The Future of Water in Southern California

A painfully dry Shasta Lake

A painfully dry Shasta Lake

Looking out of our office window in Del Mar, California, you would think that we were smack in the middle of a lush, tropical paradise. Emerald green lawns abound and perfect landscaping reaches as far as the eye can see.

Now while we’re definitely not complaining about our view – far from it!– it doesn’t take more than a quick drive to the Mojave desert to realize that the natural landscape of Southern California is actually an arid, dry, scrubland and that there must be a hell of a lot of water being used to keep our view this verdant.

While it’s old news that Southern California is currently experiencing one almighty drought, what you might not know is that as a population we have amongst the smallest natural inflow of water (we get most of it from the Colorado River and via aqueduct from Northern California) yet we use 50% more water than people on the East Coast? Yup, we are addicted to water!

Without a plan (or several of them) we can forget our manicured lawns, golf courses and even a sustainable existence for our growing population 100 years from now. Thankfully, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to find solutions for the generations to come. With ideas like ocean desalination, new water delivery infrastructure, and recycling waste-water into tap water – that’s right, we could all be drinking recycled sewage a few years from now! – there’s hope in sight.

We decided to go straight to the experts to find out more on what our water future looks like. Michael Thornton, GM at SEJPA (San Elijo Joint Powers Authority) in Cardiff by the Sea, California, answers our questions and shows us that all is not lost: We should be calling Southern California home for some time to come…

MIZU: We’ve read about several different solutions being proposed to tackle the water shortage in California. What are some of the more realistic ones?

MICHAEL: First, we need to stay focused on addressing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). If you are not familiar with this issue, the Bay Delta (located east of San Francisco) is an environmentally sensitive area as well as a key hub for conveying water from northern California to southern California. The BDCP is a part of California’s overall water management portfolio. It is being developed as a 50-year habitat conservation plan with the coequal goals of restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and securing California water supplies. The BDCP is intended to secure California’s water supply by building new water delivery infrastructure and operating the system to improve the ecological health of the Delta. The BDCP also would restore or protect approximately 150,000 acres of habitat to address the Delta’s environmental challenges. The issues associated with the Bay Delta are challenging and complex, and the proposed solutions are less than unified on several key items. However, finding clarity on the best solution and efficiently implementing it, is likely the most critical water issue the state is facing.

MIZU: Ocean desalination: it gets a bad write-up from environmentalists because of how it alters the salt content in the ocean and affects sea life. Is it a viable option?

MICHAEL: Well, I’m not sure if altering the salt content of the ocean is the environmentalist’s biggest concern… I believe the most frequent concerns I’m hearing are on the impacts to sea life from the intake of the ocean water and on the energy footprint of the water treatment process. Both of these points are valid, and the San Diego County Water Authority has taken measures to minimize and offset impacts. From an engineering perspective, ocean desalination is a viable option for augmenting a region’s water supply. However, this treatment process is expensive and is probably best paired with other water strategies such as conservation and water recycling to ensure we are using our water wisely. With all things considered, ocean desalination may not be the “silver bullet” answer to our region’s water supplies issues; however, it is certainly a piece of the puzzle here in southern California.

MIZU: I hear your agency is currently working on plans for waste-water recycling; to the average person this idea is a bit off-putting as essentially we’d be consuming treated sewage, right? How would you summarize the process and prospects of that option?

MICHAEL: Yes, the agency I work for, the San Elijo Joint Powers Authority, located in Cardiff by the Sea, treats wastewater and creates a new water supply from it called recycled water. The wastewater is from businesses, restaurants, and homes. This includes water from your shower, sinks, washing machines, and, yes, even your toilet. We use a process of physical, chemical, and biological treatment processes to filter and remove impurities. The water produced is then disinfected and distributed for non-potable uses such as irrigation and industrial uses in the cities of Encinitas, Solana Beach, and Del Mar. Recycled water uses a separated distribution system from the drinking water, with pipes colored purple to indicate that it’s not drinking water.

MIZU: How bad is the current drought?

MICHAEL: California’s drought is very bad, and this last year is one of the driest on record. What is unique about this drought is that it has hit northern California especially hard. Many of California’s water supply lakes and reservoirs are far below their normal water levels.

MIZU: With that in mind, why are water restrictions not being enforced on residents?

MICHAEL: Water restrictions are being placed on residents in some areas, and in other areas the water rationing is voluntary. It depends on the water supply diversity of the local water district as to the level of rationing being required. If you are interested in finding out what you can do to conserve water, call or visit your local water district’s website. Many districts are providing funding to remove lawns and they can assist you in conducting a water use evaluation of your home and landscape to help ensure that you are using water in the most efficient manner possible. It is amazing how much water a leaking toilet can waste, not to mention the amount of water lost to leaking or inefficient irrigation practices.

MIZU: Is there a real possibility that Southern California could become uninhabitable one day due to a lack of viable water?

MICHAEL: Well, that is an interesting question. I don’t believe it will become uninhabitable due to a lack of drinking water, but I believe our water use habits will change in the future.

MIZU: If you could put one message out there to the residents of Southern California, what would it be?

MICHAEL: If we all save a little, it will mean a lot. Use your water wisely!