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Proactive, multipronged approach needed to secure water sources, experts say

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San Diegans, and Americans in general, use anywhere from 120-190 gallons per person, per day, according to various estimates.

In comparison, Australians get by with 60-80 gallons, while Singaporeans only seem to need 43 gallons. Both countries have dealt with water scarcity by adopting innovative ideas.

“It would be great if we could conserve more, but it can’t be the only solution. With lowered usage, water agencies here can’t meet the costs associated with piping and treating the water, or the administrative costs,” said Soma Bhadra, a civil and environmental engineer and water advocate.

Bhadra worked as a water and wastewater engineer in Singapore, Australia and New York before relocating to San Diego. She recently began Proteus Consulting with the goal of advocating proactive solutions to long-term water security in San Diego.

“I just feel change has to happen, and working in the corporate world and trailing the money is not the way to make it happen. I think we need to address the problem at a deeper level,” Bhadra said.

San Diego gets about 90 percent of its water from two sources, the California Aqueduct and the Colorado River. The aqueduct was originally built for farming communities in central and southern California, not the urban population. But as the urban areas grew, so did water needs.

Twenty-four water agencies in San Diego buy water from the San Diego County Water Authority, which in turn buys it from the Metropolitan Water Authority.

Water rates fluctuate based on allocations and reservoir levels, among other factors. Consumers pay not just for their water usage, but also the administrative costs incurred by their local agencies and the cost of treating and distributing the water.

Effective this year, water rates increased nearly 8 percent for San Diego homeowners. This is the sixth rate hike since 2007, which the water authority attributes to rising wholesale water prices as well as the expense of upgrading infrastructure.

Bhadra said water rates will keep going up, since the agencies will have to pass on the costs they incur as they modernize decades-old systems and contend with rising wholesale prices.

“Our pipeline infrastructure is aging. Every time there is a storm, there are water main breaks. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the water infrastructure across the U.S. a ‘D’ because it’s in bad shape,” she said.

Bhadra pointed out that a natural disaster such as an earthquake could threaten our water supply.

“Everything is tied to money at the end, and the economy is tied to (the supply of) energy, water and land. We have innovations happening here in energy, but not on the water side. We need to look at water security at a regional level,” Bhadra said.

With increases in population, the depletion of water resources and rising costs, there is no single solution, according to Bhadra.

“For us to be economically secure, we need to slowly wean ourselves from depending on outside sources, and that requires community involvement,” she said. “We need to bring together land use planning, conservation, desalination, reuse of wastewater and gray water.”

She pointed to Singapore, which recognized that its water security hinges on reducing dependency. The city-state depended largely on neighboring Malaysia, which is legally bound by two treaties to supply Singapore’s water. However, there has long been a concern about what would happen when the treaties expire.

The Singapore government explored different water recycling options in the late 1990s before deciding on reclaimed water, which it branded as NEWater. This is sewage water purified with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet technology, in addition to conventional water treatment processes.

NEWater is potable and is bottled for human consumption, but is mostly used for industrial purposes that require high purity levels.

When Australia experienced a severe drought, it resorted to large-scale desalination, recycled water and exploring technologies that enabled industries such as farming to use less water.

Water managers in San Diego County are juggling multiple issues: the loss of revenue when consumers conserve more, limited water resources, aging infrastructure and maintenance costs.

The Otay Water District serves more than 200,000 people in the area stretching from Jamul, Spring Valley and eastern Chula Vista all the way to the border. Otay has 48,000 customers and is expected to be second only behind the city of San Diego in the population growth it experiences over the next 20 years.

Mark Watton, general manager of the water district, said factors like Chula Vista’s land use planning will directly impact Otay’s water planning. Like his peers in the region, the main issues he worries about are the rate trends and sustainable long-term water supply.

