Guest Commentary: One big question as La Jolla considers leaving San Diego: ‘What about the water?’

La Jolla coast
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The campaign for La Jolla to secede from San Diego overlooks some basic facts about critical infrastructure that will make or break a Southern California city in the next 30 years. The simple visible elements like potholes, streetlights and sidewalks are only a tiny fraction of the infrastructure puzzle. The real problem is the water and sewer infrastructure that we don’t see.

How did water first arrive in La Jolla so the Victorian-era tent city could become the privileged enclave that La Jollans and their visitors enjoy today?

In 1916, La Jolla came within hours of running out of water after winter floods destroyed the pipeline that spanned the San Diego River to supply the community. After the completion of the Lake Hodges dam in early 1919, La Jollans begged the city to supply water from Lake Hodges to their “underserved” community, which ran bone-dry that summer.

The city’s bonding capacity was stretched to its limits. Still, 75,000 San Diegans in multiple city neighborhoods (including Mission Hills, Talmadge and Golden Hill, to name a few) borrowed $140,000 through private 10-year bank loans to fund the water infrastructure needed to supply up to 3 million gallons a day to La Jolla from Lake Hodges.

At the time, La Jollans believed this new supply was inexhaustible — more than they would ever need. A select few real estate speculators, capitalizing on the city’s population base, profited handsomely from the increased land values made possible by a more reliable water supply.

Here are a few of the water questions the first mayor of secessionist La Jolla would face:

• Can the city of San Diego divert the water that’s currently used to supply La Jolla to develop other communities and allow La Jolla to craft its own independent water solution?

• How much would La Jolla need to borrow to buy back its water and sewer systems from the city at today’s fair market asset values?

• What would it charge developers for new water connections?

• When would La Jolla present its own plan for water independence?

• Would that plan include desalination or reuse, or both?

• Would La Jolla discharge its brine waste to its marine canyon off La Jolla?

The time for La Jolla to incorporate as its own city has, after many fits and starts, finally arrived.

June 25, 2023

The greatness of La Jolla would only falter under proposed independence.

July 3, 2023

In the next 30 years, the carbon footprint of a gallon of water [emissions from the processes of pumping, treating, delivery, and treatment of resulting sewage] in Southern California, and the rate increases needed to fund it, will outstrip every other utility bill that San Diegans pay. Even the most privileged, well-watered communities may struggle. Unlike Rancho Santa Fe, La Jolla does not have on-demand access to a unique local supply of cheap Lake Hodges water to offset purchases of imported water from the San Diego County Water Authority.

The only way for our communities to survive is if we can reduce our urban footprint to offset the expanding carbon footprint of our water infrastructure. Sadly, the current balkanization of our water infrastructure runs counter to the spirit of collaboration and common sense that will need to prevail if we, including La Jollans, are to survive.

If La Jollans want to issue bonds, they should first pay back the initial $140,000, adjusted for inflation, that the city borrowed 103 years ago to guarantee their future.

If San Diego doesn’t tend to La Jolla’s nuisance needs today, it’s because we are spending billions to secure a water future that will allow La Jollans to again complain about potholes.

No single neighborhood is in a position to secede and face its own water future amid the looming uncertainties of climate change.

Tim Cooper is an engineer and engineering historian who lives in South Park.