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San Diego County water officials approve nearly $2 billion in new projects including desalination

June 25, 2004


SAN DIEGO ---- With little fanfare, San Diego County water officials voted Thursday to build nearly $2 billion worth of new capital improvement projects.

The most important of the 22 projects are a plant that would turn seawater into drinking water, a $103 million water-treatment facility and a plan to create new reservoir storage space in the county.

San Diego County Water Authority board members put off until next month deciding how they'll bankroll the projects.

But authority engineers said the list of 22 new projects will not result in huge increases in water bills. The authority said ratepayers will see an additional $3.75 on monthly bills by 2016, and that the projects will give local residents a "more reliable" water supply.

Despite the lack of fanfare Thursday, the vote was a milestone for the Water Authority. It marked the agency's "official" transition from an entity content to deliver water to local residents to one that will find, treat, and ---- in the case of seawater desalination ---- even "create" usable water.

Water Authority board members have endorsed the master plan of projects for two years, but until Thursday had never officially added them to the agency's list of capital improvement projects.

Organized in 1944, the Water Authority has historically been a "pipeline" agency, buying up to 95 percent of the water county residents use each year from the massive, Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District and delivering it to 23 member cities and agencies.

But after the state's last major drought from 1986 to 1992, Water Authority leaders said they were no longer comfortable relying solely upon Metropolitan for the region's water supply, and that future droughts could lead to disastrous local water shortages.

Consequently, the Water Authority began to chase a deal to buy Colorado River water from Imperial Valley farmers, a deal that would give San Diego County its "own" water supply for the first time in history.

That deal was completed last year after eight years of talk, and will eventually deliver up to 65 billion gallons of water a year to San Diego County residents in return for about $50 million a year.

The major projects in the $1.85 billion list of improvements board members adopted Thursday are also intended to increase the local water supply.

They include:

A stalled plan to build a multi-million dollar desalination plant at Carlsbad's Encina Power Plant that would turn 80 million gallons of seawater a day into drinking water by 2013. Building the plant would give the county its first-ever "drought-proof" source of water.

Water Authority officials broke off negotiations in January with the private company that wanted to build the plant for the Water Authority and which holds lease-rights to the plant site. The company, Poseidon Inc., is trying to work a deal to build the plant with the city of Carlsbad. But most observers feel the Water Authority is the only agency with enough money and water demand to make the plant feasible. Meanwhile, Water Authority officials have raised the specter of using their power of eminent domain to take over the plant site in order to build the desalination plant.

A plan to spend $103 million to build the Water Authority's first-ever water treatment plant by 2008, which would fix a looming shortage of water treatment capability that threatens drinking water supplies in the county. The Water Authority has historically relied upon Metropolitan's R.A. Skinner treatment plant for its treated water supply.

A plan to raise Lakeside's San Vicente Dam by 110 feet, which will give the San Vicente Reservoir room to store an additional 32.6 billion gallons of water for use during emergency shortages.

Water Authority general manager Maureen Stapleton said the vote was anticlimactic because board members have been discussing the master plan improvements for two years.

But she said Thursday was an official turning point.

"This is the official inclusion of the master plan into our Capital Improvement Project," she said. "And it is the road map to ensure water reliability for our region."

Longtime Water Authority board member Howard Williams of Vista, meanwhile, said the agency's change in philosophy was necessary because California's historic water sources ---- the Colorado River and Northern California's State Water Project ---- are being taxed by drought, population growth and environmental concerns.

"We have to be a water producer in the future," Williams said. "We can't just sit here and say we're going to have somebody else get us water ---- because they don't have it. So we have to find some."

Contact staff writer Gig Conaughton at (760) 739-6696 or gconaughton@nctimes.com