In 1983 Mark Watton ran for the Otay Water Authority Board of Directors.
At the time, his friend and neighbor, Steve Peace, planned to make a run for State Assembly. The Otay plant design had been problematic and the amount of money that the previous directors had put into the plant made tax rates go sky high. Peace then suggested Mark make a run for the office.
Mark took his advice; he won the elections.
Mark remained on the board until 2001. Soon thereafter, he sold his company during a time when the general manager of the water district retired. Mark was tapped for the position. That was in 2004 and he’s been Otay Water District’s General Manager ever since.
As General Manager, Mark’s work encompasses daily operations & maintenance, safety, how to keep water costs down for customers and he’s always on the look out for new sources of water. He, along with his employees, gave me a tour of the recycling plant and then sat down to talk with me about water. I have paraphrased and summarized his answers here.
The Otay Water District
First, Mark showed me a map of the Otay Water District. He knows the reservoirs, pipes and pump systems like the back of his hand. The district has an extensive water piping system underground, although we often don’t see the water tanks, pumps and reservoirs that exist. For example, there’s a park built on top of one reservoir. Basketball courts are built above another reservoir near Otay Ranch Mall.
So we have no water of our own, correct?
Mark explains that we actually do have water of our own. It just doesn’t happen to be located here. We have preferential rights for water from, for example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. We own a percentage, about 22-23%.
We have also procured a more stable supply of water.
An even bigger portion of our water supply comes from the Imperial Irrigation District (IDD) water transfer. This involves farmers in Imperial Valley conserving water including the fallowing of some farmland. The “conserved” water is then available to us. This water is conveyed through the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) system, called wheeling, for which we pay a charge to MWD. The IID water transfer provides about 27% of our regional water supply now.
Where would you like to see our water come from?
Generally, I’d like to see us be more secure in our water supplies. At one time, the Metropolitan voted on cutting back 50% allocations for San Diego and we had nothing else. So for those of us on the board, we never want that to happen again.
Another 4-5% of our water could come from recycling. There is, however, no magic bullet. The best is to have many different water supply sources so that if one goes dry, we have a a choice of many others.
Do we have enough water to support our population growth?
Mark says that Chula Vista as a city has been very aggressive in their growth. They have very precise measures for water use in new constructions. They especially want energy efficiency. As a matter of fact, Chula Vista is a leader in the state on their development requirements.
Otay also has one of the lowest per capita user rates, behind the city of San Diego. Tijuana uses about 45 gallons per capital per day. Otay is at 72 gallons per capital per day on residential. (That’s not including industry.) Meanwhile, Rancho Santa Fe uses about 250 gallons per capita per day.
Since 1990 to the present, we’re still using the same amount of water, although we’ve added 1 million people to San Diego county. That’s all thanks to the conservation efficiency standards. Incentives have also helped.
But we never want to stop growth, so our water planning needs to accommodate the growth in the city.
When it rains, do we use that water in San Diego?
We use 10%. The Sweetwater Reservoir is useful only 1 or 2 years out of 10 where there’s enough rainwater in the system to use it. The City of San Diego uses their reservoirs maybe 3 years out of 10 when there is enough rainfall in the system. We’ll be able to use 5% out of our rainwater this year.
If snowpack in Northern California is going away due to climate change, why not just go up to Washington State or Alaska and build pipelines where water is plentiful?
As a practical matter, there are no alternatives to Northern California water. Physically building pipelines, you could probably do it. From a cost, regulatory and environmental standpoint, it would be impossible. So we have to look West — to the ocean.
How do you see the “Toilet To Tap” programs?
Basically, ‘toilet to tap’ is just a bad slogan. Recycled water from our plant looks drinkable, it’s clear, it’s nice looking. But the city will take that water, run it through reverse osmosis to take out everything. Then it becomes as pure as distilled water. You actually have to add some minerals back to it and then you hit it with an oxidizer.
The criticism that some people give is that you put this water through that whole process and you end up with a Sierra pure water. But then you dump it into a dirty reservoir and re-treat it because people mentally can’t “get there” that you are plugging in a sewer pipe to your drain. But I think we’ll get there one day.
Why should we conserve?
1) In today’s environment, it’s the right thing to do. Just like you recycle material in the trash, it’s important to use the resource wisely.
2) The energy and cost of moving that water here is very high.
3) The cost of water to the consumer is going up. Household economics will dictate that people conserve. Lush green lawns using cheap water is not practical today.
4) It’s important to think about future generations when we consider how we use our water resources.