COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

The mother of all droughts is here — now what?

To paraphrase the late, disgusting dictator Saddam Hussein, the mother of all droughts has finally arrived.

A drive up the California Coast over New Year’s weekend included endless vistas of dead grass where historically cattle have grazed.

The State Water Resources Board is considering implementing water-use limitations on niggling things such as hoses without nozzles, etc.

They have to do something in obedience to the ultimate bureaucratic survival admonition: “Look Busy!!!”

Statewide rules on hose nozzles and driveway flushing are just showboating and make no sense as each jurisdiction is in various stages of being able to respond to a major drought.

The state board is missing the really big opportunities, as are our local officials.

For example, far-sighted Aviara developer (and savior of the Batiquitos Lagoon) Larry Clemens installed water-reclamation facilities that allow that community to sail through the drought, yet remain as green as the jolly bean giant.

While other communities, fecklessly not heeding the obvious, will eventually suffer draconian water shortages.

Our San Diego is a mixed bag in that regard.

Here is the good news.

We all love to hate the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) for padding the bills for our wholesale water supply.

But, to MWD’s everlasting credit, they executed a remarkable engineering achievement known as Diamond Valley Lake in nearby Hemet.

I recently visited there and was pleased to note the name of long-time San Diego water leader Francesca Krauel on the dedicatory plaque.

Mrs. Krauel contributed many years of public service on the County Water Authority Board (CWA) advocating for a dependable water supply for San Diego.

Diamond Valley Lake is nothing less than a grand-slam home run in that regard and a suitable tribute to her many years of caring about us.

Diamond Valley cost nearly $2 billion and has a capacity of 800,000 acre-feet of water.

The MWD started filling the lake in 1999 and finished four years later. That standby supply is near-term reassurance for everyone downstream.

While our wholesale supply is in good shape for another year or two, I cannot say the same for the rest of our local system.

All the way back in the early 1980s, the far-sighted City Council on which I was privileged to serve anticipated this very situation.

And just as developer Larry Clemens accomplished for Aviara, we attempted to achieve for the city of San Diego.

Here is how.

First, the cardinal fact of water supply is that fully 50 percent of our precious potable water is wasted on landscape irrigation and industrial uses.

That is like using Dom Perignon Champagne to wash the kitchen floor.

Using imported potable water in car washes, construction dust control, and freeway landscaping is a morally reprehensible waste especially when the alternative is now and has been available for decades.

Anticipating this moment more than forty years ago, the then city council kicked off research into water reclamation technologies then ultimately selected the low-technology combination of water hyacinth and reverse osmosis.

Such installations have the benefit of being “scalable” to the location.

The hyacinth is a plant that thrives in river ways polluted by human waste.

By flowing sewage through a hyacinth-intense channel, “heavy metals” and other awful stuff are absorbed by the hyacinth.

The same channel provides a habitat for the mosquito eating Tilapia Fish which creates a yield of protein.

The hyacinth itself grows rapidly and is harvested daily to be used for methane mulch to run the nearby R/O plant, or for soil amendment, or for feed-lot usage.

Once the water is primarily treated, it flows into a reverse-osmosis plant for final polish and reuse downstream.

This self-perpetuating little installation is the closest thing imaginable to the Libertarian “Incredible Bread Machine.”

The intent of this strategy was to use the reclaimed product strictly for landscaping and industrial uses. It was never our intent to introduce the product into the potable water supply.

A subsequent City Council changed direction, and instead built a gleaming, centralized, multimillion-dollar high-tech plant in the southwest corner of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Since the proceeds of that plant cost so much, their notion was that the only true value of the product was to add to the drinking water supply.

This is why we have politicians in office and not scientists. While it is entirely correct that reclaimed water is scientifically potable, it is not politically potable and likely never will be.

Thus after building the hugely expensive plant at Miramar, the phrase “toilet to tap” stymied that and subsequent councils from augmenting the drinking-water supply.

As a result, for about three decades, the plant has continued to produce millions of gallons of perfectly good reclaimed water only to dump most of it into the sewer to be reprocessed and then dumped in the ocean.

Ridiculous!

To support the City Council’s original policy of allocating reclaimed water to landscaping and industrial uses, I successfully carried three pieces of legislation.

First was a bill that authorized and directed all state agencies in water-poor counties to employ reclaimed water on their landscaping and to propagate only drought-resistant plant inventories.

The intent of the legislation was to create a market for reclaimed water and reduce the demand for irrigation water.

It was also an attempt to provide leadership to local agencies on how they should be preparing for this drought. I don’t know any local agency that followed suit.

Unless the rains come soon, venerable plant inventories that have taken decades to grow are in danger of drying out.

A second bill authorized and directed Caltrans to make their highway rights of way available for installing a regionwide network of purple pipes to distribute (wheel) reclaimed water to major users such as Caltrans itself, UCSD, SDSU, Balboa Park, golf courses, industrial uses and even Tijuana.

A third bill authorized the County Water Authority (CWA) to get into the water reclamation business.

Doing so would increase the sources and volume of reclaimed water to further relieve the potable supply of its burden. CWA, of all agencies, should understand this need.

Alas, not much has been done on any of the above projects.

Success would mean effectively doubling the potable supply without having to locate, buy or import any more water.

It is not too late, but what is missing is regional leadership.

You would think that of the hundreds of elected officials presently in office, just one of them would understand the need to substitute reclaimed water for potable water at every opportunity.

So far … not.


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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1 UserComments
Mark Robak 7:46pm July 16, 2014

Larry, lots of good points you made. No question we need to use more recycled water and I agree we haven't done enough to that end. If you go to Florida you will see widespread use of recycled water used in landscaping of single family homes. Unfortunately between the California Department of Public Health has stymied the same thing in California and the California Department of Water Resources has done very little to exhibit ant leadership in breaking through the logjam. In Florida and elsewhere you also see purple fire hydrants. Again, not so in California where we use drinking water, which is crazy! What some of the current crop of legislators should be doing is something to change that dynamic and no better time than now with the worst drought in California history. We should be also be moving forward with all due haste to implement Direct Potable Reuse. That is essentially what the City of San Diego is doing at their North City Water Reclamation Plant, which you refer to.

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