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Too much sun? Rising heat hits health, water in San Diego

Climate change is turning up temperatures in sunny San Diego, creating an array of health and water challenges for the regional economy. Here's how businesses are dealing with it.

Sunny skies and mild temperatures are a trademark of San Diego, which help make its tourism industry the third largest in the country — amounting to nearly $9.9 billion annually, which translates to a regional impact of over $16 billion generated for the economy, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority.

But San Diego is about to experience too much of a good thing as climate change drives up regional temperatures.

Over the next 40 years, global temperatures could increase twice as fast as they have in the last 40, and southern California temperature increases likely will follow this trend, according to UC San Diego. Rising temperatures pose significant challenges for the region’s residents, businesses and communities that are accustomed to a mild Mediterranean climate.

Hotter temperatures will negatively affect San Diego’s heat-exposed industries — including construction, agriculture and transportation — threatening $32 billion and 220,000 workers in the local economy, according to two new reports on health (PDF) and water (PDF) by The San Diego Foundation, in partnership with Climate Education Partners.

The reports affirm how health and water play a critical role in shaping the future of San Diego, and identify how leaders can work together to leverage opportunities to prepare for the impacts of climate change and create a more resilient economy and region by acting now.

The research also indicates that San Diego County will face less frequent but more intense rainstorms in the future, putting commercial, residential and government sectors at risk of flash flooding, which can cost several million dollars per event.

Heat takes a human and economic toll

The reports indicate that the construction, agriculture and transportation industries could lose an estimated 65,000 production hours and take on $4.8 million to $9.4 million in additional medical costs per year due to extreme heat.

Some potential economic impacts are more intangible in nature.

"When it is hot, employees often find it harder to concentrate and work well, which impacts workforce efficiency and output," Emily Young, vice president of Community Impact at the San Diego Foundation, told GreenBiz.

Some heat-exposed businesses have taken notice and are acting to protect worker health, Young said. Continental Maritime, a San Diego navy ship repair company, monitors its workers for heat stress when temperatures rise above 77 degrees and helps them stay cool through a series of measures including hydration, clothing, ventilation, alternating exposure to sun and shade and adjusting workloads to include more rest time.

Meanwhile, companies operating in San Diego, including San Diego Gas & Electric, AT&T, Qualcomm, US Bank and others are participating in the Red Cross’ Business Leadership Council and a series of disaster academies to better understand how all groups can work together to ensure our region’s resilience and preparedness for heat waves and other extreme events.

Energy efficiency and renewables help beat the heat

Companies can take advantage of local energy efficiency and solar programs to help reduce energy bills while creating more efficient building designs, the report said.

Cutting demand for air conditioning through efficiency programs or green building can help businesses reduce energy bills. Better and more efficient building design in new buildings and intelligent retrofits for existing buildings can offer relatively rapid returns on investment, the report said.

"By taking steps to adopt efficient and clean technologies, leaders can save roughly $12 million per year in avoided energy costs for air conditioning alone," Young said.

This also creates a boon for the local economy by generating business for local construction and design firms.

"Local construction and design industries can help design, deploy and build more energy efficient buildings using passive or low-energy features, such as natural ventilation, green roof or cool-roof technologies and ultra-efficient HVAC systems that can keep buildings cool with lower energy use," Young said. "Working together, we can expand our efforts to make our businesses more resilient and cost-efficient by developing action plans for reducing heat impacts, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions."

Companies can turn increased sunny and hot days to their benefit through rooftop solar, which can help counter costs of cooling buildings. In 2015, San Diego was ranked the second-best city for solar in the U.S. by Environment California, and the city of San Diego has committed to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

The San Diego region already has more than 500 LEED certified buildings covering 52 million square feet of real estate, according to the San Diego Green Building Council.

Too little and too much water

The report calls water the "lifeblood" of San Diego’s $200 billion regional economy.

The businesses that make up the region’s three major industries — tourism, innovation and the military — and local businesses rely on clean and stable water supplies. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical businesses — a major part of the region’s economy — also face a substantial risk because they need reliable access to clean water and must meet strict regulations on discharge limits.

But the San Diego region’s primary water sources — the Colorado River and Sierra Nevada — are likely to be affected as warmer temperatures and more extended droughts reduce the amount of snowpack and river flow, according to the report.

While San Diego likely will be much drier in the future, the rainfall it receives is expected to arrive in more concentrated bursts that can lead to costly flash flooding. One-in-100-year flood events could occur every year in some areas by 2050, the report said, affecting nearly 5,000 businesses.

Flash floods could cost anywhere from $10 million to $18 million per event. The most extreme weather events could cost as much as $367 million in total damages when the San Diego River spills its banks.

Companies can conserve, reuse and recycle water to reduce operational risks and costs, create jobs, drive innovation, increase resilience to drought and help avoid regulatory burdens, the report said.

Qualcomm, for example, employs an advanced water treatment system at its San Diego headquarters, which reduces the water used in the cooling towers of its co-generation plant by more than 5.4 million gallons annually. The company also recently held a water conservation campaign that challenged employees to use less water in their daily lives, which resulted in millions of gallons of water saved worldwide.

To create the world’s first LEED Platinum commercial airport terminal, the San Diego Regional Airport Authority installed xeriscaping with local and drought-tolerant plants, a satellite water-tracking system to prevent unnecessary irrigation, low-flow water fixtures saving 4 million gallons and redirected storm water from the parking lot drains into bioswales to irrigate plantings.

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