The new Olivenhain Dam above Lake Hodges is one of the major water investments in San Diego County over the past three decades. Courtesy San Diego County Water Authority

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the cost of water — and that makes sense given the economic realities faced by many residents, farmers, and businesses. But it also seems that newer generations of San Diegans do not know that there was a time when we didn’t have water when and where we needed it.

Thankfully, that’s not a problem in San Diego County today even though elsewhere drought-stricken communities face the potential of only having enough water to meet basic health and safety needs. Due to investments that we’ve collectively made in seawater desalination, conserved water, reliable infrastructure, and increased storage capacity, the San Diego region has transformed its water supplies from highly insecure to some of the most reliable in the nation. 

The New York Times recently put it this way: San Diego County’s “try-everything approach to getting water has emerged as a model.”

What’s often overlooked today is that 30 years ago San Diegans were at risk of running dry. In the early 1990s, 31% supply cuts gutted the county’s economy, from the young biotech industry to the established farms in North County. It was devastating — and we had no options because we had few local water resources. In fact, it’s been 75 years since regional water supplies met the regional demands.

That’s why a large group of community leaders formed in the 1990s to create a more sustainable and reliable water future. Working together with our member agencies over the past three decades, we built a regional supply reliability system and integrated infrastructure network that have benefitted all who live and work here.

Today, the conversation is different. We have water when other regions are stressed by drought. That has allowed the San Diego County Water Authority to sell some of its stored water in the Central Valley to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for use in areas that are really suffering from low supplies.

We also have reliable water for our future, which gives businesses the confidence to start and grow in San Diego County when they don’t get that same assurance elsewhere. While our reliability investments have come at a cost, other utilities across the state still face the need to make similar investments to stabilize their water supplies and guard against the uncertainties of drought and climate change.

Further, the investments we made in recent decades include our most affordable supplies — conserved water from the nation’s largest conservation-and-transfer agreement, which stands as a model for how to balance the needs of the needs of the environment, residents and farmers. This conserved water does not cause more withdrawals from the Colorado River. Rather, it was created through efficiency upgrades by partners like the Imperial Irrigation District that continue to yield savings while we continue to work with Colorado River leaders to support the long-term health of the river.

At the same time, we realize that water affordability is an important issue. That is why we are taking several steps to control costs, advocate for federal and state investments, and seek new sources of revenue as part of a comprehensive and collaborative approach to fiscal sustainability. No matter the challenges, the San Diego County Water Authority and its member agencies will continue working together to address our region’s complex water issues, as we have for nearly eight decades.

Gary Croucher is chair of the San Diego County Water Authority board of directors.