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Water Authority adopts master plan update

The San Diego County Water Authority certified on Thursday the environmental report for its master plan update, laying a 20-year groundwork for infrastructure investments to meet the needs of its member agencies.

Along with unanimously certifying the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report as compliant with the California Environmental Quality Act, the Water Authority Board of Directors approved the master plan update and an adjoined Climate Action Plan.

Elements of the plan continue and complete the Water Authority's Emergency Storage Program, eliminate bottlenecks in the untreated water delivery system and integrate Poseidon Resources' Carlsbad Desalination Project into the regional conveyance system.

The update, officially known as the 2013 Regional Water Facilities Optimization and Master Plan Update, was built off the agency's initial 2003 master plan and its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan. The 2003 plan has been used as the principal guide for the Water Authority's ongoing $3.1 billion capital improvement program.

Ken Weinberg, the Water Authority's director of water resources, said at Thursday's board meeting that the "optimization" portion of the plan is its key element. Getting the "biggest bang for the buck" from the investments the Water Authority has already made is the plan's focus.

"It does optimize existing facilities, which minimize the need for additional investment," Weinberg said. "One of the most substantive changes from the 2003 plan really revolves around water use, and the lowered water use we've experienced these last few years and anticipate experiencing into the future."

The assumption that reduced water demand due to already-successful conservation will continue is what allowed the Water Authority to defer or eliminate projects in the capital improvements program, Weinberg said.

The update is unpopular with several environmental groups, which claim it lacks vision and does not completely comply with CEQA. One such group, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, said a coalition is considering litigation against the Water Authority, similar to what was filed against the San Diego Association of Governments after it approved its strategic 40-year plan.

Sara Kent, program director for the California Environmental Rights Foundation, said figures used to determine the greenhouse gas emissions from projects within the scope of the plan were flawed, citing information she said CERF recently obtained on San Diego Gas & Electric's energy portfolio.

"Not only does your plan rely on an inaccurate supply mix, but the calculations themselves are erroneous," Kent said. "We may sue or we may not, but you are doing a disservice to your ratepayers by adopting a so-called climate action plan that does nothing meaningfully and only exacerbates climate change and further puts our water supply in peril."

Weinberg addressed some issues during public comment before the board voted.

"The climate action plan, after workshops with the board, took an approach to how the Water Authority can comply with AB 32 and CEQA requirements in a manner that reflects what we do have control over," Weinberg said.

The comments on the circulated EIR related to greenhouse gas concerns for the Carlsbad desalination plant were responded to by the Water Authority, he said. They were thoughtful comments, he said, which deserved attention.

"It's important to remind the board that yes, Poseidon is the operator, but they are also required under two permits — one from the California Coastal Commission and one from the State Lands Commission — to be net carbon-neutral."

Many of the update plan's critics, including Kent, said the Water Authority isn't doing enough to make sure its partners, like Poseidon Resources, build facilities that will yield fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Matt O'Malley of San Diego Coastkeeper criticized the plan, saying it prioritizes energy-intense and environmentally damaging water sources.

He specifically disagreed with the prospect of adding supply through desalination, which may expand in the region beyond the Carlsbad desalination project under a proposal for another project at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

After the vote, O'Malley released a statement on behalf of San Diego Coastkeeper, emphasizing the group's support for a focus on greater conservation and water recycling.

“It’s not a secret recipe," O'Malley said. "We’ve been saying it for years: reduce, reuse and then recycle. Long-range plans like the Master Plan should reflect these values through greater conservation targets that reach beyond the minimum requirements set by law and through water reuse so that we use every drop most efficiently — multiple times.”

Laura Hunter, a senior policy advocate for the Environmental Health Coalition, and several speakers from Surfrider Foundation addressed the board with similar complaints.

Representatives of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. and San Diego County Taxpayers Association spoke in support of the update.

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