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Roundtable: Water restrictions begin as California drought worsens

 June 17, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: Summer without a trip to the beach. That's the outlook for a big chunk of San Diego. And what are you doing to cut back on your water usage ? Communities are being urged to slow the taps as the drought is worsening. It's all about our environment. This week I met Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. Hello and welcome to our discussion this week. I'm KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman. And let's introduce our guests. Eric Anderson is our environment reporter here at KPBS News. We also have voice of San Diego environment reporter McKenzie Elmer. And Hayley Smith is here. She's a staff writer covering trending and breaking news for The L.A. Times. All of them have been here before on roundtable , and we're so glad that they're all back. Let's start with the big issue here , and that's one that's affecting all parts of California and all Californians. We're seeing new water conservation rules in San Diego and elsewhere because of the drought. If you're washing your car in your driveway , you're doing it wrong. Now , under this new guidance , Mackenzie.
S2: And so what the best thing to do is actually just read through them on the City of San Diego website because they're quite specific. But basically you shouldn't be , like you said , washing your car in your driveway , which is actually really bad for the environment anyway. So if you shouldn't do that and if it were to rain , you're not supposed to irrigate or water your landscaping 48 hours after a rain event and basically just trying to be as cautious as possible with any kind of outdoor water use.
S1: And Hayley Smith from the L.A. Times is here. She wrote this week about what California learned from the last big drought back in 2015.
S3: But the conditions right now are actually even worse , if you can believe it. Not only are we in the third year of our current drought , but January , February and March of this year were actually the driest they've ever been in California. And that's really notable because those months are typically the heart of our wet season. When we get a lot of the rain and snow that sort of carries us through to the end of the year. So right now , a lot of the region's reservoirs are dipping to new lows , including Lake Mead , which is the largest reservoir in the nation , which is about 28% of its capacity today. We also saw the Metropolitan Water District order its strictest ever water cuts for about 6 million people in southern California. And here in Los Angeles , we've been reduced to a two day a week outdoor watering for the first time. Some areas near us are even at one day a week. So I know everyone is sort of sick of the word unprecedented , but here we are.
S1: And Eric , you have something to add here.
S4: Hey , Haley , I've got a quick question for you about local water managers. It seems like that they don't have that sense of urgency. They keep talking about that they have enough for five years , enough water in place. And they don't have that sense of urgency , like the drought is not really impacting us locally.
S3: But we also just saw the latest conservation numbers that came down from the state this month. And statewide , we use like 19% more water the last month than in 2020. So we are slipping a bit , too. So I think we are having a harder time this time around getting the message across.
S2: And Mackenzie Haley , I had a question for you , too. Is that water use up because we're so dry like so hydrologic , we dry in the soils and everything. We just need to keep applying more and more water. So that's why it looks like the water use is up.
S3: Yeah , that's a huge part of it because we had such a dry start to the year and because we're having heat waves right now , people tend to , you know , ramp up their water use and they're trying to water their lawns more and do all of these things to keep things from dying , which is exactly the opposite of what officials are saying we need to do.
S1: And Haley , you pointed out , you know , during the last drought , we learned a lot. And since then , there have been changes made around how we drill for new groundwater. Now , that may not sound like the most exciting thing to talk about , but as you point out , it's a critical piece of how we manage our water supply. Can you explain why or sort of how that works ? Sure.
S3: If you're a nerd like me , it actually is an exciting thing to talk about. But basically , you know , California has huge amounts of water beneath the ground , which we usually access through wells. And the problem is that when we have droughts with very little rain and snow to refill our reservoirs , we tend to lean more heavily on that groundwater to get by. So it's sort of like putting more straws into a milkshake , right ? So each well is using up more and more of this groundwater that isn't getting replenished. And for a long time , well , drilling in California was largely unregulated , meaning if I wanted to dig a well in my backyard , no one could really stop me. And so during the last drought , the state tried to address that with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 , which is also known as stigma. The problem is that the way stigma was designed is it's like a 20 year rollout. So in the meantime , there's just been this like frenzy of well drilling that's already causing a lot of problems , including thousands of household wells in the Central Valley that are already running dry. So , yeah , maybe not the most exciting topic on the surface , but critically important that we work toward more groundwater regulation and sustainability.
