Reporter Ed Joyce Tell Us Why SD’s Water Supply is Getting Squeezed
Monday, June 22, 2009
The mandatory water restrictions that have been implemented throughout San Diego County could be just the beginning. As the first part of our series, "H2NO: San Diego Going Dry," we speak to KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce about the three main factors that are affecting San Diego's water sources, and to discuss what could happen to our water supply in the future.
KPBS Special Report
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): Good morning. I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Well, today we're kicking off a week's worth of programs about water, all under the umbrella title of "H2NO." And our guest on this nice Monday morning is Ed Joyce. He's the environment reporter for KPBS News, and, Ed, welcome to These Days.
ED JOYCE (KPBS Environmental Reporter): Nice to be here with you, Doug.
MYRLAND: Well, you've been doing a lot of work, talking to a lot of people about water, and you've identified a number of issues but I know that you say that there are three main factors that affect California's water supply.
JOYCE: Well, first of all, we're in the third year of drought so that's reduced supply and reduced snow from the Sierra that runs off and becomes part of our supply. Judicial restrictions on pumping to protect endangered fish on the State Water Project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, that's another factor that has reduced the supply this year and brought mandatory water restrictions. And the Colorado River Basin has been in a drought for eight of the past ten years and even though this year was an above average year with snowfall, the climatologists I've spoken to say that because it's been so dry in that river basin, a lot of that water, that snow that melts, won't come to – through the river and to our taps eventually because it's going to be into a dry ground.
JOYCE: Dry ground's just going to soak it up.
MYRLAND: Now it's been very dry here in San Diego, very little rainfall in the past year. Does that really have anything to do with the water supply here or does it all come from somewhere else?
JOYCE: Well, more than 80% of our supply does come from somewhere else. Rainfall here does help. I mean, every little bit does help. It does help reservoirs, it does help parched ground, it helps people use maybe a little bit less water. But, realistically, most of our supply is coming from outside the region.
MYRLAND: Now you've been talking to a lot of people who are in positions of authority of one kind or another regarding water, are they terribly concerned?
JOYCE: They are. They're not optimistic at this point. They're really working to develop other ways to stretch our water supply, broaden the water portfolio. And, you know, conservation is a big part of that right now, especially outdoors. They figure they've gotten the low-hanging fruit, as they like to say, low flush toilets. Restrictions, smart irrigation would be a move toward that kind of thinking. 60% of the water, our drinking water, mind you, 60% of that is used outside on landscape, on lawns, so they figure that if we change that orientation to what we're doing with outdoor watering, that would make a big difference.
MYRLAND: Now is San Diego one of the driest places in the country?
JOYCE: There are probably some areas that are a little bit drier. Everything is in a different cycle but three years of drought statewide—the governor did declare a declaration—three years of drought is probably one of the driest places in the country right now. In fact, San Diego is dealing with one of its driest periods in history. The general manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, Maureen Stapleton, says we really can't count on rainfall in San Diego as – really, as a consistent source to feed our supply needs.
MAUREEN STAPLETON (General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority): There's just no appreciation for how small a rainfall we have locally. You know, eight or nine inches a year is not going to cut it for three million people. 2008, we had 3.2 inches of rain. The last time San Diego had that small of a amount of rain was when Thomas Jefferson was president.
JOYCE: So it's been a dry stretch to say the least.
MYRLAND: Now we've seen these dry periods come and go and talk about water restriction over the years, how long did it take us to recover from the last drought that we had in the 1980s?
JOYCE: It took at least a couple of years for the reservoirs to get back to more normal levels. And there'll be a lag time this time as well, depending upon if and when the drought ends. It could be several years to recover, you know, that lost water.
MYRLAND: Did we learn some lessons from that? Did we make some changes? Or did we just get through it and start all over again?
JOYCE: Well, I think people's mindset, their orientation, towards water changed a little bit. But, as I say, it was mostly focused on indoor and then the psychology tends to work that, oh, we – we're out of that, we've got water again. People kind of fall off and it drops off the radar until something happens like the last three years and people are hyperaware of it again.
MYRLAND: Now is the drought that we're dealing with at this moment just temporary? Or can we expect this to be a longterm trend?
