How San Diego secured its water provide, at a price

As a worsening drought forces hundreds of thousands of Californians to manage obligatory water restrictions, one nook of Southern California has largely shielded itself from provide points: San Diego County.

For western water planners, the trail he took to get there serves as both a blueprint or a cautionary story.

Over the previous three a long time, San Diego County has diversified its water provide, stepped up conservation, and invested in costly water infrastructure, together with the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, which removes salt and impurities. seawater. In consequence, the water company that serves 24 water utilities, together with town of San Diego, says it will possibly keep away from cutoffs till a minimum of 2045, even throughout dry intervals. However this safety comes at a price.

San Diego County water is among the many most costly within the nation, costing about 26% extra on the wholesale degree in 2021 than that of the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and surrounding counties. Now two rural irrigation districts in San Diego County, dwelling to main avocado industries, wish to spin off from the regional water provider, saying they’ll purchase cheaper water elsewhere. In the event that they succeed, San Diego County water might grow to be much more costly.

“The scenario in San Diego may be very shocking, very putting,” stated Michael Hanemann, an environmental economist at Arizona State College who was not too long ago commissioned to check water prices within the area for a California company. “I believe it is a harbinger of one thing that is going to occur elsewhere in California and elsewhere in the US.”


San Diegans hasn’t at all times been quiet in the course of the drought. Within the Nineteen Nineties, a extreme drought lowered the area’s water provide by 30%. On the time, nearly all of its water got here from the Metropolitan Water District, the nation’s largest water provider. That have and a strained, dysfunctional relationship — say California water specialists — with water officers in Los Angeles have spurred San Diego County’s decades-long aggressive pursuit of self-sufficiency. in water.

“At that time, our group got here collectively and stated, ‘We’re not going to search out ourselves on this scenario once more. Now we have to plan for our personal reliability,” stated Sandy Kerl, chief government of the San Diego County Water Authority.

So in 2003, the water authority entered into an settlement to acquire water from the biggest consumer of the Colorado River, the Imperial Irrigation District in southern California. San Diego County funded repairs to leaky Imperial-owned canals and signed a historic water switch settlement. At present, it receives about 55% of its whole provide from Imperial beneath the deal.

The water authority has additionally helped farmers use much less water. He raised dams to extend the storage capability within the reservoirs. He supplied reductions to owners who ripped up lawns for water-efficient options.

In 2012, San Diego County reached an settlement to acquire 10% of its water provide from the Carlsbad desalination plant for the subsequent 30 years. The plant produces 50 million gallons of ingesting water – sufficient for round 400,000 folks – day by day and is by far the area’s most costly supply of water.

“In spherical phrases, it is twice as costly as imported floor water,” Hanemann stated. “Then again, it is a very dependable provide as a result of it is unaffected by drought and low river flows in northern California or Colorado.”

As these efforts materialized, demand steadily declined, whilst half 1,000,000 extra folks moved to San Diego. Statewide water cuts in the course of the drought, extra environment friendly showers, bathrooms and taps, grass-pulling reductions and using recycled water did what they have been imagined to do – strongly reduce water consumption per particular person. In 2020, San Diegans used 30% much less water than in 1990.

Water officers, nonetheless, had not anticipated the subsequent drop in demand and persistently overestimated the quantity of water wanted. At present, San Diego County says it is now not searching for extra water, a stance some westerners may think about enviable. However they might not envy water tariffs.

Because of the sale of much less water, San Diego County has elevated its charges – by a mean of 4% in every of the previous 5 years – to cowl fastened prices, together with the San Vicente Dam and the desalination plant. These prices symbolize the lion’s share — about 90% — of the company’s annual expenditures.

The value of water, Hanemann stated, is basically decided by the infrastructure that transports and shops it. “You are screwed if unexpectedly you are supplying fewer gallons of water since your prices aren’t taking place.”

“Water is a horrible enterprise as a result of we have to encourage folks to make use of much less of our product and cost them extra once they do,” stated Tom Kennedy, normal supervisor of the Rainbow Municipal Water District, one among two water companies making an attempt to interrupt away from the San Diego County Water Board.


Rainbow and Fallbrook, the opposite metropolis whose company is making an attempt to supply water from elsewhere, say it might give them entry to cheaper water, though the potential financial savings usually are not but recognized. A state company is contemplating whether or not they can go away, with a call anticipated by the tip of the yr. If their exit is authorized, the subsequent step can be a vote among the many residents. Provided that this vote passes can each districts go away.

At a current public listening to, offended residents yelled at authorities about how lengthy the method will take – and the way a lot their payments will value within the meantime.

Rural cities present a stark distinction to San Diego’s constellation of seashore cities and waterfront skyline. To the northeast of town, steep, dry hills and huge canyons dot the panorama.

Excessive water prices have harm agriculture in Fallbrook and Rainbow, as soon as the nation’s largest avocado producer. Between 2016 and 2020, Fallbrook misplaced practically a fifth of its avocado groves, in keeping with authorities data, as a result of urbanization and fallow groves.

Jason Kendall, a Rainbow farmer whose household took out their avocado plantations years in the past, stated rising the fruit with out extra groundwater is a dropping enterprise.

“You simply cannot be worthwhile shopping for district water and rising avocados,” stated Kendall, who owns 350 acres (142 hectares) of reduce flowers, that are broadly grown within the space.


San Diego County water officers say water prices are rising in different components of California and the West, despite the fact that desalination is much less common immediately than it was. was previously. Not too long ago, a California Coastal Fee refuse a allow for Poseidon Water to construct one other decades-old desalination plant some 60 miles up the coast at Huntington Seashore. The rejection got here after years of opposition from environmentalists.

The remainder of the state has work to do, San Diego County officers stated, as local weather change continues to accentuate droughts and slender rivers feeding California reservoirs and the Colorado River.

“There is no such thing as a extra low cost water obtainable,” Kerl stated.


The Related Press receives assist from the Walton Household Basis for protection of water and environmental coverage. The AP is solely chargeable for all content material. For all of AP’s environmental protection, go to

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