San Diego's Water Crisis

Water is at the forefront of debate in San Diego and throughout Southern California. California is facing a water "crisis" brought on by a variety of factors: drought, population growth, historical over-drafting of our water resources and the resulting neglect of the the environment. In fact, 75% of the state's rainfall is north of Sacramento, while 75% of the state's water demand lives south of Sacramento. The basic problem is that the demand for water exceeds the supply. Is this really a crisis? No. A crisis would be a case in which we don't have enough water to supply basic drinking needs, hygiene, agriculture, etc. What we are facing is a misallocation of water as the result of an outdated pricing structure for water. The solution is to update the pricing structure.

The current misallocation is not a short-term problem, rather, the stress on California's water resources will likely be indefinite. The "drought" that extends back to 1999 is one of the most prolonged droughts of the the region. Scientists predict that climate change will cause the region to remain dry in the future. Drought conditions are exacerbated by population growth in the area. Between 2000 and 2007 the county of San Diego grew at a rate of 5.7% according to the US Census. In 2006 per capita water consumption was 5400 gallons per person per month. All else held constant, people will have to reduce their water consumption to about 5107 gallons per month (gpm) by 2014 and 4831gpm by 2021 for the current water supply of San Diego to service the growing population. However, San Diego and much of California is being asked to reduce water usage. Governor Schwarzenegger intended to reduce per capita water consumption in California by 20% by 2020. The bottom line is that the supply of water is being reduced by drought as population grows, resulting in considerably less water available per capita. The days of free water for California are over and we must find a way to reduce our consumption and conserve our supply of water.

As our water supply per capita shrinks, we cannot forget the environment's need for water to maintain healthy land and ecosystems. Historically, we have over-drafted our water supply, drying up some rivers entirely and shrinking the flows of others, such as the Colorado River, to a fraction of their natural flows. Some areas in central California have withdrawn so much groundwater that the earth has sunk a hundred feet. Over-drafting and ecological degradation will likely cause the levees that hold back the ocean from entering the San Joaquin Delta to eventually give way, flooding the Delta with salt water. Environmental destruction is difficult to put a dollar value on, but it certainly has a cost to society. Outdoor recreation along rivers and shores is highly valued. The loss of a species can have unforeseen and amplified consequences on an entire ecosystem. Diversity within aquatic ecosystems provides us with many tangible benefits, including natural (and cheap) water filtration. For these reasons, it is important not to overdraw our water supply.

San Diego County Water Authority gets about a quarter of its water from local water sources, and the remainder from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). MWD gets its water from two primary sources: the State Water Project (SWP) and the Colorado River. The water received by MWD from the SWP is pumped all the way from the southern end of the San Joaquin River Delta and is brought to southern California via the California Aqueduct. Most of the water that the San Diego CWA gets from MWD is from the Colorado River. There are no untapped potential water resources aside from desalination of sea water, which is expensive, energy intensive and doesn't currently have the capacity to meet the county's current usage shortfall. Desalination technology should be pursued but should not be viewed as a potential cure to our water shortage. With a severely constrained water supply, we must adapt to live within our means.

Southern California is a essentially a desert. The large population has been sustained in the past only through large water projects. The result is that Californians have come to expect abundant cheap water. In urban areas water rates were set with large fixed costs (to cover the bonds issued for the water projects) but relatively flat marginal costs. The flat marginal cost provides no incentive for water conservation. This form of pricing is over 50 years old and does not accurately reflect the scarcity of water given current demand.