Our View: Model ordinances raise serious water issues

With each passing day, it seems, water issues come more to the forefront of Southern California’s concerns. As most Southern Californians know, we live, essentially, in a desert that sits next to an ocean. We have had adequate fresh water, in large part, because we have been able to import water.

But available imports of water are declining even as local water needs continue to grow.

Partly in response to these dry realities, on March 28, the San Diego County Water Authority Board approved a model drought response conservation ordinance. The idea of the draft ordinance is to provide model legislation that the 24 local water agencies can adopt to help the region cope with the consequences of drought.

In a press release, the Water Authority Board pointed out that most local drought ordinances are at least 15 years old.

Why update drought legislation now? The board said in the release that “San Diego County faces unprecedented water supply challenges in 2008. Key reservoirs around California and on the Colorado River are still recovering from historic dry conditions. In addition, court-ordered pumping restrictions on water deliveries from Northern California went into effect at the end of 2007 and may reduce water supplies from that source by up to 30 percent this year and beyond.”

Local water officials must take some blame for the current situation. They have not been able to establish water recycling efforts similar to those that have eased water problems in Orange County, and they have not been proactive enough in increasing the variety of supply options for this county.

But there is only so much that agency leaders can do. As a populace, we have been casual about conservation and water infrastructure improvement.

Now we face tough times.

We have in the past used this space to call for desalination plants to be more widely embraced. It is, indeed, difficult to see how Southern California can continue to thrive without fully embracing desalination. Nature has not put enough fresh water in or near Southern California for millions of us who live here. We must supplement the natural supply.

The primary drawback with desalination is that it uses a great deal of electric power, but this is not enough reason to reject this irreplaceable technological resource.

However, even extensive desalination will not provide a glut of water, especially in dry decades such as the one we are now in.

Rain will come again, but regular droughts are part of Western U.S. life. Conservation and reclamation – especially for agriculture – are essential.

The Water Authority Board is right that we need to be prepared for severe drought.

Many will find the proposed ordinances onerous, and in some cases they are. But our water problems may get severe enough to warrant even onerous restrictions.

The model ordinances call for water use restrictions to get tighter and tighter – through four levels -- as drought conditions worsen.

At level one, for example, a 10 percent voluntary reduction in water use would be called for.

By level four, involuntary “use restrictions” would be used to achieve more than a 40 percent reduction in total consumer use.

It is not likely that we will reach level four any time this year, but it is inevitable that we will reach it at some point, unless we get more serious about water supply and conservation in San Diego County.