • We beat the drought with a combination of conservation and supply investments. Contrary to Coastkeeper’s assertion, the Water Authority has been a statewide leader in conservation outreach long before, during and after the most recent drought. We have promoted conservation and efficiency on a grand scale for decades, and regional per capita water use was nearly 40 percent below 1990 levels before state emergency mandates were imposed in 2015. On the supply side, the Water Authority has invested in a variety of drought-resilient resources that have significantly reduced our reliance on the environmentally fragile Bay-Delta, in alignment with state water policy. Coastkeeper embraces the conservation components of that policy and disregards the rest; we take an integrated approach consistent with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Water Action Plan.
  • We support appropriate, target-based efficiency standards for water use that account for variables such as population and climate. Our region has already achieved the legislatively mandated water-use goals for 2020, and we agree that the goals for the 2025 should further increase water-use efficiency. The issue – as always – is how far and how fast to go; we must ensure that water users have time to adjust and aren’t subject to unreasonable targets. The proposed regulatory framework has raised concerns statewide – not just in San Diego – about negative unintended consequences, particularly for businesses that drive our economy. By involving stakeholders in the process, the Water Authority and scores of water agencies statewide are seeking to avoid unnecessary water rate increases and economic disruption, while strengthening the state’s current (and successful) water-efficiency legislation Senate Bill X7-7.
  • We believe water reuse should be incentivized, not discouraged. Water reuse is inherently efficient, and the state’s regulatory framework calls for new water-use targets to be compatible with the goal of expanding this resource. We are encouraging the state to include water reuse as a critical component of meeting efficiency goals. Not providing a supply-related incentive for water reuse would undercut this expanding sector in California; few agencies will invest in these drought-resilient supplies if they won’t get an added water reliability benefit. Coastkeeper calls our approach a “massive loophole.” We view it as an opportunity to continue making the most of every drop, and we are disappointed that Coastkeeper does not fully support the development of this valuable resource.

There’s room for a healthy discussion on these issues and others over what constitutes practical and far-sighted policy for a state as diverse and complex as California. But creating false narratives, assigning ill motives and casting blame will rarely produce the kind of visionary solutions to which we all aspire.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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