Conserving Today for Tomorrow’s Development

Part one by Livia Borak. Tune in next week for part two.

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (probably even then), you know by now that San Diego is a semi-arid region, with little local water supply. We get most of our water from Northern California or the Colorado River. For years we’ve been told to conserve or face the possibility of running out of water. As the yearly droughts piled up and became another part of our annual experience, water districts imposed mandatory water use restrictions, mostly on outdoor irrigation. These restrictions, coupled with other conservation programs, have proven so far to be successful. Most are now willing to conserve, and San Diegans’ attitudes about conservation and recycling are increasingly positive.

But the recent momentum of conservation programs could be thanks to something more than effective marketing and the goodness of our hearts: a decrease in level of development in the County. Three years ago, a Voice of San Diego article by Rob Davis spotlighted one main criticism from residents: why should we conserve water only to free up supply for developers? The economic downturn has resulted in less construction and sprawl, which has both eased the burden on existing water supply and arguably changed attitudes about the average citizen’s responsibility to conserve. Now that development has slowed, people may not be thinking a drop conserved at home means a drop more to use at the new housing track or golf course next door. But they should.

Cities and counties are required by state law to consider availability of local water supply in approving specific larger development proposals, but this has historically been a fruitless exercise. When the economy picks up again and municipalities are reviewing these projects, they’ll rely heavily (if not exclusively) upon certain high level planning documents to determine whether enough water exists to support the development du jour. Right now the San Diego County Water Authority and local water districts are finalizing these Urban Water Management Plans.

This doesn’t mean conservation efforts should be curtailed. We should all continue weighing the opportunity cost of every drop of drinking water we sprinkle on our lawns. Rather, we should be looking critically to decision makers to gauge whether the plans they’re putting in place today acknowledge the public’s changing attitude and the need to plan ahead responsibly.

The public should be participating in this discussion with elected officials and members of the County Water Authority. Decision makers should be reminded that the great progress we’ve made — which has resulted in conservation being viewed as the most critical thing the public can do to ensure a safe and reliable water supply for San Diego County — is not a public storage project for future private development.

Livia Borak is an attorney at Coast Law Group, LLP in Encinitas where she focuses on a variety of environmental issues representing various non-profit organizations. She’s a former San Diego Coastkeeper staff attorney and member of the third-place CityBeat Trivia night team By Rolland’s Beard. She serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters and is legal advisor to the environmental nonprofit Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. She makes killer chocolate chip vegan cookies.

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