Then San Diegans made a collective vow: never again.
In 1996, the San Diego County Water Authority entered into a landmark agreement to purchase water from farmers in the Imperial Valley, in the southeastern corner of California, which heralded the beginning of the Los Angeles area’s watershed.
Over the next two decades, the agency took on a series of important — and expensive — infrastructure projects aimed at creating more diverse sources of water, more places to conserve it, and more ways to move it across the county.
In 2010, the authority concrete-lined canals in the Imperial Valley to prevent water from seeping into the earth, and struck a deal to take the water saved by the process — about 26 billion gallons a year. The authority completed raising the San Vicente Dam in 2014, adding more capacity to the San Vicente Reservoir in the largest increase in water storage in the province’s history.
Then there was the long, fraught pregnancy of a seawater desalination plant, the largest in the United States and now the envy of desperate coastal communities despite environmental concerns. Since 2015, millions of gallons of seawater have poured into the $1 billion facility in Carlsbad every day, where it’s filtered into something that tastes like it came from an Evian bottle, not the Pacific Ocean.
Across the province, restrictions and conservation efforts have resulted in per capita water use falling by half over the past three decades.
The next big task? Expand the region’s so-called pure water programs, once derisively nicknamed the “draining toilet” because they purify gray water to make it drinkable. Today, such programs are seen as some of the most promising avenues forward, not just in San Diego, but the entire state. (The system in neighboring Orange County is often cited as the gold standard.)
San Diego has provided a roadmap for others now seeking water, said Toni Atkins, the California Senate president and former member of the San Diego City Council. And she is proud of that.