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Water for a thirsty desert

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
North County Times
December 17, 2002


O.K. folks, I think it might be time to start worrying about water. With the Imperial Irrigation District rejecting a 75-year water transfer, the San Diego Water Authority will soon be forced to deal with less. On Jan.1, 2003, San Diego County will receive considerably less water, 200,000 acre feet less to be exact. That's 400,000 homes annually.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is a clear case of population out growing natural resources. Having grown beyond our region's ecological support system it is now time to reconsider our relationship with water, and begin to start adapting our communities accordingly.

First and foremost, it seems we have finally found the catalyst needed to begin the discussion regarding population and carry capacity. And if a reason is needed to adopt the concept of smart growth this is it.

With population moving beyond sustainability, regional leaders and residents would do well to find ways to conserve water use in profound and lasting ways. Smart growth is more than just building homes. Not only does the ecology of Southern California requires honest dialogue regarding limiting development, it also requires redesigning the homes we build to be suited to the environment in which we live.

Water availability will always be at issue in our bioregion. As a semi arid ecosystem we can be as dry as desert. And considering the impact of a constantly growing population, something has to give. If leaders are unwilling to curb growth as a way of coming to terms with limited resources, it becomes an imperative to better use those resources.

Losing water for 400,000 homes means the watering of lawns represents profound misuse of a precious commodity. Car washing, ornamental fountains, water parks and golf courses must come second to insuring thirsty families have enough to drink. Wise civic planning demands water intensive non-native landscaping be replaced with indigenous species that require no artificial water sources to thrive.

Not only is smart growth is about making wise choices, and often difficult decisions, smart growth is about adapting to the restraints of living in a place that has everything but an abundant supply of water. And for the last half century San Diego County has been living as if clean potable water is as plentiful traffic. Sooner or later wee will all have to make the connection that as population grows water allotments shrink. It's that easy.

Another element of smart growth is incorporating emerging environmental technologies. Immediately coming to mind is desalinization, and where that might address the issue of water shortages, desalinization facilities do nothing to mitigate the overall impact of population growth in a region already grown beyond reasonable sustainability.

If our region was really serious about conserving water, gray water systems, drip irrigation and cisterns should be mandatory for all new development. And existing property owners should be offered incentives to retrofit businesses and homes. Reclaimed water has been a great start, but is in no way sufficient to meeting the needs of unchecked population growth.

It is not my place to judge in the Imperial Water District made the right decision regarding the water transfer. Although I will say pursuing unsustainable water policy serves no one. Instead of seeing the failed water transfer deal as a tragedy to be endured we should see it as a challenge to embrace.

Learning to live in balance with our environment is long over due.

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