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City Eases Water Policies, State Discusses More Conservation

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Aired 10/30/09

Mayor Jerry Sanders announced this week that the city will modify its water conservation plan for the winter. San Diego residents have conserved more than the city expected, and will not be asked to reduce watering to one day a week. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are discussing ways to improve California's water delivery system, and to prevent the state from going dry.

— GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Water is in the headlines. California lawmakers are wrestling with water legislation, and the City of San Diego has some new rules. Fire is in our memories. On the second anniversary of the devastating October wildfires, have the affected areas recovered? And despite a $200 million budget shortfall—some say it’s $179 million but it’s big—city officials have committed half a million dollars of taxpayer money to pursue a bid on a new downtown library. The editors with us today to talk about all these issues with you are JW August, managing editor for KGTV 10News. JW, thank you for coming back.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Top o’ the morning to you, Miss Gloria.

PENNER: And to you. Leslie Wolf Branscomb, editor of San Diego Uptown News. Glad you could join us as well, Leslie.

LESLIE WOLF BRANSCOMB (Editor, San Diego Uptown News): I’m pleased to be here as well.

PENNER: And Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Always a pleasure to see you, Scott.

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): And always a pleasure to see you as well.

PENNER: All right, so if you’d like to join our conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. The California state legislature is back in special session called by the governor to take on a huge, complex and incredibly important problem: the state’s undependable water supply. At the same time, the City of San Diego is easing its mandatory water conservation program. The two sound somewhat conservation contradictory. So, JW, let’s start with what’s facing state lawmakers. What is their challenge?

AUGUST: Well, they’ve got to fix the plumbing for the state. We’ve got to figure out how to get water down to the water-starved south, that’s us, keep the folks that live in and around the delta where the water comes and passes through, keep them happy, create some kind of a legislative bill that would satisfy all these critters. Water has, is, and always been a really important topic in the state and it’s where the money goes and where there’s a lot of power and behind closed doors wheeling and dealing going on.

PENNER: But, JW, this often is referred to as a water crisis. Why is the state in a – I know we’re in a drought…

AUGUST: Right.

PENNER: …but, I mean, what’s this crisis thing?

AUGUST: Well, we don’t have enough water to supply our needs and even if our projected growth is somewhat flat in the state right now, we still don’t have enough water to satisfy all our needs.

PENNER: All right, let’s remember that.

AUGUST: There’s different groups – groups of – that are fighting for a piece of it.

PENNER: Okay, so this is the way I see it, Scott, and correct me if I’m saying it incorrectly. There’s a twofold state problem: ensuring a water supply throughout the state even in drought years, and protecting the native fish, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and other environmental hazards. Why is there the argument that these are mutually incompatible goals?

LEWIS: Oh, I don’t know. I guess they – I think when you look at it, you have to look at the fact that these fish basically are getting chopped up in the pumps that send the water everywhere that we need it. And the fact is, is that there are laws in place, there are conservationists active in order to try to protect the ecology of this beautiful delta area, and yet at the same time our pressure on our water sources is as intense as it’s ever been and we’re in a situation where we depend on two sources. We depend on that northern part and we depend on the Colorado River. And both of them are being tapped to the point where we all have to conserve and we all have to prioritize, and we’re going to have to do some major things to try to balance both our needs in the community and the ecological needs that have been identified.

PENNER: And there also are many interests in the state that may not all be on the same page, Leslie. I mean, we have agriculture, we have environmentalists, we have business, we have labor. Are they all pushing for different things?

BRANSCOMB: It certainly seems so and at times they’re completely contradictory, as you’ve noted. For instance, we continue to develop in San Diego and elsewhere in Southern California. That takes water. That means more water hook-ups for the homes and the buildings. At the same time, conservationists are saying for us to cut back and those of us who are already living here may feel a bit put upon because other people are expending water for agriculture or for development so we are, in a way, each being selfish in our own ways. We have to find better ways to conserve. And, personally, I’d like to see us in Southern California become independent of—if we can—of the Colorado River and the Sacramento delta sources, and I think desalination actually is a solution that we should be looking at more rather than fighting with each other about where the water comes from.

