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Water Emergency Declared


Last updated 1/10/2023 at 11:21am

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which provides 55% of San Diego County’s imported water supply, declared a “Regional Drought Emergency,” on Dec. 14, 2022, calling for the entire region to further cut back water use as all imported water supplies are stressed by Drought and climate change.

The MWD, on average, imports about half of the water used in Southern California from the Colorado River and from the northern Sierra’s, via the State Water Project (SWP). Use varies by community, with some relying almost entirely on imported water, and others using very little. In recent years, these imported supplies have been extraordinarily stressed by prolonged Drought, exacerbated by climate change.

A serious warning to water districts dependent on water from the Colorado River and State Water Project, like San Diego County, which relies on both the Colorado River and SWP, pulling water from the northern Sierra’s, for about 88% of its potable (safe, drinkable water). Both providers are in trouble due to depleted water supply and sending subtle warnings to their agent members, such as the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA).

Preparing for a fourth consecutive dry year, Metropolitan Water District’s Board of Directors has declared a Regional Drought Emergency for all of Southern California and called upon water agencies to immediately reduce their use of all imported supplies.

In adopting the resolution on Dec. 13, 2022, Metropolitan’s board warned the water-saving call could become mandatory if Drought conditions persist in the coming months. By April, Metropolitan will consider allocating supplies to all its 26 member agencies, requiring them to cut their use of imported water or face steep additional fees on water purchased from Metropolitan.

In the announcement the Board of Directors suggested, disaster could be prevented by changing landscape watering patterns, which they say is 75% of the water use.

The long-term Drought in the Colorado River Basin has left lakes Mead and Powell dangerously close to levels that would no longer allow water to be released for use by cities and farms. In response, the federal government has called on Colorado River water users to curtail their use in 2023 and 2024 by as much as 4 million acre-feet a year – the total amount used by California in a year. And if voluntary cuts cannot be achieved, federal officials have initiated a process to mandate sizable reductions.

Metropolitan is preparing for additional reductions to its Colorado River supplies as soon as next year and beyond. These reductions would be in addition to water Metropolitan will likely have to contribute to keep levels in Lake Mead higher in 2024 – 26, as previously agreed under the 2021 Drought Contingency Plan.

“Conditions on the Colorado River are growing increasingly dire. We simply cannot continue turning to that source to make up the difference in our limited state supplies. In addition, three years of California Drought are drawing down our local storage,” board Chairwoman Gloria D. Gray said.

Contrast this with the consistently optimistic quotes from Sandy Kerl, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. “Over the past three decades, San Diego County diversified its water supply, ramped up conservation and invested in big-ticket water infrastructure including the Western hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, which removes salt and impurities from ocean water.

“As a result, the water agency that serves 24 water utilities including the city of San Diego, says it can avoid cuts until at least 2045, even during dry periods.”

The County has relied on Colorado River water since 1946 largely through the water it purchases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Through the historic Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) of 2003, the San Diego region secured its own independent conserved Colorado River supplies. These supplies consist of 200,000 acre-feet annually through the conserved water transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District and approximately 77,000 acre-feet conserved by concrete lining long stretches of the All-American and Coachella canals.

These conserved QSA supplies are tied to senior priority water rights on the Colorado River and represent more than half of the San Diego region’s water. The county also receives imported water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta via the State Water Project to a limited extent.

SDCWA has 24 member agencies and” works to provide safe, reliable water service to the region.” The Water Authority’s member agencies provide retail water service to 3.3 million people.

Every water expert has warned the imported water wouldn’t last forever. And, forever is getting closer every year of the Drought. Then there’s the depletion of over 50% of groundwater in California sucked up by underground wells.

In California’s Central Valley water supplies have dwindled in some communities to the point only bottled water is available to cook, drink, or bathe. Growth of water-dependent residences, -business, -recreation, and -infrastructure, have continued to be approved by San Diego’s local governments, seemingly, without concern about water supplies.

“It’s the economy, stupid. However, an economy cannot be maintained without water,” claimed a local water expert.

The past three water years were the driest in California history, resulting in record-low SWP deliveries to Southern California. The limited availability of these water supplies has been particularly felt by communities that depend on them and cannot receive Colorado River water, because of infrastructure constraints.

These SWP-dependent communities – home to nearly 7 million people – have been under mandatory Drought restrictions since June. Under Metropolitan’s Emergency Water Conservation Program, affected agencies have either been living within volumetric limits or have restricted outdoor watering to one day a week.

Those mandatory measures will continue in these SWP-dependent communities through June 2023, and possibly longer if substantial rain and snow this winter doesn’t bring relief to California’s Drought.

While the rest of Southern California has largely been able to turn to Colorado River supplies and stored water to survive the state Drought, Hagekhalil acknowledged the availability of those supplies is dropping.

“Since this Drought began, we have been steadily increasing our call for conservation. If we don’t have an extremely wet winter, we will need to elevate to our highest level – a water supply allocation for all of Southern California. Substantial and immediate conservation now and in the coming months will help lessen the potential severity of such an allocation,” Metropolitan General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said.

An Associated Press article in USA Today, May 29, 2022, repeated the positive public relations constantly coming from leadership of the San Diego County Water Authority.

“As a worsening Drought forces millions of Californians to face mandatory water restrictions, one corner of Southern California has largely shielded itself from supply-related woes: San Diego County.”

“San Diegans didn’t always rest easy during Drought. In the 1990s, a severe dry period cut the region’s water supply by 30%. At the time, almost all of its water came from the Metropolitan Water District. That experience and a tense, dysfunctional relationship — California water experts say — with water officials in Los Angeles spurred San Diego County’s aggressive, decades-long pursuit of water self-sufficiency.

“At that point, our community came together and said, ‘We’re not going to be in this situation again. We need to plan for our own reliability,” said SDCWA General Manager Kerl.

So, in 2003, the water authority cut a deal to get water from the single largest user of the Colorado River, the Imperial Irrigation District. San Diego County funded repairs to leaky canals belonging to Imperial and signed a historic water transfer deal. Today, it receives about 55% of its total supply from Imperial as part of the deal.

“The rest of the state has work to do, officials in San Diego County said, as climate change continues to intensify droughts and shrink the rivers feeding California’s reservoirs and the Colorado River.”

“Some Southern Californians may have felt somewhat protected from these extreme conditions over the past few years,” Gray said. “They shouldn’t anymore. We are all affected.”

“There’s no more cheap water available,” said Kerl. Missing the point, Kerl, seems to overlook the fact there may be no imported water available, at any price in coming years. Then what?

“Here in Borrego Springs, we are not dependent upon imported and in many ways “lucky” to have an idea of how much reliable local groundwater resources we have available. In addition, our efforts to date, including the adoption a legally binding Judgment among pumpers and formation of the Watermaster, are setting the example throughout the State of how to deal with chronic water shortages for groundwater agencies. However, creating a system where all pumpers work together to come up with a definitive plan to live within our reliable means is something the water importers may want to pay attention to now and in the future.” – BWD General Manager Geoff Poole

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