COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

How is our water supply?

Our beloved California is so dry that not only has Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, the California Conference of Catholic bishops has suggested that people of all faiths pray for rain.

The fact is that God drops enough rain and snow on California to supply all of our human needs: urban and agricultural.

The problem is that rain and snow land in one place and the people, and most of the agriculture are somewhere else.

Thus there is a premium on the quality of public officials and their ability to construct water projects that meet our growing human needs.

While all of our water comes out the sky, it is transported to San Diego via two major supply systems: the State Water Project (SWP), which taps the rich Northern California supply and brings water south along the axis of the state to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) for further distribution and the MWD itself.

MWD has its own system that vacuums up an ever-dwindling Colorado River source then transports it laterally across Southern California for regional distribution.

While former Gov. Pat Brown created a miracle with the SWP, he failed to complete a vital link between the water sources north and the empty glasses here.

That missing link has been known for decades as the Peripheral Canal.

When water is sucked into the pumps at Tracy, absent abundant rain fall, pumping impacts water levels and salinity patterns, causing changes in the environment.

The Peripheral Canal (now a poisonous title) was designed to maximize the efficiency of the Delta water flows and provide a mechanism to ameliorate any pump-caused distortions to save endangered animals.

But because of political opposition, it has never been built.

Since there is no canal, a Federal Court has created a man-made drought south of the Delta in response to a draconian federal law that puts animal species ahead of, not on par with, humans.

Large swaths of farm regions are now drought blighted as farmhands have been thrown out of work, crops have been reduced, and food prices are rising.

There is good news in Southern California.

On a recent tour of the MWD system, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the MWD has substantially upgraded its ability to store water “downstream” e.g., away from the Colorado River to tide us over in droughts.

While Lake Mathews, with its capacity of 182,000 acre feet, has served us since 1939, the MWD recently completed and filled Diamond Valley Lake with around the same capacity and located it closer to us in Hemet.

The MWD supplies our own San Diego County Water Authority (CWA), which is also expanding local storage capacity.

Even so, the governor’s declaration of a drought emergency reminds us that there is much unfinished business.

The decades-delayed construction of a saltwater conversion plant is good news.

But why do the environmentalists hate us so? What does it serve them to file serial lawsuits to harass project proponents? Are the courts paying them for their legal efforts? If not, who is?

The law should be changed so that projects cannot be harassed into bankruptcy by these jackal-tactic lawsuits. Critics should be allowed their day in court, not their lifetime.

As a legislator, I undertook several efforts to assure San Diego’s water supply.

Most importantly, I co-authored with Assemblymember Richard Katz, the California Water Marketing legislation.

This law broke the old water-monopoly law (called “use it or lose it”), which converted the incentives associated with water into “save it and sell it.”

Thanks to a recommendation by the Rand Corporation think tank, our legislation replaced the old monopoly laws that were destructive of our supplies.

Thanks to this law, CWA is now able to seek out water suppliers anywhere in the newly opened market, further bolstering our supply.

I also wrote legislation giving the CWA authority to develop and market reclaimed water.

Legally authorized to operate countywide, the CWA can now facilitate our own reclaimed-water market just as the Katz bill did for freshwater.

The CWA has made some use of that law, but not nearly enough.

As a companion measure, I wrote legislation directing Caltrans to make its right of ways available to “wheel” reclaimed water. “Wheel” is a water term meaning transport.

In order for reclaimed water to come into wide use for landscaping and industrial use, there needs to be a backbone network of pipelines. The Caltrans rights of way provide ideal corridors for such pipes.

And Caltrans benefits as a major user of reclaimed water.

In view of the governor’s declaration, the CWA should upgrade its efforts to produce and market reclaimed water.

I also wrote legislation directing that all state agencies in counties that import more than 50 percent of their water convert to drought-resistant landscaping and irrigate with reclaimed water where available.

That law was designed to reduce dependence on imported freshwater and to create a state-induced market for reclaimed water throughout Southern California.

Heeding the leadership of our earlier San Diego City Council, the city built a water reclamation plant and produces thousands of gallons a day that could be put to productive use.

But instead, they dump it in the sewer system, creating yet another cost.

Why they don’t make use of my “wheeling” legislation to sell and deliver that reclaimed water for beneficial use, I don’t understand.

With rational leadership, we can respond to the governor’s call to be careful with our water supplies and survive this drought.

I hope that we will soon get some from our City Council.

So far, they have been mute.

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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