A Colorado River aqueduct. Courtesy of the San Diego County Water Authority

There’s an old saying that those who don’t remember history are destined to repeat it.

And that certainly holds true when it comes to securing water for this semi-arid place we call home. Those who have been around here since the early 1990s remember when we relied on a single Los Angeles-based water agency to meet almost all of our water needs — and we paid for it with traumatic supply cuts that crippled our economy.

Thankfully, three decades of regional investments have changed San Diego’s story for the better. Planning and investments by the San Diego County Water Authority and our 24 local retail member agencies have produced and will continue to ensure one of the most reliable water supplies in California.

We’ve built one major dam and raised the height of another. We’ve developed the largest seawater desalination project in the nation, and executed some of the largest water conservation projects in U.S. history. These measures have allowed our county — once viewed as at “the end of the pipeline” — to greatly reduce our reliance on water imported from hundreds of miles away, thus also implementing state water policy seeking to protect the environmentally fragile Bay-Delta region.

But the job is never done — not if we want to avoid the devastation created by failing to look after our own interests as in decades past. A changing climate, aging infrastructure, escalating prices and other factors mean that we must continue to look decades ahead because it takes that long to complete major infrastructure projects in California.

Today, half of our region’s water supplies are from two landmark 2003 water conservation agreements that are part of the historic Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement. The Water Authority’s next generation supply is coming from local water reuse projects like the City of San Diego’s Pure Water project and similar projects located in Oceanside and other parts of the County.

Our high-priority, low-cost Colorado River water is the bedrock upon which new local water supplies may be implemented at an affordable cost. While our water supply is secure, we still need to grapple with the cost of delivering it.

The only water delivery facilities available to transport our Colorado River water to San Diego County are aqueducts owned by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District. The proposed Regional Conveyance System is a potential alternative to using Metropolitan’s water delivery system, the cost of which has increased 30% over the past five years alone.

MWD has estimated that it will charge San Diego County ratepayers between $12 billion and $18 billion (in 2019 dollars) through 2112 to provide delivery service — and the actual “apples to apples” figure is projected at $27.6 billion (in 2020 dollars). Most people would agree that is a lot of “rent” to pay, with no asset to show for it at the end of the lease term. Thus, the issue isn’t whether we need to spend money to deliver water — we do — the only question is where can we get the best deal for San Diego ratepayers? 

A viable new aqueduct could help us ensure the future affordability of safe, clean water for San Diego County residents. It would also give San Diego ratepayers more control over long-term costs in a water world that has become increasingly expensive. 

The Regional Conveyance System feasibility study now underway is an important part of the water planning and ratepayer protection efforts by the Water Authority that have served this region well for more than 75 years. The feasibility study is designed to do exactly what residents should expect: assess whether a new aqueduct can provide equal or greater benefits at an equal or lower cost.

At the end of the day, San Diego ratepayers can rest assured that if it doesn’t pencil out and meet all environmental review requirements, the project won’t advance.   

Gary Croucher is Chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors.

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