State's Waning Water Supplies Spawn Tidal Wave of Challenges


California’s virtual perma-drought crisis is being called "the new normal" for life going forward in the Golden State.

Scientists think it actually might be the “old normal," given climate and sparse rainfall patterns going back centuries -- to when coastal Southern California, especially, was a barren, semi-arid landscape.

But it seems water conservation alone is far from the only or optimum way to manage the challenges, and that myriad other approaches aren’t quite evolved enough to bring the necessary “bang” for all the bucks that must be spent to stabilize a society begging for hydration.

There have been calls for moratoriums on residential construction, among them.

Many frustrated homeowners who have cut their water dramatically are wondering why they should keep saving when builders keep adding to the population.

Temporary halts to homebuilding construction are already under discussion in a few California communities – and could wind up being taken to court.

Local homebuilders warn that shutting their operations would cause vast, unintended consequences because the area's population-driver is the local birthrate.

"Even if you put a fence around the county and said 'No more building, no more people,' the population is still going to increase,” says Matt Adams, a vice president of the San Diego Building Industry Association. “And we still have to provide homes for our future citizens here in San Diego County."

In a Friday recording session for Sunday’s edition of NBC 7’s “Politically Speaking” program, Adams pointed out that what the industry has been bringing to market cuts water use in half, compared to homes built before 1980.

And, that the less-efficient older housing stock actually needs replacing.

It may be that backyard pools become more of a liability than a selling point.

But whatever trends develop as water gets scarcer, Adams says homebuyers shopping in the current drought cycle might welcome incentives to be part of the solution, rather than the problem – especially when it comes to outdoor irrigation.”

"On the average, 70 percent (of home water use) is in landscaping outside,” Adams said. “There's where the water is going that is not for human consumption."

Water policy consultant Carl Nettleton buys into that logic: "The market comes from people wanting houses that are sustainable, that use water and energy wisely -- because it saves them money and makes them feel good about the future."

Another issue that’s prompted outcries is the fairness of across-the-board cutbacks that don't take into account people's baseline use in recent months in years.

Should those who have managed the largest decreases in their water consumption be given more of a break?

And those who have done the least be obliged to save a much greater percentage -- and pay higher conservation rates?

Could that be addressed through rebates and surcharges linked to different use trends, and customer tiers?

Experts offer cautionary words about potential devils in the details.

"There are lot of cuts being handed down from wholesale water agencies as well as the state,” noted Stephen Heverly, managing director of San Diego-based Equinox Center.

“And some water districts started responding by handing down emergency or drought conservation rates even as early as last July,” Heverly added. “But that impacts water bills."

The relative bargain prices for water being paid by agricultural interests are coming under fire.

“We’ve got to raise the price of water,” argued Milt Burgess, an engineer with four decades’ experience in hydro-delivery systems. “Let the market decide where we grow fruits and vegetables in California … if we can get the price of water up, then the market would make that decision.”

Focus also has intensified on replacing -- as well as reusing -- whatever water that remains available in a thirsty state.

Residents have gotten comfortable with the practice of reclaiming water from sewage for the purpose of irrigation.

But it's taken a longer time for people to accept the production of "potable" drinking water, and using it in showers, sinks, dishwashers.

That's just what modern scientists have managed pull off -- to the point where the finished product is just as safe and savory as the bottled water consumers readily buy.

Surveys now show that the so-called "ick factor" of what used to be dismissed as "toilet to tap" is evaporating, since the reality of a seemingly endless drought is really sinking in.

Potable H20 also is cheaper to produce than desalinated seawater, with fewer environmental downsides.

However, desalination is expected to become more widespread due to the diminishing number pristine lakes, streams and underground aquifers to meet our needs.

Next year, in Carlsbad, the $1.3 billion Poseidon desalination plant is expected to begin full operations, producing about 7 percent of our current consumption level countywide.

A splash in the bucket, so to speak -- but a sorely needed start.

After all, San Diegans daily flush 160 million gallons of bathroom and kitchen wastewater into deep ocean canyons off Point Loma, after so-called "advanced primary" treatment.

Efforts to recycle and re-purify it lag way behind.

Less than 30 million gallons a day are recycled locally for industrial and freeway landscaping irrigation purposes.

A potable water purification plant in Eastgate Mall has been yielding a million gallons of potable water a day, also for irrigation use during still-ongoing testing phases.

Once it’s state-certified to go on line for general use, the output could be cranked up to about 15 million gallons a day by a decade later.

By contrast, potable water production in Orange County, with the benefit of deep underground storage capacity, is trending toward 100 mgd.

Whatever approaches are cobbled together and brought to bear on the crisis, there are no guarantees that legislation and logistics won't lead to litigation involving government agencies, water districts and various private interests.

If so, courtroom battles seem infinitely preferable to the kind of water wars fought here in the "Wild West" days of yesteryear -- with bullets and bloodshed.

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