Tershia d’Elgin hopes that if the city were to build a pumping station at 32nd, “Golden Hill would be the kind of neighborhood that, if they were going to pilot a demonstration of a local sustainable water source here, to include recreational green space would say, ‘Let’s do it!’”
D’Elgin has worked for 13 years with Friends of 32nd Street Canyon and other organizations to preserve open space in the city, and she currently works with a group called H2OFutures, which focuses on water-supply solutions. She opines that the residents of the neighborhood would rally around the idea of a park at the 32nd Street site and would most likely rally against the pumping station if a park were not to be included in the plan.
Although the yield from the well would mingle with the city’s water supply and would not stay strictly local to the “waterhood” — a term d’Elgin coined to describe a scenario in which neighborhoods would collectively gather runoff and/or tap into a local water supply to irrigate parks and plantings in the immediate surrounding area — a well at 32nd Street would definitely be a much more local supply than the majority of San Diego’s water, which comes from sources as far flung as the Colorado River and Sacramento. In fact, as d’Elgin shared with me, the California Energy Commission reports that almost a fifth of the state’s energy consumption goes into supplying and conveying water.
As mayor Jerry Sanders iterated in a press release announcing the test well project in June 2012, “It’s no secret that we are far too reliant on imported water, and we need to have more control over our future water supplies. We’re exploring many avenues to incrementally decrease our need to purchase water that is subject to drought, periodic cutbacks, and out-of-control price increases.”
Funny how, in this dry Southwest, that means digging right under our feet. According to the San Diego County Water Authority’s website, in 1991 San Diego relied on the Metropolitan Water District, a consortium of Southern California municipalities that draw water from all over the region, for 95 percent of its water, while 5 percent came from surface water. By 2012, the city had diversified the supply significantly, reducing the Metropolitan Water District portion to 45 percent, adding Imperial County Irrigation water, water from the Coachella and All-American Canals, and tiny portions of ground and recycled water. An 11 percent chunk came from conservation. The projection for 2020 includes 1 percent more ground and 2 percent more recycled water, as well as a new addition: desalinated seawater. The 32nd Street Test Well Project represents just a fraction of a drop in this bucket: local groundwater would make up a mere 4 percent of the projected 2020 supply, up from 3 percent in 2012.
And the test well is only that: a test. To me, the preliminary results seem to indicate that building a pump station to tap groundwater at 32nd Street is unlikely. Then again, so is having a green lawn in a semi-arid region where chaparral vegetation grows native, and there seems to be plenty of grass around here.
As Greg Cross reported to the Golden Hill Planning Committee on January 9, the pump test showed a yield of three gallons per minute per foot, whereas a “good well” (relative to others in the same aquifer) would yield six. The test also determined that the transmissivity of the aquifer, the rate at which water flows horizontally through it, is low. Most prominently, the water that lies 400–600 feet deep under downtown, in the San Diego Formation, is brackish — not surprising, given its adjacency to the Pacific Ocean. According to Wes Danskin of the United States Geological Survey, the San Diego Formation aquifer spans “from La Jolla past the U.S.–Mexico border, and from San Diego Bay to Interstate 805.” On a map it looks like it took a big bite out of the coast.
Salinity hasn’t stopped the Sweetwater Authority from drawing brackish water from the San Diego Formation. In 1999 Sweetwater opened what is now called the Richard A. Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility, where water drawn from 800-foot-deep wells in the San Diego Formation undergoes reverse osmosis to remove salts and other dissolved solids. The desalinated water is disinfected and added to Sweetwater’s supply. The leftover brine is discharged into the “man-made Sweetwater channel along State Route 54,” as stated in the Union-Tribune in September 2007.
Sweetwater Authority, which serves National City, Chula Vista, and Bonita, reports that about 70 percent of its water supply is local, much more than neighboring San Diego. In fact, the City of San Diego seems to have a case of aqua envy: in 2010 it filed two lawsuits against Sweetwater’s proposed expansion of drilling in the San Diego Formation. In one suit, the city invoked its Pueblo water rights, which date back to the days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). As Wikipedia defines, settlements organized under the laws of Mexico or Spain were granted “the water right to all streams and rivers flowing through the city and to all groundwater aquifers underlying the city.” The case of City of Los Angeles v. City of San Fernando in 1978 established that the rights do not expire if a city fails to use the water.
San Diego had failed to use its own groundwater for most of the last century, pretty much. But as W.E. Smythe describes in History of San Diego, in the late-1800s the young city did sink wells within its limits, including one downtown in the courthouse yard and another at Horton House, San Diego’s premier hotel as of 1870. Another artesian well was drilled in what was then called Pound Canyon and is now Cabrillo Canyon. These sources, along with several reservoirs within the city and water pumped from the San Diego River, quickly proved inadequate. In the early 1900s, the municipality consolidated its water interests and began purchasing water from mountain reservoirs, and by the middle of the century the San Diego Aqueduct brought water from the Colorado River. Not until 2001 did San Diego begin to reexamine the water underlying the city, when the United States Geological Survey initiated the San Diego Hydrogeology Project. Though it seems that the city would’ve explored its options sooner, until recently, according to the Geological Survey website, “no comprehensive study of ground-water resources ha[d] been done for the San Diego area.”