How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Having written a number of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays upon returning to school as a youngster, and having wondered what was the point, I’m delighted that I can actually write one that hopefully has some value… 

Even though I have long been out of school, I still think of summer as our primary time to take vacations. This summer, in particular, my wife and I did quite a bit of traveling, going to Ireland and southern England, to Catalina Island and to San Diego.

I make an effort to relax and enjoy my vacations, trying not think too much about work. Although I don’t write many blog posts while away, I cannot help but think about Redwood City while I’m gone. In particular, I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in the place I am visiting, and how that compares with my life back in Redwood City. This year’s trips raised a number of points of comparison, but the one that I found myself thinking about the most was water use and conservation.

Our most significant trip was our European one, a chunk of which we spent in Ireland. Having visited, I now truly understand why Ireland is poetically referred to as the “Emerald Isle”: it is one of the greenest places I have ever been to. I grew up in the canyons of southern California and thus am used to a landscape consisting of plants that seem to have more grey than green in them. So traveling to Ireland was quite a revelation.

Ireland, of course, is not experiencing a drought. Indeed, it rained a couple of times while we were there. Although Ireland’s overall temperatures are forecast to rise along with the rest of the world, many parts of Ireland are actually projected to have an increase in annual rainfall. I tried to keep reminding myself of that fact each time I took a shower, but years of water conservation back in Redwood City seem to have permanently altered my bathing habits: I still took relatively short showers. I did, however, relish in being able to flush the toilet after every single use…

Our trip to Ireland stood in stark contrast with our trip to Catalina Island. For those of you who’ve never been, Catalina sits off the coast of Southern California, almost due west of Huntington Beach. Ferries to the island run from San Pedro and from Long Beach; we took the Catalina Express out of the port of Long Beach (which itself is an easy cab ride from the Long Beach Airport). Except for one lengthy hike to the top of one of Catalina’s mountains, we mostly spent our time in the island’s one incorporated city, Avalon. The vast majority of the island is controlled by the Catalina Island Conservancy, making most of the island’s 75 square miles a nature-lover’s paradise. But if nature isn’t your thing, Avalon has many great restaurants and shops, along with a wide range of accommodations. It’s a tropical vacation spot that is right in California’s front yard, and I can highly recommend it as a place to spend a relaxing couple of days.

Catalina may look like paradise on the surface, but just look around and you’ll quickly learn that island living can be a challenge. Although Catalina lies within Los Angeles County, and is only about 22 miles from the mainland (not 26, if you know the song), visitors and residents alike must go back and forth by boat or by air. Catalina’s sole industry is tourism: the island welcomes nearly one million visitors each year. Catalina has no farms, and no ranches to speak of. While once there was a small pottery works on the island, it has been gone for many years. Nearly everything the islanders need—power, food, building materials, and items sold in the retail shops—has to be brought over from the mainland.

Maintaining a relatively normal way of life on Catalina Island takes quite a bit of effort, it seems. Water is particularly key right now. California is experiencing a drought, but what we here in Redwood City are experiencing is nothing like what Catalina is going through. Historically they’ve gotten all their water from wells and a couple of reservoirs that capture rainwater. But due to changing climactic conditions, the water levels in those wells has been dropping for years now. Years ago Catalina was asked to make deep cutbacks, to the point where not only do the hotels strongly urge you to re-use your sheets and towels, you are asked to take short showers as well. Some restaurants use disposable plates and cutlery so that they don’t have to wash them. And whereas in Redwood City our restaurants won’t bring you a glass of tap water unless you ask them to, on Catalina they won’t bring you a glass of tap water…period. Even in the finest island restaurants, the best they will do is sell you a bottle of water.

Like Redwood City, Catalina has easy access to salt water. Recognizing the severity of their potable water problem, in 1991 Catalina built a desalination plant that generated some 200,000 gallons of drinkable water per day. In 2015 a second plant was added, bringing their production total up to 350,000 gallons per day. While these plants don’t entirely solve Catalina’s long-term water problems, they prevented Catalina from having to take the next step in use reductions, which would have mandated cutbacks on the order of 50% relative to their 2013 usage.

