Letters to the Editor

Fears and facts about SLO city water


The Tribune’s “Water worries” article published March 20 gave a great deal of space to some fears about San Luis Obispo’s available water supply, and I want to address those fears and set the record straight.

Some residents quoted in the story urged the City Council to consider a two-year moratorium on development until the city completes more rigorous studies of available water, future water supplies and computer models of climate change.

I know SLO residents are always concerned about what the right level of growth is for the city that we all love. But it’s also true the city has been very sensible about water when planning for and approving development — far more so than the county and many cities in this region and, indeed, throughout California. We are considered one of the most water-secure cities in the state.

Here are some other important facts and perspectives:

▪  The most recent update to the General Plan — formally adopted by the council in 2014 — took into account all of the variables these residents urged the council to consider.

▪  The city’s General Plan properly outlines the kinds of development the city would like to see in the future, such as more housing options and better bikeways. And it’s fair to say this General Plan update was fully informed by extremely rigorous research on water availability, including taking into account the likelihood this drought will persist because of climate change.

▪  It’s also important to truly understand what good lessons the city and community of San Luis Obispo learned in the last drought in the early 1990s. We learned to conserve like crazy, and the city invested millions of dollars to vastly add to our water supply, mainly by building the Nacimiento pipeline (a massive resource) and a city water recycling system. Plus, the city invested deeply in critical planning for future drought.

▪  Our water-savvy city staff in the planning and utilities departments is highly competent, is continually updating its computer modeling of climate change and knows its job is to ensure the city has water and always will have water.

▪  Our water models not only assume full buildout of the city — meaning a target population of 57,000 compared with today’s 46,000 — but also add several thick layers of reliability reserves. These reserves are calculated to complex levels of detail.

In other words, all of the possible development the city might permit in the next 20 years is already included in the water estimates, and the estimates are highly conservative themselves.

Our city’s “wet water” model is also highly conservative and based on cautious, multifaceted calculations. This model tells us how much actual water we have left to use right now. It takes into account current water use and the 1 percent growth allowed in our General Plan, which we have not and will not exceed, even with the development underway and especially because there was near-zero development for a number of years during the recession.

This model includes the current amounts of water available from our various reservoirs, plus all factors that affect those reservoirs such as heat, wind and rainfall variations. For instance, right now the model assumes climate will remain the same as it was during the driest two years of the current drought, in which we received an average of only 10 inches of rain in town. So far this year, we have continued to use the very worst-case scenario in our model going forward, even though it has rained more than 18 inches.

Even with exceedingly prudent, built-in overestimates of use and underestimates of supply, that still gives the city well over three years before we “run out” of water. This calculation doesn’t yet include the additional 2,100 acre-feet from the Nacimiento project approved by the council on March 15.

I put “run out” in quotations because well before that point, our Water Shortage Contingency Plan will kick into gear. This is a step-by-step plan of actions to be taken to ensure our continued water supply, including when it would be appropriate to seriously consider an actual building moratorium.

In plain English, I believe it is nothing less than totally inaccurate for anyone to suggest the city is somehow behind the eight ball on water. Our community and city leaders have gotten this one right: The community was asked to invest in water for two decades as we looked forward into the future of uncertain water supplies.

That future is here now, and we are ready to face it.

Carlyn Christianson serves on the San Luis Obispo City Council.