PENNER: Okay, so let’s ask our listeners about this. Twenty-seven years ago the legislature failed to pass something called the peripheral canal legislation to carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California, water-starved Southern California. Are you confident that this time around our legislature is capable of making the big change and that we, indeed, will get a water policy out of Sacramento? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Are you confident about this, JW?

AUGUST: I think it’s the – this is where the rubber hits the road and I do believe Steinberg, who is the Democratic majority leader in the senate, has put together a coalition with the governor’s help, that they can push this through. This has – By the way, this has got nothing to do about the money paying for this, this is only policy and tightening up policy on the environment, water hogs, the various issues to do with the policy of how the water is handled. The money is another issue. And just one other thing…

PENNER: Well, the money is a big issue.

AUGUST: Oh, absolutely.

PENNER: We’re talking about an initiative – No, we’re talking about a bond measure for $9 billion that needs to be passed. Of course, it would take a two-thirds vote of the legislature to do that.

AUGUST: But the water companies like Metropolitan Water District are already talking about raising rates which would translate to 10 or 12% for us down here to cover the cost of this program. And the white elephant in the room is the peripheral canal. That is a – there’s a lot hinging on that. It’s not spelled out in the proposed legislation that this is going to come about but supporters of the canal, which are mainly in the south, feel like these policy changes will allow the creation of the canal.

PENNER: Okay, but the interesting thing about all this, Scott, is that this time it’s a committee of unelected state and federal officials that are working on the canal idea to be paid for by ratepayers. So we’re not talking about elected officials where you’re going to get a lot of political interests involved. Will this approach, let’s say, calm those fears that the south will benefit while the north will suffer?

LEWIS: Hmm, nothing calms water wars. And in California, anybody who’s studied this history knows that the priority and the allocations of water cause more intense hostility and combativeness than any other issue in our history and it’s just going to get worse. I think that our delegation locally will have to stand up and still influence the process in a way that is – guarantees our position in the priority list but, on the other hand, we have to work here locally to set up some, you know, water – tiered water systems or other pricing of water that can help us conserve and incentivise conservation in a way that it’s not right now. Right now, we pay a base fee in the City of San Diego, for example, for our water that is much higher than it should be and it – and so if you go over your allocation of water in that base fee, you’re not incentivised to conserve.

PENNER: I want to talk about the local effort in just a moment but I sort of want to pick up on this whole idea that at this point we have – we have something at stake here in San Diego County if legislation doesn’t pass to do something about the water supply. What is it basically, Leslie, what’s at stake here?

BRANSCOMB: What’s at stake here is our continued lifestyle, the way that we live our lives, the way that we enjoy having our swimming pools and our golf courses and our continued rampant development. We’d just really have to change the way that we do everything, the way we think about water consumption. It’s a whole new world and it’s getting more populated, at least in our corner of the world, and a lot drier at the same time.

LEWIS: But…

PENNER: There is somebody on the line who wants to talk about something you brought up before, desalination. So it’s Joel from Escondido. Joel, you’re on with the editors.

JOEL (Caller, Escondido): Hi. Thank you.

PENNER: Sure. Go ahead, please.

JOEL: Desalinization should go hand in hand with the energy consumption that it needs. There’s a huge energy consumption attached to that to come into play with desalinization and there’s some – also some dialogue that should be happening with Nevada because they’re in a worse situation as us. They don’t have an ocean to get water from.

PENNER: Okay. All right. Let’s hang on to your thought for a moment and we have Victor in Valley Center who want – who is with us next. Go ahead, Victor.

VICTOR (Caller, Valley Center): Good morning. Thanks…

PENNER: Good morning.

VICTOR: …for taking my comment.

PENNER: Sure. Go ahead, Victor.

VICTOR: It just seems to me that if we had real leadership in Washington, instead of spending a trillion dollars on Iraq and Afghanistan that all it’s netted us is getting rich people richer, we could’ve taken on a monumental project and installed a pipeline from one side of the country to the other. We would solve the flooding problems they have in the southeast and solve our water issues in the southwest. It just takes a lot of money and a lot of leadership but it could’ve been done instead of just wasting the money.

PENNER: Money and leadership, a big issue, certainly. Let’s go back to that first comment about desalinization. Energy, it takes energy, Leslie. I mean, shouldn’t that give us some hesitation?

