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County Water Authority declares end of drought; but will state go along?

In the midst of what may be the wettest year on record in California, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) last week January 26 declared an end to drought conditions in the region. Question is, will the State of California go along? Or does the State prefer to maintain a permanent “state of emergency”?

Record-setting winter precipitation in the Northern Sierras, coupled with heavy local rainfall and a significant snowpack in the upper Colorado River basin, prompted the SDCWA action last week. The Board resolution called on Governor Jerry Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board to rescind the statewide emergency wateruse regulation for areas of California that are no longer in drought conditions.

As of January 23, San Diego’s official rainfall measurement station at Lindbergh Field had recorded 172% of average rainfall since the start of the water year on October 1. More impor- tantly, the water content of snow in the Sierra Nevada, a prime water source for much of the state, was 193% of average as of January 23. Meanwhile, snowpack levels were at 161% of average in the upper basin of the Colorado River.

The Times-Advocate talked to two Escondido water chiefs, to get their take on the question of drought/no drought.

Greg Thomas, general manager of the Rincon Del Diablo Municipal Water District, which serves parts of Escondido, declared, “Long-term drought is not over. Long-term-wise we all need to look at what we are doing to address prolonged shortages, climate change, the ebbs and flow of water that we have been experiencing lately, dry and then massive rains.”

Nevertheless, Thomas agrees that the emergency drought needs to be lifted. “Fifty percent of the state is out of any form of drought. The Sierras are white or light yellow on the drought map. Only a small section of the Central Valley, including the San Joaquin Valley and Santa Barbara, are still in drought.”

Thomas points out that the water agencies in San Diego County, “spent billions of dollars invested” in creating water supplies and “this water year is one of the best we have had in many years. If we continue to get any precipitation, we are already at two hundred percent of average rainfall. I think the emergency regulations need to be rescinded. In my opinion emergencies are designed for special issues.”

However, Thomas posits that the State enjoys being in charge and issuing orders to local water agencies. “It’s a matter of control for the state board. They don’t want to give up control. This is the emergency that lasts forever for them.”

Rincon customers have consistently beaten the governor’s conservation targets. “In December we had thirty-seven percent cuts and in January we were at forty percent,” said Thomas. “Our customers have cumulatively conserved twenty-eight percent on average since June 2015. Our customers have realized that conservation is a way of way. People get it. People are smart. The state doesn’t have to feel that people are stupid. I see the state board sending the message that ‘We on the state resources staff are smarter than everyone. You people don’t get it.’ It’s a poor message and we need to treat the customers who have risen to the challenge better than that.”

Thomas is frustrated at the lack of attention in Sacramento to a key need: creating more water storage, rather than driving away commercial and industrial users through crushing conservation efforts.

The state board last week came out with a plan for long-term water use, some of which focused on conservation requirements of commercial, industrial and agriculture. “We need to look at that,” agrees Thomas, “but you are not going to get long-term water savings from conservation. The governor has a water fix plan to increase storage, so when we have an event like this that we will have a place to store water.”

Thomas is also concerned that the state board’s staff is pushing regulations that allocate each agency a certain allocation of water that it can use, based on customer and indoor use, that doesn’t take into account independent sources of water the agency might develop through, say reclamation, or desalination.

“Let’s say we average 7,000 acre feet, the state board would say you get 5,500 AF a year to use. We don’t agree because they put recycled water in the mix and don’t give us credit for it,” said Thomas. “We are trying to use more recycled, and the state would say you don’t get credit, that’s part of your total supply. If that’s the case, why would I do anything to develop recycled water if I still must reduce a certain percent? We are saying that alternative supplies should not count against us. It makes no sense.”

Thomas is happy to have discussions about long-term conservation and, in fact he thinks his customers and other customers in San Diego have already made permanent changes. But some changes, like cutting back on vegetation and replacing them with artificial turf or rocks, has an adverse effect on fighting climate change, which is also a goal of state government.

“If you remove vegetation, you also remove a way of decreasing greenhouse gases,” said Thomas. “People put in rocks, which creates more heat. Literally, when you take away your grass and vegetation that front yard is hotter than if it had vegetation. It’s counterintuitive. You have an environmentally bent State Water Resources Board and yet they are recommending things that make it worse.”

He added, “Really, we need to get away from emergency regulations and work on long-term storage, alternative supply and a look at the whole picture. All without killing the economy.”

And if the state board continues to insist on emergency regulations? “I at this point if the state board continues the regulations that we are in an administrative drought, not a supply drought. I have no problem if the water supply dries up in a year, and they say ‘Hey, we are back to the emergency.’ No one will argue with that, but to continue an emergency when there isn’t one, borders on the illegal. It’s crying wolf when there is no wolf anymore.”

City of Escondido

Chris McKinney, Escondido’s utilities director, told The Times-Advocate, “I think the hope is the state will follow suit on the San Diego County Water Authority and make some acknowledgement that the water we have gotten has eased the statewide drought.

He added, “It’s nice that the Water Authority has done what it has done. San Diego actually had enough water supply because we have invested enough to develop alternate supplies. My hope is that the State will treat water agencies a little more reasonably and look at our firm supply. For Escondido, it’s nice that we have all this rain because we are blessed with local supply, and we have the San Luis Rey river basin. These rains have helped us to restore some of our water storage that is somewhat independent of the Water Authority’s declaration.

Local storage

The city owns two lakes: Dixon and Wohlford. The latter isn’t as helpful as it was a decade ago because they are doing some work on the dam. “We have to keep the level lower there and so we can’t store as much,” said McKinney. At its current state, it stores about 3,000 AF.

The work will restore Lake Wohlford to its former size. The existing dam was built in two phases. “The lower phase, built in the 1890s is still a sound dam. It’s your standard earthen dam,” said McKinney. “The upper third built in the 1920s was found to be unstable in a large earthquake so we lowered the level. Our project to build a replacement dam would build a new dam a few hundred yards downstream and restore the lake to its original storage capacity. There was some talk about increasing the capacity but there are communities along the banks that would make it unfeasible to inundate.”

Currently the city is in the midst of an environmental review for the dam. The design is complete and now the city is receiving comments from the public and other agencies.

When the second dam is built, it will restore Wohlford to about 6,200 AF, its capacity a decade ago. “The disadvantage of lakes is that they have a conical shape. You lower it a few feet and you lose the largest portion,” said McKinney.

Dixon has a small drainage basis, so the impact of rain on it is minimal. The vast majority of water in Dixon is imported water piped in from the SDCWA. “We are talking 10s of acre feet a year when Escondido’s total is 10000- 15,000 AF even in a wet year,” said McKinney.

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