Northbound: Surveying our water supply future

It took a herculean effort to import fresh water to San Diego County in the early 20th century. If past is prologue, we may soon find ourselves needing to channel that same spirit of ingenuity and ambition.

Last week, I participated in a Colorado River Aqueduct System Inspection Trip, paid for by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and co-hosted by the San Diego County Water Authority.

It was an eye-opening experience to learn first-hand how our region gets a large share of its water. The two-day excursion took me, along with about 30 other participants from San Diego and Orange Counties, from the Whitsett Intake Pumping Plant on Lake Havasu, where Colorado River water is first pumped up into the Aqueduct, to the Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, which is the largest reservoir in the distribution system.

Along the way, Aqueduct staff and water policy experts were available to answer questions and explain the dynamics and history of importing water to Southern California.

It was hard not to be impressed by the Aqueduct — it’s a 242-mile technological wonder built in the middle of the desert during the Depression. And it still works.

Construction on the Colorado River Aqueduct began in 1933, and began its first water deliveries by 1941. The system was built with expandable capacity to adjust for future, larger deliveries.

Tunnels, pipelines, siphons and open canals all interconnect across state lines, under mountains, and through barren valleys.

The Aqueduct has a capacity of delivering 1.3 million acre feet of water annually, and now serves approximately 19 million residents throughout the Metropolitan Water District.

The Aqueduct is a critical source of water for San Diego; the San Diego County Water Authority, which serves our region, imports roughly 80 percent of our regional water supply, of which the Colorado River makes up the largest share.

We also depend on recycled water, groundwater, and local surface water for our regional supply. Under our historic drought conditions however, the need to diversify our water portfolio has grown, and innovative solutions will bring us closer to a sustainable water supply.

The Carlsbad desalination plant will be online later this year, and interest in expanding the “purple pipe” network of recycled, non-potable water in North County has grown.

The U.S. Marine Corps are currently evaluating the potential for a desal plant located at Camp Pendleton. Reclaiming more of our discharged treated wastewater from the Pacific Ocean is also now technologically possible. In 2014, the city of San Diego unanimously approved the indirect use of potable, purified wastewater for the city water supply.

Direct use is also another tool in our solution tool belt.

If North County is to secure its water supply through historic drought conditions, it will require us to embrace visionary and controversial solutions. Such steps would be following those of our forefathers, whose political will and sheer determination secured drinking water for North County generations ago.

Vince Vasquez is a think tank analyst based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident. 

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