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The San Diego area imports much of its water from the Colorado River. Photo courtesy of San Diego County Water Authority
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Water Authority says no water shortage, despite dry conditions throughout West

REGION — The San Diego County Water Authority is developing a water shortage contingency plan, though not implementing it, despite dry conditions in places from which the region imports much of its water.

The region draws about 20% of its water from local sources, including groundwater, desalinated seawater and local reservoirs, according to the Authority’s website. Fully one-half of regional water is imported, by various means, from the Colorado River. A minority proportion comes from Northern California.

“The state may now be entering a multi-year drought,” according to a March 17 water authority report.

Reservoir and precipitation levels throughout the Colorado River Basin and Northern California are low. Lakes Powell and Mead — huge reservoirs along the Colorado River in Utah, Arizona and Nevada — sit at a combined 39% capacity.

While the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency, anticipates no supply shortage from the Colorado River this year, it forecasts the probability of shortage rising to 60% in 2022 and 82% in 2023, according to the March report.

The Utah governor last month declared a state of emergency due to drought conditions. U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal academic collaboration, classifies current drought conditions in the West as “widespread extreme” to “exceptional.”

Northern Sierra precipitation and snowpack clock in at 53% and 66% of their historical averages, respectively. Oroville and San Luis — big Northern California reservoirs — sit at a combined 58% capacity.

But San Diego area water officials aren’t alarmed, saying they’ve secured adequate resources for long-term regional use.

“The Water Authority has sufficient water supplies whether it is a normal year or multiple dry years,” Water Resources Manager Jeff Stephenson said in a statement.

“The reporting of drought conditions in other parts of the state, or the Colorado River Basin, don’t [sic] necessarily reflect a problem in the San Diego region in terms of water supply,” said Authority spokesman Ed Joyce.

“Under one of the agreements [between the seven states in the Colorado River Basin], Arizona and Nevada agreed to take the first cuts to help prop up the level of Lake Mead, while California would participate at lower shortage levels if the reservoir continues to fall,” he said. Similarly, the relative high priority of other regional water rights means “the Water Authority’s [Colorado River related] supplies are largely insulated from cutbacks and are highly reliable.”

The Authority has implemented temporary cutbacks in response to drought conditions twice in recent decades but deactivated these programs in 2011 and 2016, respectively.

Currently, the San Diego area is not formally under any regulatory or pricing strictures due to water shortage or drought conditions, Joyce confirmed.

The Authority is formulating a “Water Shortage Contingency Plan,” which had a public hearing before a governing board committee last month. The plan notes that “water supply shortages in different regions of the state do not necessarily constitute a drought in the San Diego region.”

But, in the event a shortage is declared, it outlines various levels of voluntary and mandatory cutbacks, depending on the shortage’s severity. The plan also outlines potential water use prohibitions, including restrictions on landscaping, swimming pools, irrigation by nurseries and commercial growers, water used for construction purposes, and the like.