In its 25-year plan ensuring the San Diego region has enough water to go around, the county’s largest water provider didn’t appear to take the region’s biggest water recycling project to date very seriously, at least at first.
Emails between the San Diego County Water Authority staff and city of San Diego officials show the city had to argue for the second and biggest phase of its Pure Water program to be considered a realistic future source of drinking water. That surprised San Diego, which is the Water Authority’s biggest customer and is legally required to construct its wastewater recycling project.
“We definitely had to make an effort for it to be considered a verifiable project” by the Water Authority, said Shauna Lorance, director of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department.
Local water agencies from across the region formed the Water Authority in 1944 to import water into the county from rivers hundreds of miles away. As water grows more expensive to transport and treat the old way, Southern California cities are trying to add more local water sources. San Diego’s doing that by building the Pure Water project, a multibillion-dollar system that will purify wastewater well enough for drinking.
But when local water agencies start to generate their own water, that leaves less for the Water Authority to sell. Right now, there’s a disagreement over what the future holds for water demand and sales in the region. Local agencies say their residents are habitually using less water overall after the last major drought, so we should plan to have less money coming in as a region. Yet the Water Authority’s own forecasts paint a different picture, showing an increased water demand decades into the future, which befuddled local agencies.
Lorance said her staff recently did a very deep and detailed dive into water use data, which showed residents used 5 to 10 percent less than the Water Authority predicted. It didn’t take a deep investigation, though, to discover the Water Authority didn’t account for 53 million gallons a day less in water sales once Pure Water comes fully online in 2035.
“That’s a large amount of water,” Lorance said. “If the County Water Authority does long-term planning and anticipates (instead) to be selling that water to the city, they’d significantly overestimate the amount of water they’d sell.”
The Water Authority has to get its supply and demand numbers as close to right as possible so it knows how much money will be coming in from water sales. The revenue from water sales supports an immense amount of aging water infrastructure for which the Water Authority owes $1.77 billion in principal debt.
If it sells less than budgeted, ratepayers could theoretically be on the hook to foot the bill.
Though the city celebrates Pure Water as a successful sewage-to-drinking water story, it’s the product of a tumultuous battle…