Water cutbacks loom but San Diego County agency says it's prepared

San Diego County believes it has some insurance against water-supply cutbacks by Metropolitan Water District

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is considering possible water cutbacks of 10% or more to local agencies as the region's drought shows no signs of lifting despite recent rains.

But in San Diego County, water officials remain confident that any cutback can be offset, at least partially, by deals made in recent years to reduce the county’s reliance on the MWD and its delivery of water from Northern California and the Colorado River.

“We have anticipated this,” said Dana Friehauf, water resources manager for the San Diego County Water Authority. “We’re prepared.”

Friehauf points to two sources of water that could reduce the impact of a cutback by the MWD: the Carlsbad desalination project set to come online this fall, and the decade-old deal between the water authority and water-rich Imperial Irrigation District.

For years, San Diego County has been the largest and most restive of MWD customers. The cry to find new sources of water and reduce dependence on the Los Angeles-based MWD has become a political mantra for San Diego officials, with some results.

To find those new sources, the water authority invested in two large-scale projects: the water deal with Imperial is considered the largest farm-to-city transfer of water in the nation; the desalination plant, once it comes online, will be the most advanced of any in the Western Hemisphere, officials insist, and produce enough water to make the county "drought proof."

Where once the water authority received 90% of its water from the MWD, that figure is now about 50% and destined to decline further, Friehauf said.

If, for example, the MWD cuts back water supplies by 10%, the county water authority, by tapping other sources, could reduce that to 5%, she said. The water authority serves 24 local agencies that provide water to 3.1 million people.

If cutbacks are needed, the MWD could “be forced to make significant withdrawals” from its reservoirs, the mega-agency said in a statement Monday. But the reservoirs have less than half the water they held at the end of 2012.

“This is a serious situation,” said MWD general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. The agency will consider whether cutbacks are needed at its April meeting. If ordered, the cutbacks would begin in July.

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