The Coast News Group
Diamond Valley Lake near Hemet is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in SoCal. The water from the Colorado River Aqueduct, a primary source of drinking water for southern Californians is delivered through the San Diego Canal and then pumped into the Diamond Valley Lake reservoir. Courtesy photo

San Diego is getting a future ‘WaterFix’

REGION — San Diegans are you ready for a WaterFix?

Maybe you’d like water that is more reliable and tastes better? It’s on its way, but there are a few more approvals needed before this can happen, according to Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger.

The project, called California WaterFix, is expected to modernize the state’s decades-old water delivery system by building three new water intakes in the northern Delta and two tunnels to carry the water under the Delta to the existing aqueduct systems in the southern Delta that delivers water to cities and farms.

Presently, 30 percent of the water that flows out of taps in Southern California comes from Northern California via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But the Delta’s delivery system is badly outdated, its ecosystem is in decline and its 1,100-mile levee system is increasingly vulnerable to earthquakes, flooding, saltwater intrusion, sea level rise and environmental degradation.

“For decades, we have sought a solution to the problems of the Bay Delta, problems that put Southern California’s water supply at risk,” Metropolitan Board Chairman Randy Record said. “We finally have that solution, California WaterFix.”

Costs and who pays

The estimated total cost for construction of California WaterFix is about $17 billion. Metropolitan will be the primary investor in the project. This investment is necessary to prevent a far more expensive, disruptive water future that would result if the ability to rely on this Northern California supply is lost due to climate change and other natural risks, according to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Metropolitan Water is a state-established cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies serving nearly 19 million people in six counties. The district imports water from the Colorado River and Northern California to supplement local supplies, and helps its members to develop increased water conservation, recycling, storage and other resource-management programs

“Pros for families is that it will taste better, be more recyclable and there will be less shortages in the future,” Kightlinger said. “This investment is just one part of ensuring Southern California and its $1.3 trillion economy has a reliable water supply in the age of climate change. We need a diverse portfolio, including water recycling, storm-water capture and increased conservation. We will continue to work hard and invest in those projects.”

How it helps San Diegans
In San Diego where there isn’t a good water basin and the rainfall is also low because it drier, 85 percent of the region’s water is imported.

“Essentially, San Diego is heavily reliant on wholesalers and importing its water, which can get expensive,” Kightlinger said. “WaterFix will do what it says, it’s not just a Band-Aid.”

Bottom line is that the current state water project was built in 1960s with the best technology at the time, but it’s now 50 years old and needs an upgrade and to be modernized, he said.

“What we’ve realized is pumping the water in the south end of the Delta, which is what we do now, is particularly tough on the native species and picks up the containments in the Delta.

“What we’re going to do is pick up the water in the north of the Delta, and add state-of-the-art fish screening, have tunnels that go completely under the Delta for 35 miles, and then have them tap into the existing infrastructure.”

Still early

However, design work will not start for a few more years and actual construction will commence between 2020-2021. The overall project will be completed between 2030-2032.

“This is definitely a big project, and will take a lot of work,” he said.

Today’s water that is imported to regions including San Diego is blended and this can be a lengthy process.

“We take the water and blend it with the Colorado River water, which is much saltier, with our state water project that comes from the Sierras with a lot less salt,” he said. “That blend is very important for San Diego, and that’s what we deliver to San Diego County. With the WaterFix, this means less drought, less interruptions and this will help ensure San Diego has access to low-salinity water. This is very important to avocado farmers in North County and for recycled projects in areas such as the Padre Dam and the city’s Pure Water project.”

Climate change impact

One of the most important parts about the WaterFix project it that California is clearly going to be impacted by climate change, he added. One of the biggest impacts will be a much-reduced snowpack, but more rainfall.

“We are still going to get decent amounts of precipitation in Northern California, but it will be rain and not snow. We’re going to have to just grab that water really fast,” he said. “That means having large pipes, large tunnels and large reservoirs, because it is just barreling down to the ocean now instead of that nice slow steady, melting snowpack that we’ve gotten accustomed to. WaterFix will help enable us to grab water and move it into Southern California reservoirs because it is picking it right up at the river before it hits the ocean.”

In the end, Kightlinger said WaterFix will add water reliability in the future and improve the water quality so it will taste better.

Drought or no drought?

In terms of the drought, Kightlinger said we are in decent shape because we had a wet 2017 and we were able to store a lot of water and prepare for 2018 and 2019. Even if it ends up dry, it looks like California is going through more severe dry periods, longer.

“This is why we are looking to modernize a lot of our infrastructure; WaterFix is one of those key components that’s the reality of water in a climate change world. Water is expected to be more volatile –much flashier,” he said. “We can expect long periods of dry followed by big wet years. We’re in good shape this summer and next, but our future is going to be more volatile and this is why WaterFix will help.”

Other options

As for other alternatives to WaterFix, he said there really aren’t any other options.

“People have said you can conserve more, but we are already doing a lot of conservation and we plan to do more,” Kightlinger said. “People have pointed out to ocean desalination, but that’s incredibly expensive and more than WaterFix, plus it has a huge imaging footprint. We have to be careful how much we want to invest in ocean desalination. So, given our existing infrastructure and our existing population base, this by far and away is the best solution available out there for making sure we have reliability for the next 50 years.”

Eventually, he said, technology will advance and there will be more small-scale solutions at the house level like micro-installations that recycle water more efficiently, but that’s 25 to 50 years out.