S1: The reason we're seeing this big push for conservation is because of a state order by Governor Gavin Newsom. San Diego and Oceanside , they're among those moving to level two water restrictions. Mackenzie touched on this a little bit earlier. Here's KPBS reporter John Carroll breaking it all down. If you don't have an irrigation system , you have to use a hose with a shut off nozzle or a garden hose with a sprinkler that's on a timer. No watering 48 hours before or after we get rain. So keep an eye on those weather reports. Now , you can only irrigate three days a week , max , and that must happen before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m.. That restriction does not apply to commercial growers , nurseries , golf courses or the watering of trees. Recycled non-potable water is required on all construction sites and no more washing your cars and trucks at home. Let's bring back in KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson here. Eric , we know that this is a topic that you've reported on for years here. How has San Diego responded generally to pass conservation orders.
S4: In the last serious drought back in 2015 ? They did a pretty good job. They were asking for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% conservation rates from just a couple of years prior , and local agencies met that request. So the state asked for conservation and they got conservation. Local water use declined. And the thing to remember is , is that that's something that's really kind of been a trend for the region. Local water use has sort of plateaued over the last 15 to 20 years , even though the population continues to grow up. And that's because of all the different things that have been done to encourage conservation , to have drought tolerant landscaping , to have zero tolerance , zero water landscaping. All those things have come into play and have helped keep the the demand for water in the urban area down.
S1: Haley , some of your coverage this week , it ties the drought problem to the ongoing risk for wildfires. But we're heading into the dry summer months.
S3: So if you've got a forest or a hillside of bone dry vegetation that hasn't seen any water and that has probably also been baking in the sun in one of our recent heat waves. It's like tinder. It's it's a matchbox. So even the smallest spark can quickly ignite a fire and really sear through that dry vegetation very quickly. And actually , last week , Southern California fire officials from several different agencies gathered and warned us that vegetation this year is about four months ahead of where it typically is right now in terms of dryness , meaning we're heading into the summer with dryness. That's not typically seen until the fall , until after we've gotten through what are usually the driest months of the year. So that , coupled with water restrictions that are by necessity creating drier landscapes and lawns , puts us in a pretty precarious position heading into the fire season.
S1: You're listening to KPBS Roundtable. And this week , we're joined by L.A. Times staff writer Hayley Smith. We also have environment reporters , McKenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego and Eric Anderson from KPBS News. And Eric , let's turn our attention to the beaches now. We learned this week that Imperial Beach and Coronado , they might be closed to swimmers all summer long. It's due to the long documented cross-border sewage problem.
S4: It's a polymerase chain reaction test that basically looks at the DNA in the water , DNA of marker bacteria that , you know , let you know that things like fecal coliform are in the water. That's what you find in sewage and and other dangerous bacteria that are hazardous to health. The county switched to that new testing method , and as a result , they have been uncovering the fact that there's a lot more pollution in the water off the coast of Imperial Beach in Coronado than there had been in past summers. Now , just as a comparison note , the city of San Diego is also testing in those regions , and they're using the old test that used to be the standard for San Diego County. And , you know , on some days , the new test method shows that the water is polluted. And the same time , the old testing method shows that it's not. What's really kind of flummoxed , the local officials in Imperial Beach and in Coronado is that this is prime tourist season for them. If they lose access to their beaches , that's a big economic engine for their communities. And so they're concerned about that. And , you know , since May , beaches have been closed a lot in those two communities. And and , you know , they want to make sure that the testing that the county is doing is the right testing and it's giving them the correct result. And that that , you know , if there are other factors that might help make a determination for public health like ocean currents or wind , they'd like to see those included , too , if it makes a difference. But but I think what you're seeing from them is , you know , they're they're worried they they don't want to send people out into the ocean when there's sewage in the ocean. But they're also worried about the economic health of their communities that rely so much on the tourist trade in the summer.
S1: Eric , I think you bring up an interesting point there. You know , we all know Imperial Beach and their problems. They go back decades. Coronado They're usually out of harm's way.
S4: And I think well , we'll see just exactly what the outcome is as it plays out. I think the surprising thing for a lot of people is that , you know , people in the region have traditionally thought of as summer as , you know , there are no weather flows of sewage coming down that you want a river valley. And if there are ocean currents that carry the ocean to the south , then you don't have a threat from the sewage plant south of Tijuana. And they usually think that the water is going to be relatively clean and safe for the public during the summer months. And that's not turning out to be the case , and that's creating some consternation.
S1: And let's bring in Mackenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego on this discussion.