BRANSCOMB: That is a very good point. They had – they opened up a plant down in the South Bay that was doing this for a while and the major problem they had – actually at the time the hold-up wasn’t so much the cost of energy, which is something we need to be aware of now, it was the lack of a market for it. They ended up cleaning up a lot of this water and then just dumping it back out in the ocean because there weren’t any potential buyers. But he’s absolutely right, the caller’s absolutely right, we need to be aware of all the side impacts. Anytime we come up with a new plan, we need to talk about costs and energy, which is also in short supply.

PENNER: Well, it’s nice to, I’m sure, for him to feel affirmed by what you had to say. What about that pipeline idea if we had money and leadership, is that the real answer here, Scott?

LEWIS: Well, Georgia faced a unprecedented water drought last year, I think, and, you know, I don’t want to ship water across the country. I just don’t see that as a viable solution. The fact is, is that we have water here available. The question is, is how much are we willing to pay for it? Are we willing to buy it from farmers who use it for water intensive crops like alfalfa in the Imperial Valley? Are we willing to let their crops go dry? Are we willing to pay incentivised rate structures so that we have to conserve in order to protect ourselves from paying locally? Or are we just going to pay for desalination and then also the recycled water issue. You know, you can’t talk about water, unfortunately, especially when you want to talk about specific issues, without talking about desalination or without talking about indirect potable water reuse. You know, there’s all kinds of issues that come up with this but I think fundamentally the first thing that local communities have to do is set rate structures, price water as through it’s a commodity or something close to what that you – if you use more, you have to pay more. And if we do that then the resources will be freed up to invest in the kind of infrastructure we’ll need. It’ll also encourage conservation and then we can invest in these kind of process like indirect potable reuse and desalination that might be able to further boost our – or relieve our dependence on the Colorado River, which is just not going to be there the way that it has been.

PENNER: Okay, so with all that’s going on at the state level, yesterday the mayor announced that the city is easing up on its mandatory water conservation, will not require one day a week lawn watering during the winter. Instead, it will be, still, three. What’s going on, JW?

AUGUST: We saved more money – water than they anticipated we’ve saved. And the other story is because – I know for a fact, I’ve talked to a couple of water districts in our community, with lower usage, they’re not bill – they’re not going to be billing as high, so they won’t be making as much money, money they assumed they’d be pulling into the water district to take care of issues for the water district.

PENNER: So you’re saying the water districts wants us to use more water so that their revenues…

AUGUST: Well…

PENNER: …will go up?

AUGUST: …no, they’re not going to say that to us publicly but that’s what it – be careful what you wish for sometimes because they end up saving money but they have less billing and so they pull in less money into the water districts.

PENNER: Okay, well, I’m going to ask our listeners if they think that’s what’s going on. We’ll be back in a moment. We’ll talk a little more about what’s going on locally with water. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And I’m at the roundtable today with JW August from 10News and Scott Lewis from voiceofsandiego.org and Leslie Wolf Branscomb from Uptown newspapers, San Diego Uptown, is that what we’re calling it? Okay. And with you, of course, and we’ve been talking about water. We’re now talking a little bit about the latest announcement that the mayor of San Diego has actually eased water restrictions now. You can water three days a week, I think seven minutes a day. We thought it was going to be down to one day a week but that hasn’t happened. And it’s true that the water department has noticed that its revenues have dropped as water is not being used as much, conservation has been effective. And we’re wondering why we are not taking advantage of the fact that people are conserving water? Do you think, Scott Lewis, that there’s some short-sightedness here? That we’re missing a bet by not helping San Diegans change their expectation about water limits so that we can adjust to living in an arid area instead of behaving as though we live in a rainforest.

LEWIS: Short-sightedness in San Diego government? I can’t imagine that. That’s…

PENNER: Did I say that?

