Guest Article Written By: Jacob Wilson

The effects of the record-breaking drought in California have already affected individuals across the state. Most reports are of farmers being forced to thin cattle herds and allow land to go unused. This effect is fairly straightforward, as a lack of water restricts a farmer’s ability to plant fields and raise livestock. Yet a drought and its ensuing water-restrictions can have a marked effect on industries beyond agriculture. This article will serve as a reminder of how water restrictions can affect the San Diego biotechnology industry, where droughts have historically been an issue.

A Brief History of Water Regulation and the San Diego Biotech Industry

California_Drought_Dry_Riverbed_2014San Diego has incubated a blossoming biotechnology industry thanks to a range of efforts. The city is gifted with a number of academic research institutions such as UC San Diego and Scripps that make the city a hub for innovation. In order for the research and ideas conceived in these institutions to develop into San Diego businesses, the city needed to address issues including business space and access to resources, to name a few. A staple to growth is an unrestricted water source, which was brought to the attention of government leaders during the drought of the early 1990’s.

During the drought of the early 1990’s, the City of San Diego considered water conservation measures that included restriction for businesses in the biotech industry. In an act of industry unity, biotech executives organized to educate City Council members on the water-intensive practices of the biotech industry. Unrestricted water sources are essential for businesses to match manufacturing to increasing product demand. Restricting this resource to the burgeoning industry risked crippling its growth.

Rain eventually eliminated the need for regulations, but the industry leaders’ actions raised awareness of the industry’s impact and needs in San Diego. This event served to establish an identity for the industry in San Diego. Now, industry interests are represented on the Water Policy Implementation Task Force by a BIOCOM representative.

The Current Drought Problem

California's Drought as of March 4th, 2014
California’s Drought as of March 4th, 2014

Contrary to what one may assume, San Diego County is well-prepared for a drought extending into 2014 and beyond. The San Diego Water Authority reports that, thanks to preparation of water supplies, Southern California has more than 2.4 million acre feet of water stored, where several thousand will be required for the area in the coming years should drought conditions continue. In addition to this preparation, efficiency practices established in the past have led to significant decreases in per-capita water use in San Diego County. Most impressively, total water usage has slightly decreased over a period from 1990 to 2013 in spite of a 30% population increase. A history of droughts has pressured San Diego to being extremely efficient with water usage and storage.

The impending crisis for San Diego, however, lies in the needs of the rest of the state. Well aware of the ample reserves of Southern California, Governor Jerry Brown is investigating the feasibility of diverting reserves to areas that drastically need the water. Having already enacted their own conservation measures, Northern Californian leaders feel that Southern California is not doing enough to limit their water usage, a large portion of which comes from the Delta region (though San Diego only relies on this for about 20% of its water). Some Northern counties have begun to restrict water usage, leading to as much as 35% reductions for business use in one Sacramento town.

The Coming Months

Through cooperation with industry and government leaders, the city has supported a biotech industry that requires non-restricted water resources in order to flourish. Yet, as in the past, a drought may put pressure on this agreement. San Diego Water Authority officials are currently drafting proposals to be presented to the city government by the end of February that would outline voluntary conservation measures. This is done in response to the measures that Gov. Brown is expected to propose to state and federal officials.

Historically, water-restrictions have been an important rallying call for the San Diego biotech industry, so the prospect of such regulations raises a number of questions. How would restrictions affect the continual growth of San Diego biotech? Will investors seek more stable locations should these issues persist? As conservation proposals develop in the coming months, these questions will be asked of the city government as the needs of one of its most important industries are weighed against the impending needs of California.