Otay recycles 8 percent of its water by routing sewage water from Rancho San Diego, Jamul and the South Bay to treatment plants and then deploying it to irrigate public landscaping, golf courses and condominium associations in eastern Chula Vista near Interstate 805. Watton said the amount will go up to 15 percent over the next 30 years. In the meantime, he and other local water managers are exploring ways to diversify water sources.

“We look at continuous improvement. We want to be more proactive, plan more efficiently for capital infrastructure,” he said.

Otay also has had some success with variable pricing, which penalizes higher volume water users. Water usage has reduced by nearly 30 percent since its peak in 2007, Watton said. The tiered pricing has been in place for more than 15 years.

The rising cost of imported water is prompting water managers to take a look at sources closer to home.

“Local water sources were expensive to explore before, since imported water was cheaper. Now both are in line, so we’re looking at well water, recycled and indirect potable reuse,” Watton said.

When it comes to conserving water, it’s not just about reducing usage. Green advocates have long stressed the need to switch the way we landscape our homes and communities. Xeriscaping or desert landscaping that uses far less water would be more appropriate in San Diego.

Another area with potential is gray water -- wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing and bathing that may be recycled for non-potable uses such as irrigation. But for this water to be recycled, there will have to be fundamental changes in how our plumbing is set up.

“If gray water takes root, water managers lose revenue, so the permitting process is something they don’t want to talk about much. They are cash strapped as it is, and permitting requires more resources,” Bhadra said.

Among the potential solutions, desalination is one of the quicker ways to provide alternate sources of water. Bhadra, who has worked on designing desalination plants in Australia, said San Diego needs more of these plants. Yet the only one commissioned in the area -- a Carlsbad facility to be built and operated by Poseidon Resources -- has been delayed by permitting, environmental concerns and financing.

“Australians look at things in a holistic manner, they are receptive to new ideas, they’re not as contentious as groups in the U.S. that are so polarized,” Bhadra said, suggesting why progressive measures have had more success in the land down under.

She cited the city of San Diego’s demonstration project to prove recycled water is safe.

“It’s been proven safe all over the world; why do we need to prove it again? It is deployed by the U.K., Germany, Denmark, Singapore and Australia,” Bhadra pointed out.

Watton is thinking out of the box to circumvent precisely such roadblocks.

“For Otay, we have a unique opportunity with Mexico. Tijuana has the same water issues. So the opportunity is to develop desalination plants in Mexico. We want to get away from the Colorado River, so we’re looking into teaming up with Mexico and getting a private developer,” Watton said.

Locating a plant south of the border would help avoid the endless litigation in California from environmental agencies. Watton expects a plant to become reality in the next five years, producing 100 million gallons a day.

For any comprehensive solution to work involving conservation, reuse, recycling, desalination and land use planning, community involvement at the grassroots level is essential. Grassroots initiatives were behind the fundamental and drastic changes in both Singapore and Australia.

“The NGOs (non-governmental organizations), local communities, school children and the public need to be taught to respect and appreciate water more and make lifestyle changes,” Bhadra said.


Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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2 UserComments
Candace Vanderhoff 1:23pm March 21, 2011

Similar to conserving energy, we can first reduce our water use. If we reuse shower and laundry water we can cut water use in half, imagine if all of SD County did this. A second step is to create an on-site water filtration system. This would eliminate the need to spend billions of dollars on new infrastructure every 50 years. It is possible, people are doing this. Bahdra is correct about small businesses and grassroots groups leading this movement, we need more people like her. Agencies will not do this, for them it is suicide, but for a small business it is an exciting challenge. As a part of Rainthanks & Greywater, we install rainwater and greywater systems. The water is reused, it is safe and simple and reduce water cost, people are thrilled to be reusing greywater. The City of San Diego has worked with us on greywater permits, they are open to it and helpful. If we all do our part water security is possible. Some solutions are at rainthanks.com

Ned Daugherty - H2O Futures 12:08pm March 21, 2011

Excellent start. However, there are other proven, viable solutions (not considered or discussed) that can create abundant potable water here in San Diego and other arid coastal regions.