Drought Emergency Declared In Southern California; How It Affects San Diego

California's Drought And Water Restrictions Turn Cemeteries Brown

Photo: Getty Images

California is enduring the worst drought in 1,200 years. Despite recent rainfall from a series of storms, reservoirs are well below average for this time of year. As a result, new mandatory water restrictions are expected for early next year, impacting 19 million people in Southern California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the nation's largest water supplier and they're in trouble. As the west heads into its fourth year of record drought the district, which relies on water from the Colorado River and the northern Sierra Nevada, is facing record lows in water supply. Earlier in 2022 the district declared emergency status for much of Los Angeles, and on Tuesday they extended the declaration to cover all of Southern California. Metropolitan Water Authority supplies water to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

“The western North America is in a drought we haven’t seen in 1,200 years. So, it’s not overstating things to say that we’re in a drought of biblical proportions,” said Brad Coffey, a water resource manager with Metropolitan Water District. 

California residents have reduced water use by only 5.2% despite being asked by Governor Gavin Newsom to reduce use by 15%. Coffey, who represents the nation’s largest water supplier, said that if residents don’t start conserving water now, all of Southern California could experience difficult days this coming spring and summer. 

“Think of it as a deficit to a bank account,” Coffey told KTLA. “We’ve spent down our bank account for the past three years, and though we’ve got a little coming in now, we’ve still got a long way to go to make up for what’s happened over the last three years.” 

So, what about San Diego?

San Diego is certainly suffering along with the rest of California, but not to the same extent. San Diego's water conservation efforts began in 1990 when drought conditions forced the county to make big changes which resulted in residential water use dropping by 43%. From that point, San Diego's Water Authority began deversifying its water sources well beyond the Metropolitan Water Authority. The Water Authority took action by increasing the height of the San Vicente Dam to allow it to store more water, and approving the Carlsbad desalinization plant.

San Diego County now only relies on the Metropolitan Water District for 13% of its water, so the Drought Emergency Restrictions will not have a tremendous impact. The bulk of the county's water is reported to come from "Conserved Water." Over the last three decades San Diego has continued its water-wise initiatives, including making drastic changes to how municipalities, businesses and home owners approach landscaping and water features as well as supporting the installation of low-water appliances. The graphic below from the San Diego County Water Authority shows San Diego's water sources now (2022) and what the county expects them to be in 2045.

  • Conserved Water/ IID = 43%
  • Conserved Water/ Canal Lining = 16%
  • Metropolitan Water District = 13%
  • Seawater Desalination = 10%
  • Local Surface Water = 4%
  • Recycled Water = 5%
  • Groundwater = 6%
  • San Luis Rey Water Transfer = 3%

These conservation efforts have given San Diego an advantage when it comes to water availability, but they come at a significant cost. Some argue that the Water Authority's decision to spend billions on water storage, recycling projects, and long-term aquisition contracts has led to "ballooning costs." San Diego water rates are higher than customers who rely on the Metropolitan Water Authority for the majority of their water.

New reports anticipate skyrocketing water rate increases due to the cost of overhauling the Carlsbad desalinization plant. The plant is being forced to meet state envirtonmental regulations to protect fish and marine life at an estimated cost of $274 million. The plant is also impacted by rapidly rising electricity costs. The factors are contributing to an increase in consumer water rates for the City of San Diego by almost 18% over the next two years.

Sandy Kerl, General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, thinks the end justifies the means, stating at a meeting with the 36-member board on Thursday, “At a time when others in the state are looking to shore up supplies...we’re in good standing with our own water supply portfolio and the reliability it brings to the region. Reliability, as you all know too well, does come at a price."

Many feel that the region is better served investing in wastewater recycling as opposed to desalinization. According the SanDiego.Gov website,

Pure Water San Diego is the City of San Diego's phased, multi-year program that will provide nearly half of San Diego's water supply locally by the end of 2035. The first phase of the program is expected to produce 30 million gallons of water per day.
The Pure Water San Diego Program will use proven water purification technology to clean recycled water to produce safe, high-quality drinking water. The Program offers a cost-effective investment for San Diego's water needs and will provide a reliable, sustainable water supply.

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