“The wet 20th century, the wettest of the past millennium, the century when Americans built an incredible civilization in the desert, is over,” says a superb article in February’s National Geographic. The piece, entitled “Drying of the West,” mentions San Diego several times. Author Robert Kunzig writes, “The American West was won by water management. What happens when there’s no water left to manage?” He notes that some scientists foresee “the Southwest’s gradual descent into persistent Dust Bowl conditions by mid-century.” Studies of tree rings suggest that the Southwest suffered severe and repeated droughts over many centuries. The wet 20th Century — when growth boomed — was an aberration. Normality may be returning.
San Diegan Mike Davis, who teaches environmental history at the University of California, Irvine, wrote a similar article that ran on the website of the Nation late last fall. Some scientists are calling current conditions a “megadrought,” possibly the worst in 500 years, although they aren’t sure it will be more devastating than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, wrote Davis. Some scientists look for “the imminent drying of the U.S. southwest,” his story said.
Then there was the cover story in the October 18, 2007 Reader by Bill Manson. It noted that as far back as 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey began calling the current drought as bad as or worse than any in 500 years. Rainfall has been low since the early 1990s, and snowfall in the Sierras and Rockies has been inadequate. “All this has created the foundation for a drought so serious that you start thinking, could desertification be next?” wrote Manson. “Here we are, headed for a quarter-century of dryness, just when the population is set to add a million in San Diego County alone.”
According to the San Diego County Water Authority, the local metro area gets 75 percent of its water from Los Angeles’s Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The district gets two-thirds of its water from the Colorado River, which has gone through its eight driest years in recorded history. The other one-third comes from the State Water Project, which is bedeviled by environmental lawsuits and weakened levees that probably could not withstand earthquakes. San Diego gets another 6 percent at a stiff price from Imperial Valley, which gets the water virtually for nothing. The remaining 19 percent is locally generated — rainfall, groundwater, etc. The years 2006 and 2007 were two of the driest on record. This year? “We’re praying,” says authority spokesperson John Liarakos.
This year, numbers look better. It would be a tragic mistake to postpone aggressive action on the basis of a couple of months of cheerier data.
What’s being done locally? Not much. Various Southern California water authorities have issued the “20-Gallon Challenge,” asking people to reduce water use by 20 gallons per person, per day — all told, about 10 percent. Various companies and institutions are proudly announcing they are asking employees to cooperate. Mayor Jerry Sanders is holding well-publicized meetings with cities in the area. Just recently, the City announced it would give a $350 rebate to those who buy a so-called smart irrigation system that reduces outdoor water use. But other Southern California cities are ahead in offering such incentives and in mandating conservation. Long Beach permits lawn watering only three days a week. Builders get financial incentives up to $2500 per home for installation of various inside and outside water-saving devices. Financial incentives for use of water-saving toilets and hose nozzles are more generous than in some other communities.
Las Vegas prohibits new front lawns, limits the size of back ones, and subsidizes families that tear up their lawns and replace them with desert plants. “San Diego needs to move to desertscaping,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program. “Half our water is dumped on our lawns.”
Adds Erie, “This is a town in deep denial. The leadership thinks that if we adopt stricter measures like mandatory rationing, we will send the wrong signal to tourists and the business community. We’re incredibly image conscious. We have a mayor who is led around by the nose by pollsters. The good news is that [L.A. mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa wants to be governor, so L.A. is playing footsie with San Diego, adopting a shortage plan.” However, “Phoenix and Las Vegas are much more serious about recycling, reclamation.”
“We are looking at water recycling,” which has been given the repugnant name “toilet-to-tap,” says Councilmember Donna Frye. The mayor realized “toilet-to-tap” was fecal politics. He vetoed the council’s vote to pursue the matter, “and we overrode his veto.” Many localities, including Orange County, have or are working on reclamation projects, although Orange County’s program is different from the one on the drawing boards in San Diego. Opponents of toilet-to-tap say that it is energy intensive and not thoroughly tested for safety.
San Diego does use recycled water for cooling towers, industrial parks, irrigation of golf courses, and the like, but the City isn’t doing a good job of that, says Frye. “Water allocation will be reduced from the Colorado River as well as the Bay Delta [State Water Project]. It’s important that we address these questions while we can look at federal and state funding. It would be less expensive now to start planning. The Water Department has been terrific. The problem is that they are under the mayor. They have to handle it gingerly. The seriousness of the issue has not reached the higher levels of government.”
Unfortunately, residential development goes on apace. “We have to get realistic about tying new growth and development to water supply,” says Frye. “The infrastructure is inadequate. State laws say that for large-scale development, you have to show where the water will come from. I am not sure that has been adequately addressed. I don’t see developers required to put in native vegetation; everyone wants a lawn and flowers. We live in a desert: put in desert vegetation. The mayor has a record of capitulating to developers.”
Says San Diegan Mike Davis, author of the article that ran on the Nation website, “As far as I can see, we are utterly asleep at the controls.” As a result of the drought-caused 2003 and 2007 fires, “People are encouraged to plant more water-absorbing plants around their homes, because houses that survived had highly watered plants such as ice plant. That kind of fire prevention extending to the backcountry implies unsustainable increases in water usage.” The problem is that “In no sense have we had a holistic debate about climate change, water resources — lessons we should be learning. Our political system seems unable to discuss these interrelated issues at the same time. The water situation will go from bad to worse.”
All agree that San Diego doesn’t seem to be able to pull it all together: the fires, for example, should speak volumes about the drought. But the City looks at fire and water as two separate problems.
Says City Attorney Mike Aguirre, “There is a failure of leadership to provide conservation, to do the hard work of water reclamation, to build desalination plants or to expand storage capacity. Our leaders don’t want to admit the problem. We have to spend a lot of money, and there is not a lot of money because of the pension deficits.”
Erie sums it up: “This is a second-rate town blessed with a first-rate climate but cursed with third-rate leadership and a fourth-rate newspaper.”
But in a few years, will that climate be so wonderful? Or to paraphrase an old saying, will San Diegans be getting their just deserts?