Water costs, water rights, and water use, have been hot button issues in the state of California for over 100 years. Fortunes have been made and lost, and elections turned, over water politics in the arid and semi-arid regions of the state. The California Water Wars were a real thing at the turn of the century. In a place where the next drought is always on the horizon, water independence is a critical, if difficult, quest.
Coronado’s water costs are skyrocketing. In the 14 years from 2004 to 2018 the annual cost for watering the city’s golf course, public parks, and Orange Avenue median, went from $224,00 to $890,000. In the next fourteen years it is projected to reach $2 million.
Current city planners and decision makers recognized that not only was it a cost issue, but the use of potable water for irrigation was an environmental one as well. They began to explore ideas and options for cost and feasibility.
The result of the research led to the ‘Coronado Golf Course Modernization Project.’
Details of the $25 million project, which is essentially a recycled water plant, have been published in numerous articles in the Coronado Eagle & Journal and other news outlets and shared in multiple venues and forums with the public over the past year.
In continuing their due diligence, and receptive to constituent feedback, at the Oct. 6 meeting City Council received another presentation related to the Golf Course Modernization Project. The report titled “Water Service in Coronado With a Specific Emphasis on the Use of Groundwater” was a joint effort by City Manager Blair King, City Attorney Johanna Canlas, and City Engineer Clifford Maurer. The trio presented the most in depth information to date on the history of water in Coronado with specifics of why the ‘groundwater’ option was not deemed feasible.
Council voted 5-0 to accept the report after members reiterated their trust in previous staff analysis along with their confidence that groundwater was not an option.
Councilmember Benzian led the brief discussion away from groundwater and back to the already approved project, “At the end of the day what we are pursuing at the golf course is a moral thing to do. Anyone in Southern California should be focused on diversifying their water resources. There are strict legal rules for access and we (Coronado) are far down the line....and groundwater is ancient and often unreliable.” Benzian summarized his position, “We are on the right track as a City to be more self-reliant. I’m proud of what we are doing.”
Councilmember Sandke concurred, “I have 100 percent confidence in Cliff (Mauer) and City Staff. This project is a big idea that has been around since 1957…. It (the project) is important for our region and our community and I’m proud of the direction that we are headed.
“This is just the right thing to do in this environment,” Councilmember Heinze agreed with his colleagues. “We live in a desert and sustainability is an issue, using the resources we have, the best we can is the right thing. This (project) is looking to the future and safeguarding Coronado’s future.”
The following is a Q & A with Mr. King summarizing the staff report:
EJ: It is unknown whether groundwater (the San Diego Formation) runs under the golf course, or at what depth. The City has researched as far as possible without digging wells. What are the obstacles and costs involved with further investigating that option?
BK: Based upon the information available to the City of Coronado it is reasonably certain any groundwater under Coronado from the San Diego formation is non-potable (i.e., brackish possibly connected to seawater.) The City of San Diego and the Sweetwater Authority engaged the firm AECOM to study the groundwater basin under the southern end of Coronado. AECOM came to the conclusion the water is non-potable. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) came to this same conclusion when it modified the groundwater basin map in 2016 that removed all of the remainder of Coronado from this same groundwater basin. This conclusion is supported by other reports prepared by the Southern California Salinity Coalition and San Diego County Water Authority.
If one wanted to test this hypothesis further, according to information proved by the U.S. Geologic Survey representative to the City’s Engineering Department, it would cost in excess of $2 million dollars to perform tests to challenge what previous studies have concluded, that the water is probably brackish and non-potable.
EJ: If groundwater was accessed, there are complicated historic legal issues regarding water right agreements between Coronado and a private utility company (currently California American Water). Which entity would have the rights to the water?
BK: Coronado has been served by a private water company since 1888. The right to sell water in Coronado was first purchased by the Coronado Water Company, a corporation, who provided water service to the community of Coronado, the Coronado Strand, and certain areas in the County of San Diego. In 1912, the right to sell water was passed on to the California Water and Telephone Company (CWTC). In 1966, the California-American Water Company (Cal-Am) acquired the water assets of CWTC. As a regulated water utility, Cal-Am has the exclusive rights to sell water in Coronado. This is referred to as the Service Duplication Law. One impact of the state’s Service Duplication Law is that regardless of the source of the water, including any underground aquifer, Cal Am still has a constitutional franchise. As a result, the City cannot provide water service within its jurisdictional boundaries from any water source without paying compensation to Cal Am.
In 2017, due to several unique circumstances, including a prior agreement in 1957 with Cal-Am’s predecessor to use recycled water to irrigate the golf course, Cal-Am and Coronado entered into a settlement agreement that allows Coronado to use recycled water on its golf course without compensating Cal-Am. This agreement applies only to recycled water. Water from any other source belongs to Cal-Am.
EJ: In addition to availability and rights, how does the ‘Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’ (2014) affect Coronado’s option to access groundwater?
BK: California has extensive laws governing surface water, who has rights to it, who has priority, who owns it. The State has been late in regulating groundwater, this changed in 2014 with the passage of a series of bills collectively referred to as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The act was intended to address the issue of groundwater-level declines, groundwater-storage reductions, seawater intrusion, water quality degradation, and surface water depletions. Groundwater is susceptible to drought and overdraft. When groundwater is over drafted, near saltwater, saltwater intrusion results. As aquifers were drained, wells were sunk deeper and deeper. To address groundwater overdraft, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires plans to be prepared for groundwater basins throughout California.
While SGMA does not determine or alter groundwater rights under common law, SGMA does limit on the amount of groundwater that can be extracted with prevention of overdraft and sustainability as goals. Under the common law “rule of priority,” senior appropriators–those who acquired their water rights first in time–are entitled to satisfy their reasonable needs, up to their full appropriation, before more junior appropriators become entitled to any water. Effective 2016, Code of Civil Procedure established the methods and procedures for comprehensive adjudication of water rights. For a source of water from which the City has not drawn before, the City has no existing rights.
Also, Water Code §13551 mandates the use of recycled water for irrigation purposes when recycled water is available. It is unlikely the City could overcome the required sustainability indicators under the SGMA to be allowed to draw groundwater from a source from which it has not drawn before for irrigation purposes when a more sustainable source of water, recycled water, could be available.
It is unlikely that potable groundwater exists under Coronado. Further exploration is expensive. Cal-Am has the rights to any water that Coronado produces and the exclusive franchise to sell water in Coronado. State law supports senior water rights over junior water rights and makes it unlikely that even if potable groundwater exists, that Coronado could tap this as a source for irrigation.
While it is clear that the City has eliminated groundwater as an option, there are still numerous steps prior to beginning the wastewater treatment project. It has been reported that the expected completion date will be sometime in 2022. The City has committed to continuing dialogue with the public during the process.