S2: And the Scripps study showed that , you know , the the currents of the ocean basically change into like a northerly direction during the summer. And and the sewage from that plant is actually carried up into the Imperial Beach region and in Coronado. And so the thought was that the Tijuana River , because it is a seasonal river and only flows during the winter time , that that was when beaches were most at risk of closure. But this study showed that the summertime is actually really at risk of sewage contamination from the Tijuana River as well. I just wanted to make that point.
S1: And there could be another speedbump here. Mackenzie , you recently did a piece about border wall construction where the Tijuana River meets the coast. Why is Mayor Surge to Dina and Imperial Beach questioning how that might delay this sewage project ? Yeah.
S2: So this this idea of Homeland Security had about closing what they call a border wall gap. Basically , the border wall doesn't cross the mouth of the Tijuana River. So essentially someone could , if they wanted , walk from Tijuana into San Diego in the River Channel. It's just there's just an open space there. And there was a proposal to close that with a fence back in 2019. I believe. And then people thought the project was kind of dead , but then it sort of resurfaced this year. And Homeland Security wants to move forward with it. And they basically have permission from Congress. They don't have to do a number of environmental studies that other like federal or state law would otherwise require. They're exempt from that. So it's kind of as Mayor Dina fears , sort of like a green lighted project. And his concerns were primarily when he spoke with me , at least were about the fact that putting this project on the table , would there therefore slow down progress that the Environmental Protection Agency would make on their plan ? They have like a $630 million plan to address the sewage issue , crossing the border with a number of projects , one the first on the table being an expansion of an international wastewater treatment plant that already exists at the border. And so he was just concerned that this project would somehow delay that. And I'm still trying to figure out exactly how that might all work. But there are other concerns with this project that the California EPA pointed out in a letter back in 2020. And essentially , it's just like the idea that building a fence across a river that may not flow in the summer but really can rage in the wintertime , could pose a lot of problems if , for instance , homeland security doesn't open the gates in time when there's a really big flow , it could perhaps damage the fence. It could also pose risks to health and safety of of individuals who are perhaps trying to cross the border , maybe albeit illegally , but they could get caught in those flows or behind trap behind those gates. And it could also just essentially pose a problem with channeling that river's flow and basically trying to like build the other projects around this border fence , which wasn't on the table when EPA was deciding what projects it wants to build there.
S1: And let's hear a little bit from Mayor Serge Dina over there in Imperial Beach. He spoke with KPBS Midday Edition earlier this week. He was talking about that new testing system that Eric mentioned , and he's trying to get some answers about it. When I was reaching out to the county , I reached out to the county almost a month ago asking for us to meet , reached out to Coronado , reached out to state parks. We reach out to the Navy today. We still haven't heard back from the county , only that apparently their systems infallible. They will not change anything. It's the federal government's fault that if they meet our test , we have to get permission from the federal government and that they're not willing to sit down. In a meeting with the Navy , Coronado and State Parks and Imperial Beach , which is after 35.
S4: Years of.
S1: Working with the county as a professional ocean conservationist and mayor , I've never heard of this type of thing happening. If there's if they don't want to be in the room with the stakeholders and just walk us through as equal partners in explaining why this system is is more effective or what we could do to fine tune it. That was Imperial Beach Mayor Surge did Gina and Mackenzie. This might be the most outspoken issue if you could. What is his frustration level at after sort of you know , you heard it from him there. Years of inaction. Yeah.
S2: Yeah. I mean , lately he's been very seemed to be very pleased with the progress that the EPA had made. I mean , they the EPA did , you know , come into town and basically , like whip together a plan for projects and they have at least half of the committed money. And so I think he's just very protective over anything that could potentially slow that progress down. And again , these projects are still going to take a while to actually build. The federal government is still in its like environmental review process for that plant expansion. So the solutions that the EPA propose are still years off. The thing that I hear the D.A. talking about the most is , you know , we still want some kind of short term solution , short term actions , which I know that they have reached a settlement with the International Boundary Water Commission , which the Deena and a number of other cities in the state sued because they're the agency that basically handles water issues at the border. And so there is there are measures being taken out of that settlement agreement right now to actually try to like , effect and slow down some of the flows when there are spills across the border. So he's generally been , I think , happy with the process. But as you can tell , that passion comes out when there's anything that might , you know , stem it.
S1: And so earlier we talked about what people are being asked to do personally when it comes to environmental issues. But what about the political action ? Lawmakers , they just passed the upcoming state budget.
