Mailbag: San Diego is importing less water now because of desalination

In its commentary, “Orange County Should Learn from San Diego’s Mistakes with Poseidon Water” (Nov. 4), the Surfrider Foundation fashions an imaginary world in which the public is forced to choose between water conservation and water-supply development.

In reality, water ratepayers and water agencies can and should do both. For the past 25 years, the San Diego County Water Authority has worked on both sides of the supply-demand equation, helping reduce regional per capita water use by nearly 40% (even before the state’s emergency water-use mandates in 2015) while increasing reliable, locally controlled supplies, such as desalinated seawater.

The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the nation’s largest seawater desalination plant, started commercial operations in December 2015. It has delivered more than 44,000 acre-feet of high-quality, drought-proof drinking water to the San Diego region in less than a year. It is meeting all contractual obligations the Water Authority established to safeguard ratepayers.

Supplies from the facility helped the San Diego region pass the state’s drought “stress test,” reduce state emergency water-use targets, lessen demands on imported water sources and store water for future dry years. And it didn’t come at the cost of other supply initiatives, such as potable reuse, which continues to be pursued by numerous water agencies across San Diego County.

We have always viewed seawater desalination as one of many tools available to coastal communities, not the proverbial silver bullet. However, it’s foolish to dismiss it under false pretenses. Unfortunately, Surfrider’s commentary perpetuates numerous fallacies, some of which are addressed below.

We have not dumped desalinated seawater in a surface water reservoir. Rather, delivering desalinated seawater to homes and businesses has helped Water Authority store 100,000 acre-feet of untreated, imported water in San Vicente Reservoir — a strategic and extraordinarily valuable hedge against drought in future years.

Water imports to our region have been reduced over the long and short runs. San Diego County imported about 25% less water in fiscal year 2016 than it did the year before, due to regional conservation efforts and local supply initiatives, including desalination. Every gallon of water produced by the desalination plant is a gallon we aren’t importing.

The Water Authority didn’t seek a “special exemption” from state conservation targets. Rather, the Water Authority joined water agencies across California in calling for a balanced approach to drought management that recognized ratepayers’ visionary investments in drought-resilient supplies consistent with the state’s Water Action Plan and California law. State regulators agreed, allowing the San Diego region’s water supply reliability assets to benefit our 3.3 million residents and our $222-billion economy.

Consistently, more than 70% of county residents have said seawater desalination is important for water supply reliability. They understand that it is part of a multipronged strategy to safeguard our economy and quality of life in the face of a changing climate that is challenging conventional water sources.

Mark Muir
San Diego

Muir is the chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority board of directors.