Water Warnings for 2023

By Bob Hazard   |   October 11, 2022

What is the current outlook for California water in 2023? Researchers tell us that our state is experiencing “the driest 22-year period in the last 1,200 years.” They warn: “Likely El Niño conditions are predicted to continue into 2023; prepare now for another dry year.”

Locally, the Montecito Water District’s (MWD) position remains strong, principally because MWD showed vision and foresight in negotiating a controversial long-term Water Supply Agreement with the City of Santa Barbara. Signed in September 2020, the agreement gives Montecito and Summerland water customers an added margin of safety by procuring 1,430 AFY of new potable water, or about 35% of MWD’s current annual water supply needs for each of the next 50 years.

Environmental Water Use

Much of the rest of the state is in much worse shape. California needs a reliable 77 million acre-feet of potable water per year (AFY). 50% of that water or 38 million AFY, is used for environmental purposes such as “wild and scenic” river restoration, mostly in Northern California; maintenance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; stream recharge; endangered species protection; and wetlands management. 

California fish hatcheries have been degraded. A hotter and drier California increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Forest ecosystems are damaged. Communities that depend on groundwater from private wells are facing lower water availability or dry wells. 

California Agricultural Use

Agriculture uses another 40% of the State’s water or some 31 million AFY to irrigate nine million acres of farmland that produce one-third of all the vegetables in the U.S., including 99% of all almonds, walnuts, and pistachios; nearly 95% of all broccoli and strawberries; 90% of all grapes and tomatoes; and 74% of all lettuce. In 2020, California generated nearly $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture.

Agricultural users are being asked to limit irrigation, fallow farmland, lay off farmworkers, and curtail food production. The California Farm Bureau predicts that due to drought in 2022, 700,000 acres of farmland will be fallowed; more than 25,000 farm jobs lost; and $3.5 billion lost in cash receipts. To survive and feed the world, the most productive farmland on the planet needs more fresh water, not less.

California Urban Water Use

The final 10% of water is for urban industrial, commercial, and residential water use, or nearly eight million AFY. Governor Newsom has called for a voluntary reduction of 15% in urban water use, primarily by eliminating grass, flowers, and shrubs that are not drought tolerant. A 10% reduction in urban use, primarily from landscape reduction, saves only 1% of the water used in California, a small pittance of the 77 million AFY California needs.

What has made California’s drought worse than usual in 2022?

Meltdown of the Colorado River System

The Colorado River supplies water to more than 40 million people in seven states –California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico – and Mexico. California has by far the largest water entitlement of any state on the Colorado River at 4.4 million AFY. Reductions in Colorado River water allocations of two to four million-acre feet are needed, but no state wants to surrender its 100-year water rights granted in 1922.

There is growing risk that both Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, and Lake Powell, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, are approaching “dead pool” status, below which the lake can no longer generate hydroelectricity or release water downstream. As ofSeptember 4, 2022, Lake Mead sat at 28% of capacity while Lake Powell has declined to 25%.

Decrease in the Reliability of the State Water System

The over-promised and under-delivered State Water Project (SWP) remains the primary source of water for Southern California water users. Starting with snowmelt in the High Sierras, water stored in the Shasta Reservoir at the head of the Central Valley is pushed and pumped over 700 miles to Southern California through an elaborate system of canals, reservoirs, and lifts all the way to San Diego. An aging and inefficient SWP is the largest consumer of energy in the State of California; state water is pumped eight times and treated twice before reaching its final destination. 

The state water system has a max capacity of 4.4 million AFY, but averages 2.4 million AFY delivered. In the last two years SWP deliveries have shrunk to 5%, or only 0.2 million AFY.

For the second straight year, SWP deliveries have plummeted in Montecito from a promised 3,300 AFY down to 165 AFY (5% of its promised allocation). The cost of State Water, with its fixed allocation of costs, has skyrocketed from a reasonable $1,332 per acre-foot for 3,300 AFY delivery to a whopping and unaffordable $25,825 per AFY when only 165 AFY is delivered to MWD. The same cost prohibitive SWP story is repeated in Goleta, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and all the other 29 water districts that have contracted State Water. The State constructs, operates, and maintains the system, but the receiving agencies contractually agree to repay all associated capital and operating costs, regardless of the amount of state water they receive in any year.

Governor Newson’s Plan for Water Resilience

The Governor has laid out five California water goals: (1) Expand water storage capacity by four million acre-feet of water per year (AFY); (2) Accelerate groundwater recharge; (3) Recycle and reuse 800,000 AFY of treated wastewater by 2030; (4) Conserve another 500,000 AFY in urban use by 2030; and (5) Desalinate brackish water. Newson added, “The time to get water projects approved is ridiculous. It’s comedic. It’s absurd.” 

Recycled and Reuse of Wastewater as a Solution

The current dream of water watchers is to turn treated wastewater into groundwater replenishment, or into drinking water. The problem is cost – not just capital costs to upgrade plants, pipes, and pumps, but operating and maintenance costs. Without significant funding grants by the state to pay billions for advanced wastewater treatment plants, recycling options appear to be far too expensive, even costlier than desal per AFY. 

Many wastewater treatment plants bordering on the Pacific Ocean are seeking funding to turn treated municipal wastewater into water that can be purified and injected into groundwater basins for further purification for indirect potable reuse (IPR), or when state regulations are published in late 2023 for direct potable reuse (DPR). 

Thinking ahead, Montecito Water District (MWD) and Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) are jointly funding a Carollo Recycling Engineering Study to further evaluate options to recycle MSD’s approximate 560 AFY of wastewater (a relatively small amount), either in partnership with Carpinteria and/or Santa Barbara for economies of scale, or by upgrading the Montecito Sanitary District plant to an advanced treatment facility that could treat water for direct potable reuse. 

Early indications are that the recycling wastewater will be costly; that a combination of grants and loans will likely be required for pipes, pumps, and advanced treatment facilities; and that the timetable for wastewater reuse may be years away.

Desalination of Seawater as a Solution

The City of Santa Barbara reopened its Charles E. Meyer desalination plant in May 2017 at a reactivated cost of $72 million, on top of the $34 million original cost shared with Montecito and Goleta. The plant delivers some 3,125 AF of desalinated water per year, or some 30% of the City’s annual demand of 10,000 AFY of potable water. Permits allow the plant to be expanded economically to 10,000 AFY in the event of extreme drought or local water emergencies, a wonderful safeguard for the city and its regional partners. The secret sauce for reduced cost was that permitting already existed from the previous desal plant. 

In December 2015, after 14 years spent in the approval process, Poseidon opened the nation’s largest desal plant in North America in Carlsbad, California, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, more than twice the cost of the same plant built by the same company in Israel. Cost of water to local water agencies is about $2,500 per AFY. Newsom logically argues, “The state needs to find locations for seawater desalination that are cost effective and environmentally appropriate.” 

However, despite support from Governor Newsom, in May 2022 the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to end Poseidon’s 24-year regulatory approval search to build a $1.4 billion seawater desalination plant at Huntington Beach, California. Environmentalists labeled the plant a “boondoggle,” claiming it would privatize seawater for profit and destroy significant marine life. They cited its vulnerability to sea rise and the lack of binding contracts to sell the water to agencies at a predefined price. 

Where Does California Go to Increase its Supply of Reliable Water?

If treating and delivering wastewater for reuse is too expensive and desalination of seawater is politically unacceptable to the environmental community, where does California go next to obtain a new source of water?  

Next Week: Is There a Wet Miracle in California’s Future?


You might also be interested in...

  • Woman holding phone

    Support the
    Santa Barbara non-profit transforming global healthcare through telehealth technology