S3: We're still waiting to hear exactly what that will go. Toward. But one thing that I think is really important is that we're starting to see more state and federal funds available for water infrastructure projects and for grants that can help us and various communities and stakeholders sort of decrease their reliance on imported water from sources like the Colorado River , which , as we have mentioned , is getting pretty low. So , for example , there's , you know , grants available and investments in wastewater recycling facilities so that the water that goes down your drain can be treated and reused for something like agriculture. There's also efforts for to improve stormwater capture so that if and when it does rain , we're better able to keep some of that water. And then locally here in L.A. , for example , we're seeing more funds available to help people with smaller projects that can make a difference , like rebates to replace your lawn , your grass lawn with drought tolerant landscaping , or to switch out your old appliance for something more efficient.
S1: A lot of these environmental issues , they come back to the threat of climate change , especially the drought. And solutions , we know that they're not cheap and at a time when gas prices are at record highs. Mackenzie , do you think we could see this climate issue taking maybe a back seat here ? We'll start with you and we want to hear from everybody on this.
S2: I mean , I hope not , because those two are , in effect , opposed. You know , you don't want people burning gas when we're having a climate crisis. So I guess I. I'm kind of struggling with this question , and I'm wondering what the others are going to say. And maybe I'll have some thoughts once I hear more about what you guys mean by this. Honestly , I'm sort of like. Flabbergasted and just trying to.
S1: Go ahead , Eric.
S4: I would just say , you know. Climate change is this big existential problem that I think that most of California now widely recognizes is an issue that needs to shape public policy. And I think there's been some reaction to that. But I think what you see in terms of public policy is a lot of the hard stuff , the heavy lifting comes down the road. It's a political strategy that's been employed a lot. But I think also the pressure for public policy that addresses climate change will increase in a pretty rapid , rapid sense because I think people make the connection. I do a lot of reporting on climate change and how there are real world impacts today. You know , that didn't exist 15 years ago. And and and people respond to that. I think people understand that , you know , gas prices are a short term problem. Climate change is a long term issue.
S3: So I think if anything , this is like the moment , you know , this is like the fork in the road where we need to decide what we're going to do. And I do think it's going to be more painful now than it would have been if we had started this transition , you know , ten or 20 years ago. But as Eric mentioned , short term thinking has sort of gotten us into this position now , both with gas and energy and also with water. And so it's it's really time for us to start thinking a little bit more long term and laying the foundation for , you know , a different kind of future here in California.
S2: Yeah , I , I mean , I agree. I guess what I meant is , you know , it it's been unfortunate to see how quickly , you know , the state looked at gas rebates in the face of rising gas prices when in the climate policy context , the perhaps the better frame would be to say maybe we need to make public transit easier to use and more affordable instead of just like dishing out a short term , you know , political move of offering some money for gas. It's like that's the easy way out. And that's often , as Eric just pointed out , that's the short term election cycle thought. I think one thing that's been kind of interesting and promising , though , I'm not sure how realistic it will be. But on a larger scale , especially with federal policies sort of like throwing a lot of money at clean energy , grid expansion , etc. , you also see private corporations and companies and energy companies especially like kind of at least making declarations that they want to drive their emissions down and kind of transform the energy economy , as it were. And so that's at least like one positive thing I see from politics is harder to change. But once companies and energy companies start moving in the right direction on climate change , that usually means we're in a better spot.
S1: Well , we're going to have to wrap it up and leave our discussion there. Before we go , a quick plug. KPBS Midday Edition. They spoke with Calmatters reporter Julie Cowart this week. It was her story about the mental health toll that California's wildfires have taken on firefighters. It's a reminder how the climate change issue goes far beyond our environment. Let's think this week's guests , Eric Anderson from KPBS News , Mackenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego and Hayley Smith from the L.A. Times. You can stream the KPBS roundtable podcast any time at I met Hoffman. Thanks so much for joining us. Will be back with you all next week.

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In this Aug. 22, 2021, file photo a kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif.
Ethan Swope
A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, California, on Aug. 22, 2021.
A discussion on environmental news this week, including the rollout of new water-use restrictions and new developments in the cross-border sewage contamination issue forcing the closure of beaches in Imperial Beach and Coronado.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion with KPBS environment reporter Erik Anderson, Voice of San Diego environment reporter MacKenzie Elmer and LA Times staff writer Hayley Smith.