By Doug Porter
For many months now the Big Story about water in California has been about the drought–as in we don’t have enough. On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend water restrictions thru October 2016.
Here in San Diego, according to Voice of San Diego, we’ve got so much water that the County Water Authority has dumped a half billion gallons of recently desalinated and other treated drinking water into the Lower Otay Reservoir near Chula Vista.
In case you haven’t looked at you water bill yet, you’re being charged more for doing such a good job of conserving water last year.
The Politics of Oversupply
The opening of the billion dollar Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant just two months ago has added to the local oversupply situation. Freshened up sea water pumped into the local supply is ending up in the reservoir, where it must be treated again should the need arise to use it.
San Diego is obliged to buy the desalinated water under the terms of its contract with the operators of the Carlsbad facility, which is the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere.
At present, this water costs more than twice as much as the stuff we get piped in from Northern California and the Colorado River. Down the road–somewhere between 2027 and 2042– we’re told the price of ‘raw’ water will rise enough to make this investment look smart.
What we don’t know is how the price of desalination –the single most energy intensive water supply option available– will be impacted if and when energy costs rise.
According to Ry Rivard’s story in the Voice of San Diego, politics and infrastructure issues are keeping the County Water Authority’s main supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, from reducing their flow to our area.
One solution to all these problems? Just let San Diego use more water.
The County Water Authority has been lobbying against the governor’s water conservation mandate, even though state officials are looking to lock in the water savings so that Californians don’t backpedal and find themselves unprepared for yet another drought.
Last week, the authority sent an 11-page letter to the State Water Resources Control Board that continued to plead San Diego’s case, which is basically that San Diego should have a choice about saving water, in part because it has worked for years to buy itself out of droughts.
Back in the days when the Carlsbad plant was getting permitted, the California Coastal Commission expressed concern about private seawater desalination resulting in a conflict between the interest of a community in having a local and reliable water supply and decisions about how water is used, priced, and managed by an entity outside of the community’s control.
San Diego’s choices in long-term planning are concerning because water can be shifted from being a public resource into a commodity. Visions of the dystopian future portrayed in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (highly recommended!) drive my fears of what these kinds of deals could end up looking like.
Supply and Demand in Waterland
San Diego’s success in conserving water in 2015 is among the reasons the City Council, urged on by a broad coalition of business and environmental groups, approved a plan last fall opening up a path to a 40% compounded rate hike within four years.
Council President Sherri Lightner said the rising cost of imported water meant San Diego had to invest in water autonomy projects, including the city’s Pure Water recycling program. City staffers presented a host of dire consequences if the council rejected the rate increases.
“The future of our water supply and water infrastructure depends on this rate increase,” Lightner said. “This is our opportunity to responsibly plan for our future.”
The rate hike was highly contentious, largely because it was necessitated in part by state-mandated conservation. Most of the city’s water costs are fixed, but most of its revenue depends on water sales. Reduced revenues because of conservation — coupled with rising costs from water wholesalers such as the San Diego County Water Authority — has created a “perfect storm,” said Halla Razak, director of the city’s Public Utilities Department.
Okay, so less water usage left less money to be collected. As anybody who has witnessed one of the area’s frequent water main breaks will tell you, we do have a lot of maintenance and capital improvement issues.
The prospects for a local water recycling program were also among the considerations going into the rate hike.
From the Union-Tribune:
Councilman David Alvarez, who joined with Councilman Scott Sherman in voting against the increases, said supporters have exaggerated the connection between the rate hikes and the sewage recycling program, which the city has dubbed “Pure Water San Diego.”
He stressed that less than one-twentieth of the revenue generated by the rate hikes over the next five years will pay for Pure Water infrastructure.
“To say that if we don’t do this we will not have Pure Water is just false,” he said.
The libertarian think tank set correctly points out that California’s mishmash of water allocations add up to five times more water than actually exists. And, while it’s true that the mishmash is a big part of the problem, their favored solution of privatization of water rights just isn’t in the cards.
We can thank California’s big utility companies like Sempra for giving us an example of what doesn’t work for consumers.
Here’s reasons against privatization in a nutshell, via Wenonah Hauter in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Private water providers are businesses. They are motivated mainly by their bottom line. The pressure to deliver high rates of return for shareholders drives them to cut corners when they are operating under contracts, and to drive up costs when they are operating as regulated utilities. The latter is a well-established phenomenon known as the Averch-Johnson Effect, named for the economists who first modeled it in the 1960s. Under rate-of-return regulation, investor-owned water utilities make more money when they invest in infrastructure, giving them an incentive to “gold plate” systems. Yes, they are investing in improvements. But they may build an unnecessarily large treatment plant or choose a more capital-intensive treatment process, such as desalination.
Private companies that operate water systems have appalling track records of rate increases, poor system maintenance, faulty billing practices and other failures, sometimes even jeopardizing the health and safety of local residents.
Come On In, The Water’s Fine
The water contamination crisis in Flint Michigan, should serve as a reminder of how we often take the quality of our drinking water for granted. Michael Moore’s open letter, Ten Things They Won’t Tell You About The Flint Water Tragedy, is chock full of instances where public naivete allowed horrible things to happen.
When Governor Snyder took office in 2011, one of the first things he did was to get a multi-billion dollar tax break passed by the Republican legislature for the wealthy and for corporations. But with less tax revenues, that meant he had to start cutting costs. So, many things – schools, pensions, welfare, safe drinking water – were slashed. Then he invoked an executive privilege to take over cities (all of them majority black) by firing the mayors and city councils whom the local people had elected, and installing his cronies to act as “dictators” over these cities. Their mission? Cut services to save money so he could give the rich even more breaks. That’s where the idea of switching Flint to river water came from. To save $15 million! It was easy. Suspend democracy. Cut taxes for the rich. Make the poor drink toxic river water. And everybody’s happy.
Except those who were poisoned in the process. All 102,000 of them. In the richest country in the world.
A report listing San Diego as number nine on a list of one of the 10 worst tap water cities in the nation popped up in my news feed today. So I clicked and down the wormhole I went.
Google, in it’s infinite wisdom, saw I was researching water issues (they know I live in San Diego, natch) and served up this story. It turns out the the research dates back nearly 7 years. (Pro-tip: always check the publication date!)
San Diego’s ranking as the ninth worst city earned it this description:
Located on the Pacific in Southern California, San Diego is the country’s eighth-largest city. According to California’s Department of Public Health, San Diego’s drinking water system contained eight chemicals exceeding health guidelines as well as two chemicals that exceeded the EPA’s legal limit. In total, 20 contaminants have been found. One of those in excess of the EPA limit was trihalomethanes. The other was manganese, a natural element that’s a byproduct of industrial manufacturing and can be poisonous to humans.
Local levels of contamination in this old report are nowhere near those being experienced in Flint and other poor urban areas, and the dangers are proportionally less, at least on a short-term basis.
The City of San Diego issues annual reports on drinking water quality and they say the presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk.
Personally, I have a filter installed. Some days the local tap water just smells funky.
On This Day: 1913 – Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a White man launched the 1955 Montgomery, Ala.,bus boycott and the birth of the civil rights movement, was born in Tuskegee, Ala. 1955 – James Brown recorded “Please Please Please.” 1997 – A civil jury found O.J. Simpson liable in the death of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Goldman’s parents were awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages.
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