Thirsty San Diego could learn from South Sound

November 6, 2010 

Driving around San Diego County last week with a death grip on the wheel and cars racing past me at 85 miles per hour on Interstate 5, I couldn't help but recall the last time I was here.

I tagged along with, and reported on, a 1997 fact-finding mission of South Sound elected officials and public works directors who visited several wastewater-reclamation projects in the arid environs of Nevada, Arizona and Southern California.

One of the stops was the North City Water Reclamation Plant in San Diego, where Dave Schlesinger, a former San Diego wastewater utility official, made the following statement:

“If we had to rely on local water supplies, we could support about 50,000 people,” he said. “We are an absolute desert.”

I’ve seen other, more recent, estimates that the rainfall, water reservoirs and underground aquifers in San Diego County produce enough water for about 100,000 people.

San Diego County is home to some 3.2 million people, which includes an ever-expanding City of San Diego population of 1.3 million. I think most of them were in their cars when I was trying to find my way around north county during a late October escape from gloomy Pacific Northwest weather.

Schlesinger predicted at the time that purified wastewater could be making its way into San Diego drinking water supplies by 2001.

That day has yet to arrive. But reclaimed wastewater makes up about 4 percent of greater San Diego’s water supply, freeing up drinking water that would otherwise be used for irrigation or other nonconsumptive purposes, explained John Liarakos, a spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority.

The authority represents a collection of communities that rely on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River for 90 percent of their water supply. Clearly, all these people living in arguably the most pleasant year-round climate in the continental United States are not in control of their water future.

The officials from what is now known as LOTT Clean Water Alliance came home impressed with the fact that technology existed to treat wastewater like a resource, especially when water is in short supply.

“The trip was like taking a trip into the future,” former LOTT administrator Mike Sharar said at the time.

Sharar turned out to be prophetic. LOTT embarked on a course of wastewater reclamation and reuse remarkably similar to what the tour unveiled all those years ago.

Interestingly enough, LOTT has leapfrogged the San Diego area in some respects, using highly treated wastewater to recharge local groundwater supplies, something still in the preliminary testing phase in San Diego because of public opposition.

The next water venture for the San Diego region most likely will be a desalination project that will pull about 56,000 acre-feet per year of water from the Pacific Ocean near the oceanside community of Carlsbad, about 35 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Permits are in hand for the private venture by Poseidon Resources, but financing for the $300 million project is not finalized, nor is a water-purchase contract with the water authority.

However, Liarakos said, it’s a safe bet that project will be built, supplying enough water for about 112,000 families of four.

Other impressions from our six-day visit to north San Diego County, where we were welcomed into the home of Vista resident Debi Hetherington, a close friend of my partner and my newest Facebook buddy:

 • The Torrey Pines Golf Course is even more fantastic, and difficult, than it looks on television during the annual PGA men’s tour stop in January.

 • The Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido makes an impressive array of craft beers, which are a joy to consume with tasty, albeit pricey, food prepared at the handsome Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens. Of course, when you can sit outside comfortably at night in late October, the beer tastes better.

 • It’s possible to spend all day at the San Diego Zoo and not see all the exhibits and thousands of plants in the botanical gardens that make this a unique zoo experience.

The San Diego Zoo emphasizes some of the things I think zoos should focus on, including captive breeding to help save species from extinction and an environmental education program that keeps reminding zoo visitors that wildlife needs its natural habitat protected to survive.

Memorable images include a hippopotamus swimming underwater; a 14-month-old panda cub sitting in the sun while munching on bamboo; and an orangutan named Karen, who survived the first open-heart surgery performed on an orangutan in a zoo, holding her hand out while a zookeeper threw her chunks of lettuce and carrots.

Debi, my new Facebook friend, sent us a message the other day, telling us we have an open invitation to return.

We might have to time it to the springtime bloom of wildflowers at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or the late summer meet at Del Mar Race Track.

You get the picture: Even with lousy-tasting tap water and intense traffic, the San Diego area is pretty special place to visit.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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