JOYCE: Well, as the state climatologist with the Department of Water Resources told me, you know, it really does depend on Mother Nature. They're not sure if this is part of a cycle or if, perhaps, climate change is having an effect here. The climate change models show that the snow in the Sierra will come sooner, melt quicker, which means we won't be able to take advantage of that runoff. And Southern California is expected to be drier and hotter. Her name is Elissa Lynn, by the way, the senior meteorologist with the Department of Water Resources. And she does say that the state's water supply is likely going to be, or is already, negatively affected by climate change.
ELISSA LYNN (Senior Climatologist, California State Department of Water Resources): The southern part of the state is going to be more prone to these excessive droughts than perhaps the north so that'll make a greater disparity regionally across the state so water's going to continue to be very difficult and challenging subject, you know, as we go toward the future.
JOYCE: Difficult and challenging. There's a lot of challenges there and difficulty certainly. The delta is a hotly debated topic, as it has been for decades. There's more of a consensus on fixing the delta but political will, money at a time when we're got a $24 billion state budget deficit, it – those are tough choices to make but it's going to have to be done at some point.
MYRLAND: And you mentioned global warming a little while ago. We've also been looking at some research that shows that it may be – looking at tree rings and it may be that the period of the last century has actually been one of the wettest in the region, that – and that whether we're talking about radical climate change or not, just regular weather trends since the – for the last thousand years would indicate that we've enjoyed – when the west was settled, we enjoyed more water than was normally here.
JOYCE: Well, and that's the thing, nobody really knows. I mean, I'd like to come back in, say, a hundred years or a thousand years and look back at this story and say, oh, what they said was happening or was it happening? Or maybe even a thousand years isn't long enough to judge that, you know, that period of time.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to invite our listeners to join in this conversation either now or later on in the hour and I want to make sure you have the number, 1-888-895-5727. We're interested to know what you think about water restrictions and other water issues. That's 1-888-895-KPBS for you to join the conversation. Ed, a lot of our water comes from the delta and there are pumping restrictions. Can you talk a little bit more about why things have – why we're not getting so much water there and why we're not likely to?
JOYCE: Well, there's several endangered fish species on the delta and the pumping mechanisms entrain or capture those fish and it creates other problems for those fish to get to the open ocean. They get stuck. They get backed up inland. And the health of those fish runs really ties into the health of the fishing industry, the commercial fishing industry, as well. And it also plays into the fact that the way the delta is set up with the series of canals and locks, it just doesn't provide the same kind of open opportunity for fish to come and go as historically has been the norm. So these restrictions essentially are geared to allow those fish to flow into the ocean, to come and go for their health, and not to trap them. So less pumping means less water coming out of the delta for people to drink and for farmers to use and more water for the fish, which brings in that big conflict that people say, well, it's people versus fish. But the health of the entire delta ecosystem is linked to the health of the fish as well. I mean, there's potential for sea level rise, for salt water to run in. The U.S.G.S. has predicted a major earthquake in that region sometime within the next 25 years; that would collapse that system. All those aging levies would crumble, flooding, a lot of – big threat to the water system.
MYRLAND: Are we likely to see those pumping restrictions stay in place for the foreseeable future?
JOYCE: The officials and people I've talked to at the state level, water agencies, they expect these restrictions to be in effect for several years. There was a new – relatively new biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service that came out a few weeks back and they said more needs to be done to protect these threatened and endangered fish. And based on that opinion, it's likely there'll be an additional cut in that water supply in the pumping of that water to protect fish.
MYRLAND: And then moving east a little bit, we've got the Colorado River and that's been the traditional source of water for a lot of the west. There's longstanding agreements and negotiations in place among the states. What have we got to look forward to from the Colorado?
JOYCE: Well, you know, eight out of the last ten years, a drought period. Going forward, they're not sure if this is going to be, you know, this is coming out of that period or if this is part of a cycle. But less water and more people, it doesn't bode well for stretching that resource even from the Colorado.
MYRLAND: Now we have had Hoover Dam in place since the 1920s and those agreements in place among the states. Do you think that there may be room to renegotiate some of that or get more water from agriculture moved into the cities?