LEWIS: I don’t know, I – Maybe we should run that back. Look, we’re at a situation right now where it almost feels like, and I think there’s some reality to this, that the water officials and local agency officials in San Diego are playing a game, a sort of board game where they move pieces around and try to – try to cause problems or more rates or higher rates for the fewest amount of people. In other words, they’re trying to anger the fewest amount of people as they try to set new rates for the local city, for San Diego, and for other cities. They’re not looking at long term sustainability. They’re not looking to incentivise conservation or to fund major infrastructure projects. They’re simply trying to not make anybody mad. When the city was confronted with the idea, well, why don’t you consider an idea like what the Irvine Ranch did in Orange County where they incentivised conservation by pricing water with multiple tiers, in other words, if you use more water, you have to pay. If you use more water, you have to pay, and that – therefore you’re incentivised not to use more water. And they said, well, it took 12 years in Irvine Ranch to implement and, in fact, our reporter Rob Davis found it only took six months. They kept throwing up reasons why they weren’t implementing in San Diego the same type of tiered water structure and every single reason they put up turned out to be bogus. Finally, the mayor admitted now that he’s going to look at this plan and see if he can’t structure rates that way. But you shouldn’t have to, you know, hold somebody accountable like that so repeatedly in order to just at least explain why this isn’t something that San Diego should at least consider. We hosted a great forum on the site this week, the water – “The Game of Pricing Water.” We had a professor, a think tank and the chief economist at the – at Point Loma Nazarene where they discussed the very issue right there, the price of water and what it should be, and I think that’s the core issue. After that, then you can fund infrastructure, you can incentivise conservation and then you can get things done.

PENNER: And so where will it go from here? I mean, do you think that’s going to latch on? That people are going to say, yeah, let’s go ahead and do that, let’s change the…

LEWIS: I think, most importantly, people in San Diego realize how valuable water is more and more than they ever have but also businesses do. Look, if we’re going to have a real biotech business in San Diego, if we’re going to have real technology companies – infrastructure for them, we have to have water reliability.

PENNER: Okay, I want to pick up on what you said before, I mean, the whole idea of getting people used to the idea of conservation. We’ve done it; people are conserving, we’ve made a step in there. How important is it, JW, that we have ongoing water conservation practices in San Diego? That we take advantage of people becoming accustomed to conserving?

AUGUST: Well, that’s the reality that we’re living with. Whether you believe in global warming or not, we’re in a drought. We’re not getting as much money as we have – as much water as we had—that was a Freudian slip.

LEWIS: Money, either, yeah.

AUGUST: Freudian slip. And the reality’s going to be with us from now on and so we do need to pay attention to these issues and people need to have a – they’ve got to learn how to conserve. We really do.

LEWIS: But it’s different than that…

AUGUST: Well, but I just want to say one more thing. The reason I suspected when I read that stuff on your – in your website, whenever the city has this cross-talk and there’s confusion between departments, that means somebody behind the scenes with the power interest, like the Chamber of Commerce, may be fighting the tiered thing because of business interests. I don’t know what it is but that’s what I was suspicious of. I’m thinking, oh, there’s somebody, something at work here. They don’t want the tiered system and it’s got to be some…

LEWIS: Well, if somebody doesn’t…

AUGUST: …of these power brokers.

LEWIS: If somebody doesn’t want the tiered system then be proud of it and confident and explain why. I think that there’s probably valid reasons for that. And…

AUGUST: Right.

LEWIS: …I think that – Look, I think San Diego still needs to come to terms with the fact we’re more aware of the fact that there’s a water problem or a potential water crisis but the fact is, is that we simply shouldn’t live here as a civilization. We import so much water that we have to realize the precarious situation that we’re in and the idea that we’re all guaranteed a lawn or that we’re all guaranteed the unlimited use of water is held in balance by the fact that we’re able to literally do – move mountains to bring the water here.

PENNER: Okay, I think we need to wrap this one up but we need to wrap it with a thought. And let’s go back again to what Victor said. He talked about leadership. Don’t we need, Leslie, the leadership that’s going to say I’m going to look to the future and I’m going to lead us toward that future?

BRANSCOMB: We do, and sometimes one of the reasons I think that type of leadership is in short supply is we’re also talking about political careers at stake. I’m guessing but I would say that one of the reasons nobody in San Diego has stepped up to the floor is every single one of those folks from the mayor down to the council members have to be reelected. And if they’re the ones who impose the higher rates or the tiered system on their voters, they’re not going to be very happy with them. And I think sometimes for politicians their self-interest in getting reelected come before doing the right thing in a larger sense.

PENNER: Well, thank you.

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