Imported Water Adequate to Tide Area Over

Times Staff Writer

A dry winter has left area reservoir levels below normal, but local water officials say there will be an ample supply of imported water for San Diegans this summer.

Despite the reprieve, a San Diego County Water Authority spokesman said the agency intends to kick off a $200,000 campaign this summer to convince local residents that they must begin voluntary water conservation year-round to protect the region’s long-range supply.

“I think people need to start understanding that we are serious about conservation,” said Jim Melton, director of public information for the water authority. “It has nothing to do with drought.


“It has to do with the fact that the community is growing and there are other reasons for not having water in the future,” he said. “It all adds up to the fact that there’s going to be less water passing around. The people have to take this seriously. They can’t let the water go down the drain and the gutter unused.”

Last year, the authority spent $300,000 to convince local residents that a drought in Northern California--the source of more than a third of San Diego’s imported water--was serious enough to warrant voluntary conservation measures that would yield a 10% cutback during the summer.

But local skepticism and withering temperatures foiled the campaign, as San Diegans were only able to muster a 4% savings.

The new campaign, Melton said, will not emphasize drought conditions, which sometimes seem remote to San Diegans. The lush golf courses and green open spaces defy the fact that California’s second-largest city exists on the edge of a desert.

Emphasizing Long-Range Savings

Instead, the campaign will emphasize long-range savings in the face of booming growth and the fact that, within two years, San Diego and other areas of Southern California will lose a large supply of imported water from the Colorado River.

San Diego, Los Angeles and four other counties in Southern California will see their allotment of 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado cut to 550,000 acre-feet after the new Central Arizona Project begins siphoning off more river water for that landlocked state. San Diego now relies on the Colorado for two-thirds of its imported water.

“We’re beginning this process to change the hearts and minds of people,” Melton said about the campaign. “San Diego has some very severe long-range conservation requirements. We have to begin reducing per capita use.”

Meanwhile, San Diego’s water needs for next year are secure, said Melton. A good snowpack in the Sierras means there will be enough imported water from Northern California and the Colorado to fulfill 90% of the area’s needs, he said.

The remaining 10%, however, comes from local rainfall and this year’s dry winter has left local reservoirs below normal, say city officials.

This Is Driest Year Since 1947

Rainfall for January, February and March--usually the wettest months--measured only 1.8 inches. The normal rainfall for the winter is 5.14 inches, said Wilbur Shigehara, forecaster for the National Weather Service.

This year has been the driest since 1947, when only 1.75 inches fell, and is the 10th driest on record since 1850, said Shigehara.

“Drastic, incredible--I would use superlatives for this winter,” said Shigehara. “The way the last three years have gone, the winter months have been very disappointing. We would have a wet fall but then the rain would quit.

“This is a tragedy, I think, because the grounds are dry,” he added. “If you get 4 to 5 inches, nothing would go into the reservoirs” as runoff.

Gonzalo Lopez, assistant deputy director for San Diego’s water utilities department, said the paltry rainfall has left the city’s nine reservoirs at about the same level of acre-feet of water as during last year’s drought.

The water deficit in four of the reservoirs will be made up with imported water, said Lopez. Those city reservoirs are Lake Miramar, Lake Murray, El Capitan Lake and San Vicente Lake.

But five reservoirs depend solely on the rainfall. And they will be depleted in about two years if there isn’t relief.

For instance, Lake Sutherland, between Escondido and Julian, is only 8.87% full, with 2,631 acre-feet, according to the city’s weekly reservoir status report for March 31. Lake Hodges, from which the city sells water to Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach, is at 54.42%, with 18,256 acre-feet.

South Bay Water Source at 25% Capacity

In East County, Lake Barrett has 9,607 acre-feet or 25% of capacity, and Lake Morena on Friday held 21,125 acre-feet or 42% of its capacity.

Those two reservoirs feed into Lower Otay Lake, which is 81% full with 40,370 acre-feet.

Lopez said the levels in Barrett, Morena and Otay Lake are the most crucial because the rain-fed reservoirs are the sole source for city water customers in San Ysidro and the South Bay.

“It means that our local water is pretty much depleted,” said Lopez. “When you talk about Barrett having 25%, that’s a pretty low figure.”

There is enough water in the three reservoirs for only a 1 1/2-year supply for the Otay Filtration Plant, which will be increased in capacity from 15 million to 40 million gallons a day in the fall, said Lopez.

To make up for the lack of rainfall, the water utilities department has joined forces with two other local water agencies to begin an $84,000 cloud-seeding program. Airplanes have been dumping silver iodide into cloud fronts since February with limited results, he said.

But the effort may be too late to bring even minimal relief for the summer, said Shigehara.

“We try to squeeze rain by hiring rainmakers, but that didn’t help much, as evidenced by the lack of rainfall,” he said, adding that San Diegans will probably have to wait until the fall for continual, productive rainfalls.

April’s forecast, he said, is for below-normal rain and above-normal temperatures.

“We better keep that drought flag flying in San Diego,” said Shigehara. “Be conservation-minded until the rain comes.”