JOYCE: That urban water transfer is something that the County – the San Diego County Water Authority is working on from the Imperial Valley. In terms of local supply, they're working on some water transfer agreements. In fact, that's part of the portfolio that they're looking toward the future to expand our water supply not just from the Colorado and the delta but they are creating other ways, including conservation, desalination, and perhaps water reuse, as part of that mix to expand the opportunity, you know, to broaden our supply sources. However, it still does come down to Mother Nature. You can't just create water.
MYRLAND: Well, you talked a few minutes ago about how most of the water that we use actually gets used outside and while you can put in low flow toilets and restrict your water inside, really the big savings is outside. Isn't that also true about agriculture, that if you look at the water that's used in California, a whole lot of it really does go to agriculture?
JOYCE: Oh, a good percentage goes to agriculture. We are the breadbasket of the world. The central valley is dependent upon that water and they've – those supply cuts, even at a subsidized rate, has meant that a lot of those fields have been – gone fallow or they've plowed under crops this year. And that's hurt, you know, employment as well. Just the trickle down from the shortage in water spreads throughout the state economy, you can't avoid it.
MYRLAND: We're going to take a break in a couple of minutes but we do have time to hear from one of our callers. Larry in La Jolla has been waiting to join the conversation. Larry, welcome to the program.
LARRY (Caller, La Jolla): Hey, thanks, you guys. Hey, my question or comment is considering we get 80% of our water from other sources outside of San Diego, it seems to me the rainfall amounts in San Diego are almost moot. I mean, if we were to get thirty inches of rain next year, what would we do with it? Where would we put it? Where would we store it and how could we actually use it in the county?
MYRLAND: That's a good question.
JOYCE: It's a great question. Well, that's one thing that bothers many people. When we do get that rain you see how much of it runs off down the street, down the gutters, into the storm drain, into the ocean. There could be more capturing, you know, capture systems but, again, as he said, we don't get all that much rain and maybe our future is that we're going to get even less than we already do so those times when it does come, it does go down the drain. Other places in the world, they have cistern systems. They capture that rain. They use that water wisely.
MYRLAND: So, Ed, you've been talking to people about possible additional mandatory restrictions. What are some of the things that might be implemented? What are some of the ideas that are being talked about?
JOYCE: Well, I think you're going to look at finding ways to change behavior. They have employed – One water agency in the county has employed the Psychology Department at Cal State San Marcos. They have a kind of a survey, and they're trying to see if they can adjust – change people's behavior. The norm is how we use water now, what we plant, have a big backyard, or a backyard with lawn, let's say, not necessarily a big backyard. And they need us to become deviants in how we use water and how we think about our landscaping. They're just trying to change the mindset. Now there's a carrot-and-stick approach also. If that doesn't work, there's always the hammer, which is water rates. And I think you're going to see, potentially, depending upon how this plays out as we go forward, you're going to see tiered rates in many areas in the county and elsewhere in Southern California. That will reward you for being stingy about how you use water.
MYRLAND: So very much the way electricity's priced. So the first little bit of it is low but as soon as you start to use more than the norm, the price goes up and up and up.
JOYCE: The price goes up and up and up. And, realistically, it may – it will likely take that to change the behavior. I mean, people have a good ethic, they know they need to save, they've done a good job saving so far but there needs to be a greater savings. And, you know, pulling out that lawn, putting in drought tolerant plants, that's one way to save a lot of water on the outside. There's smart irrigation systems where the irrigation systems determine whether your plants, your lawn, if you still have a lawn, needs water so you're just not watering randomly all the time. Of course, with restrictions, you have to, you know, pay attention to that anyway right now.
MYRLAND: Well, Ed, that's a great setup to the next part of the conversation. I have some folks from Tucson and from Los Vegas to talk about some ways that they're conserving water there and they've been living with those kind of restrictions a lot longer than we have. Ed Joyce, KPBS environment reporter, thanks very much for being with us.
JOYCE: Thank you, Doug. Happy to be here.
MYRLAND: And thanks for all your hard work on this "H2NO" series. I'm sure we're going to be hearing you all over the radio all week long. So, you know, environment's your beat so you get all the work this week.
JOYCE: Well, we've got some help from some of the other reporters in the newsroom as well.
MYRLAND: That's Ed Joyce joining us on These Days. I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and we'll be back right after this quick break.