In his State of the City speech on January 13, Mayor Jerry Sanders devoted 434 words to the possibility of taxpayers shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for a subsidized Chargers stadium and 174 words to the idea of those taxpayers paying for an expansion of the convention center. But Sanders devoted only 114 words to the subject of water — far and away the most critical short-term and long-term problem facing San Diego. He devoted zero words to water conservation.
The day after the speech, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge knocked down critical parts of a 2003 agreement that, among many things, had cleared the way for San Diego to get water from the Imperial Valley. The San Diego County Water Authority pays a stiff price for that water, and it’s now fully 26 percent of the amount the county uses. Unless the Sacramento case is reversed on appeal, more woes lie ahead.
Most frighteningly, those woes include possible desertification of the Southwest — the drought of today leading to a dust bowl by the middle of the century. Some experts foresee that horror. Actually, when San Diego wangled the deal for Imperial water, some citizens there had visions of a Depression-era dust bowl. Already, that concern is hitting home. Transfers of water to San Diego reduce the Salton Sea’s shoreline, resulting in blowing dust that produces harmful health effects on Imperial Valley residents. That’s part of the battle in the Sacramento lawsuit.
“Water is the basis of this entire region — not stadiums, not convention centers. Water has to be our first priority,” says Steve Erie, director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at the University of California San Diego, where he is a political science professor. “The Salton Sea remains the Achilles’ heel of San Diego’s water future.” But Mayor Sanders is blithely unconcerned. “It’s not the stuff below ground,” says Erie, “but the legacy projects above ground that preoccupy this mayor.”
Says Councilmember Donna Frye, “My position is that you take care of basic needs — infrastructure, deferred maintenance, homeless issues, basic services that citizens need before you look at things that are nice to have. If the Chargers want to put up the money to build a stadium, I will be happy to be helpful.” San Diego’s water situation is most critical and “is going to get much worse than some people even imagine.”
“Putting a football stadium ahead of water reflects an immaturity of leadership that has permeated San Diego for the last three mayors — Golding, Murphy, and Sanders,” says former city attorney Mike Aguirre.
Says Norma Damashek, president of the local League of Women Voters, “The mayor talks about clean technology, which will depend on a reliable and adequate water supply. Biotech and high tech depend on a stable source of water. There are many opportunities for him to step forward and talk about a water conservation plan for San Diego that could put us on the map. But he does not act as a responsible leader should act. He substitutes words for planning and action.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles “is producing a $3 billion water conservation and recycling program,” says Erie. San Diego gets more than half of its water from L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “L.A. has its own supply and is not in the dire straits that we are in. We are the most at risk and act as if it’s of limited concern.”
The San Diego City Council wanted to look at water recycling, the process with the distasteful political moniker “toilet-to-tap.” (Actually, a large amount of the water that San Diego buys is already recycled. Water that comes down the Colorado River is used by municipalities upstream that treat it and dump it back in the river.) The mayor initially vetoed the idea, but the council overrode him. Now, the City has a demonstration project, indirect potable reuse, that augments a local reservoir with recycled wastewater. “The mayor has not been particularly helpful,” says Frye, head of the council’s Natural Resources Committee and the leader who has done by far the most to address the water question.
She is pushing to make mandatory conservation permanent, have tougher penalties for those breaking conservation rules, clamp down on new development, and offer tax credits to homeowners who dig up lawns and plant drought-tolerant native vegetation.
As global warming progresses, the snow pack will melt earlier, water will flow more quickly to California, and there will have to be more storage facilities to capture runoff. Frye is already pursuing ways for citizens to capture rainwater.
Carlsbad hopes to have a desalination plant up and running in two years, but it would serve only 100,000 households and faces financing and environmental legal barriers. “It is so energy inefficient,” says Frye. “Why use outdated technology?” Some would like to see the City of San Diego have its own desalination program.
Recently, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group studied exhaustive data on the quality of water in 100 U.S. cities. San Diego came in 92nd and was cited as one of the ten worst metropolitan areas. The study focused on 315 pollutants in tap water, more than half of which are not subject to health and safety regulations. A significant number exceeded federal guidelines. “I am amazed that nobody at city hall has addressed this study of contaminants in the water,” says civic activist Mel Shapiro. “Maybe there should be a regular investigation.” Frye says her Natural Resources Committee will soon docket the matter.
Meanwhile, Centre City Development Corporation, the downtown redevelopment facilitator, will look into whether it can lift the cap on how much future property tax revenue can be directed downtown. It expects to hit the state-mandated limit in 2023 or so. To raise that cap, Centre City would have to get permission from major state and local bodies. There is no question that the money would be earmarked for the Chargers, who expect to rake in a subsidy of $500 million to $700 million or more.
“I am real concerned about the financial condition of CCDC,” says Frye. The city administration won’t provide her with information she sought long ago. “I don’t see any point in rearranging things, trying to figure out how to restructure something [Centre City] that is out of money.”
But Centre City and its development-industry puppeteers are only interested in more construction, even though the current rotting infrastructure won’t support what is already in place. In football parlance, it is high time that all the city leaders who are under the thumb of developers got sacked.