Pipe Dreams

by Carolyn Chase


ou have to be able to tolerate lot of cognitive dissonance to be in the water business in Southern California. Either that, or a great deal of ignorance combined with that awesome human power known as denial.

All were in bloom in San Diego at recent public hearings addressing the problem of confronting the region's increasing water demand in the face of decreasing water quality and supply.

When does use become abuse? When the users don't want to face to consequences of their habits. The City of San Diego is attempting to face the consequences of our habits in its plans to reprocess treated sewage effluent into drinking water. There is no better proof that we must have really reached the bottom of the well than that they are selling this plan.

The natural freshwater systems upon which we all rely in the southwest are tapped out. Both of the main watershed systems that supply 90% of our water - the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay/Delta (the Sierras) and the Colorado river systems - are in critical condition. We simply cannot continue to draw so much water out of our watersheds that it threatens their health and vitality. No matter what your special interest or profit center, anyone can see the bankruptcy of this practice.

Californians don't like limits. The human species in general resists change. These two human factors are colliding with the limits of freshwater supplies in the southwestern United States. Our demand for water will easily outstrip the ability for the watersheds to supply.

But, like an addict that hasn't hit bottom, San Diego's water brokers are still asking for more.

This was the list presented by the County Water Authority to the State water planning process known as CALFED:

  1. Must give us more water
  2. Must give us more reliability and regulatory certainty [this really means more water]
  3. Must improve ability to convey water and facilitate water transfers [yet another way of asking for more water]
  4. Improve water quality [more water would help with this too]
  5. Comprehensive ecosystem restoration to support water quality for all beneficial uses.
    [Well, at least the "e" word made the list, if at number 5, at least it wasn't last. Unfortunately, about the only way to accomplish this is to actually leave some water in the system.]
  6. Make it affordable. [Note - this is not to be equated with suggesting that water system pricing should be deregulated or existing subsidies reduced.]

What do you do when what someone demands is bad for them? What do you do when the demand exceeds the capacity of the systems to supply it - and there's nothing left in the system to give?

In our existing economic system, which doesn't account for environmental damage and restoration, the system crashes and starts to die. The evidence for this is the increasing lists of endangered, threatened and extinct species, increasing concentrations of pollutants and toxins, lower water quality and increasing salt water intrusions into the system.

What can be done? Toilet to tap may be the right technical answer. But the psychological impacts of that has people reeling. The yuck factor is real. As State Senator Steve Peace repeatedly stated, "It doesn't matter how great the idea or the technology behind it, if you can't market it to people, it's going to be a loser." Call it demand management politics.

The fact is that San Diego is downstream from almost 200 different municipal and industrial discharges going into its current water supply - including the entire treated sewage effluent from the City of Las Vegas. People should be demanding that advanced treatment technologies be used to treat the water already incoming to our taps.
Many water treatment technologies produce a cleaner product than the standard San Diego tap delivers.

The most effective - and, I might add, least expensive way to craft a sound solution is to:

1. Require sufficient freshwater flows to the supplying ecosystems first. This is critical to protecting the health of all Californians who rely on this as a portion of their water supply. The water politicians, regulators and brokers need to establish, with unbiased scientific and biologic data, the minimum flows required to keep the natural systems healthy - and not to entertain a demand that will kill those systems.

2. Require and maximize conservation on farms and in cities. When we establish effective and performance-based standards for users, conservation goals are advanced. When we maximize conservation, we avoid building new, expensive and damaging facilities. And it's fruitless to build new facilities when the water isn't there or the water isn't clean.

3. Protect the watersheds and reduce pollutant discharges into the systems.

As San Diego Council member Judy McCarty stated, "I'd rather drink water treated through reverse osmosis that Colorado River water any day." Anyone who's been to the Colorado River would as well. Many San Diegans already pay an equivalent of $60,000 per acre foot for drinking water via local stores. As in Mexico, the local market for filters is bound to grow. One entrepreneur came to Howard Wayne's toilet-to-tap hearing to pass out literature on home water filters.

We all need clean water. The question is - will that commonality be used to unite or to divide people? Will we compete for water or share it? Will we support leaders smart enough to lead us in sufficiently protecting the systems upon which we all depend?

The only way that we thirsty southern Californians, and SoCal wanna-bes, will develop alternatives and deal with our problems of unsustainable growth will be to protect the underlying systems. Without that, we will suck the systems dry. We must confront the limits directly. Only in this way, will our leaders be able to resist our demands for unsustainable practices and be compelled to develop creative, local alternatives.