Growing up I spent a lot of time in the San Diego area, and my parents now live there. Thus I get down that way a couple of times each year. From a water standpoint San Diego feels a lot like Redwood City. Because the San Diego area receives relatively little rainfall, they are particularly dependent upon outside sources. Just as Redwood City cannot survive on its rainfall alone and must obtain the bulk of its water from the Sierras, San Diego too must get water from elsewhere. In particular, San Diego’s outside water comes from Northern California, from the Colorado River, and from Riverside and the Imperial Valley.

San Diego is currently under a Level 1 Drought Watch; residents experience many of the same restrictions we do (water isn’t brought to the table at restaurants unless requested, residents can be penalized if they over-water their yards to where water is running into the gutters, etc.). In 2015 their water reduction target was set at 16%. However, in February 2016 that target was revised downwards, to 8%, reflecting actual population growth and new water supplies (largely from the Carlsbad Seawater Desalination Facility, which recently came online and now produces some 50,000 acre-feet—just over 16 billion gallons!—of drinkable water per year, and from new water transfer agreements with the Imperial Valley Irrigation District).

As for Redwood City, we gets our water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). 85% of that water comes from the Sierras, while the remaining 15% comes from Bay Area watersheds. Based on the contract between Redwood City and San Francisco, we are guaranteed some 10.93 million gallons per day from the system. With one exception, however, each year between 1999 and 2008 Redwood City consumed more water than it was guaranteed. Back then other contracting agencies didn’t use all of their guaranteed supply, so we were able to purchase the additional water we needed. But due to aggressive water conservation, to the use of recycled water, and, for a time, to the impact of the economic downturn, by 2009 we finally begin using less than our allotted amount. Ever since then we’ve remained well under our allotment: in 2011 we consumed 84% of our guaranteed amount, while in 2015 we used only 71% (8.7 million gallons per day).

Because Redwood City has done such a good job managing its water usage in recent years, when the State of California handed down water reduction targets in 2015, Redwood City’s target was one of the lowest in the state: only eight percent. (The reduction targets are based on a region’s usage in 2013: we needed to use eight percent less water than we did in 2013.)

Our goal was eight percent, but by publicizing the need to conserve and by making that treated wastewater freely available to Redwood City residents, we nearly tripled our goal: we reduced our usage by a hefty 23%. Compare our reductions to Catalina’s: their 2015 target was 25%, and they, too, managed to exceed their goal, eventually reducing their usage by an impressive 40%. Finally, San Diego is also exceeding their original 16% reduction goal, although not by much: it seems that they are currently using about 18% less than they did back in 2013.

In researching Catalina I was interested to learn that they’ve used a dual-piping strategy for a number of years now. At one time businesses (and some homes, I believe) had two water pipes coming in: one carrying fresh water and one carrying salt water. The salt water supply was used for flushing, for fire suppression, and for any other uses where potable water was not required. But salt water corroded the pipes, so once it became available that salt water supply was switched over to treated water.

In anticipation of recycled water being more easily available, Redwood City has required dual plumbing in all new downtown construction for some time now. Up until now recycled water has only been piped to locations on the east side of Highway 101, but the city is nearly done with a project to extend those pipes to the west side. The purple pipes that carry recycled water will be coming down Walnut Street; if you’ve driven down Walnut alongside Kohl’s Plaza, you’ve probably noticed the construction at the end, where Walnut dead-ends into Highway 101:

Once the treated water is piped into our downtown, the city will start hooking up those dual-plumbed buildings, further reducing the amount of scarce, drinkable water that is being used in these new projects. And note that this water will be used extensively throughout the proposed Stanford in Redwood City project, minimizing that large project’s impact on our fragile water supply.

One of the great benefits of traveling is being able to see how other people deal with common challenges. As I noted while on vacation this summer, one of Catalina’s answers to its water woes is desalination. San Diego uses potable water from a desalination plant, in conjunction with recycled water, to reduce its dependence upon outside sources. Redwood City is making great use of its recycled water, and will be using even more in the future. But I still maintain that we should consider taking the next step, and build a small desalination plant of our own out near the Bay. While we are in no danger of exceeding our water allotment from the SFPUC, I have to wonder how long those water guarantees will hold if our climate continues to deteriorate. Desalination plants are expensive and take a long time to build; all the more reason for us to get started now, before the need becomes truly great.

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