4/18/15: Water 101: What I’ve Learned

Here’s a challenging situation – despite having no background in water policy, I’m the water board president by virtue of being the city’s deputy mayor. Luckily, we have excellent managers and staff at both the water and wastewater districts, and I find I’m quickly learning from the best.

I often reflect on what factors make America a first-world country. Right at the top are the twin realities of clean drinking water in every home, and a sanitation system that takes all our human waste somewhere where we don’t have to think about it. Maintaining this complex system is expensive and designed to last into the indefinite future. There is almost nothing more heavily regulated than water – that’s why it’s so clean. And yet it costs me less than a penny to get a gallon of clean, fresh, drinkable water delivered to me in my home. This is one of the many reasons I feel lucky to live in this country.

Yosemite Falls still had water in March when I was there for a conference. Most of the summer and fall, it’s dry.

 
In the face of Governor Brown’s recent executive order to reduce water use by 25 percent, every one of the 411 water supply agencies in the state is scrambling. If we here in the San Dieguito Water District cut our water use by one quarter, here’s what’s likely to happen:

  1. Across-the-board “drought rates,” which means you’ll pay about 20 percent more to use the same amount of water you use now.
  2. Landscape irrigating would be allowed only once a week, down from the current three times a week.
  3. “Water meter restrictions” would result in new developments having to pay a new fee for water meters. That doesn’t mean that no new water meters are allowed, just that they will cost more. A developer would pay a fee to allow others to switch to using recycled water so that the new home could have potable water. Recycled water, affectionately known as “purple pipe” for the color of hardware it’s transported through, isn’t purified enough to drink so it’s restricted to use on the ground at golf courses, parks and schoolyards. Water meter restrictions essentially means that new homes pay to have large landscaped areas switch over to this type of irrigation.

Homes in San Diego County use more water than agriculture, industry, business and public facilities combined. So what households do really affects the amount of water used. In the next few months here in the San Dieguito Water District, we’ll likely see required cutbacks from five to 25 percent. The eastern half of our city, served by the Olivenhain Municipal Water District, could see required cutbacks up to 35 percent.

Our region learned the drought lesson the hard way in 1991, when an historic drought resulted in the county considering a 50 percent mandatory cut. That would have been terrible for the local economy – officials in other states contacted large employers here pitching reliable water supplies if they moved there. Then the so-called March Miracle brought historic rains and saved the county from rationing (and a business exodus).

It also motivated officials to spend the last 25 years and millions of dollars diversifying our water sources to avoid that type of crisis again. At the time of that drought, 95 percent of our water came from one source, Metropolitan Water District, which gets most of its water from the Colorado River. Feeling too dependent, the water agencies diversified. Now Lake Hodges typically accounts for 30 percent of our water supply, but that’s down this year to 15 percent. The Lake Hodges supply is mostly rainwater and runoff from surrounding hills. We also get about 10 percent more from recycling our “purple pipe” wastewater, and next year we’ll get about 5 percent from the new desalination plant in Carlsbad.

Typically, we get between 10 and 25 percent of our water from the Sierra snowpack in Northern California. When that snow melts, it’s stored in reservoirs and piped all over the state. That’s the source that is so historically low right now. It’s interesting to note that there are no restrictions on Colorado River water. We can get our full allotment of Colorado River water, but doing so is expensive.

Meanwhile the water and wastewater agencies are working overtime to develop the systems to transform our wastewater back into drinking water. This is one of the most reliable sources of water and is our future.

In the big picture, we all need to cut back, eliminate leaks, and reject wasteful habits like long showers and running the dishwasher with only one pan in it. Most importantly we need to use efficient outdoor watering systems like drip irrigation and replace decorative grass with drought tolerant plants. Most of the water used by homeowners is used outside.The water district website has a lot of useful information on how to conserve – check out their WaterSmart Lifestyle Guide. Ninety-five percent of San Diego residents consider efficient water use a civic duty.

But despite the drought, (or what some call the new water normal), we’ll likely still have parks with grass, backyard swimming pools and the luxury of a shower, instead of a bucket for bath water. That’s because the complex water system we’re privileged to have in Encinitas is designed to survive for the indefinite future, even if it costs us a bit more.

OTHER ENCINITAS NEWS

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Thank you to Fire Chief Mike Daigle (third from left) for the personal tour of five city fire stations this week!
Thank you to Fire Chief Mike Daigle (third from left) for the personal tour of five city fire stations this week!

At the City Council this week, we dealt with typical city issues. Every decision resulted in a unanimous vote and some topics provoked good discussion among the Council members.

  1. We updated our building codes to incorporate four green building standards related to solar power and electric vehicles into our ordinances. We followed the lead of the County Board of Supervisors, which adopted the same provisions last month.
  2. Anyone interested in reading the city’s code will soon find it easier to search, print and cross-reference. We approved editing the code for non-substantive editorial and formatting changes to create consistency. This will be a big improvement.
  3. We heard an update from the Street Design Committee and directed staff to continue on their path to update the Street Design Manual so that every new home doesn’t have to build a “curb-gutter-sidewalk,” which can degrade some of our community’s unique charm. There are other ways to meet local and state standards that also preserve community character, and the engineering department is establishing new guidelines to allow flexibility.
  4. The Parks and Recreation Department is going to use a new method of figuring out pricing for various programs. Instead of a haphazard approach, there will be a more cohesive strategy to analyzing the cost recovery or subsidization associated with each program.

COMING UP

The first Mediation Policy Subcommittee meeting with Council Member Tony Kranz and me is April 29 from 9-10 a.m. at City Hall. It’s open to the public, and we’ll present a draft of a proposal and solicit ideas from you on what you’d like to see in the mediation program.

The most recent draft of the Neighborhood Food ordinance and a draft of a proposed “Agricultural Permit” is being presented by Tony Kranz and me at the Urban Agriculture Subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, April 21, 11-1 p.m. at City Hall. Please come to offer your suggestions and feedback. Here’s the link to the draft Neighborhood Food ordinance. And here’s the link to the draft Agriculture Permit. If you can’t make the meeting, I’d be happy to take your comments via email.

The regional transportation board known as SANDAG will present its latest plans for the Coastal Rail Trail through Cardiff at Cardiff Elementary School at 6 p.m. on April 21. I’m strongly in favor of this trail being east of the railroad tracks to allow residents to walk and ride their bikes off the road, away from speeding cars. Please come to share your opinion on the placement of the trail.

Accompanying this picture of my six-year-old son Oliver, with his basket of fruit from our mulberry tree, is an apropos quote:

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Feeling grateful that you elected me to help make our city better,
Blakespear Signature- Catherine