Tightening the Tap: Water districts study how to meet state's now-official water conservation targets May 07 2015

Now that California has officially mandated major cuts in urban water use, hundreds of local water agencies must figure out how to make them work.

June 1 marks the formal beginning of the reductions ordered Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board, carrying out Gov. Jerry Brown’s order to reduce water use by 25 percent statewide.

The agencies must work with the needs of their customers, some of who will doubtless claim hardship or invoke exceptional circumstances. They must also decide which practices deemed wasteful to curtail or ban outright, and what incentives or encouragement will best result in cooperation.

There is a financial hammer, if needed. Water districts in San Diego County and the rest of the state must report monthly to the state water board. Districts that fail to meet their assigned percentage cuts to potable water use face heavy fines — up to $10,000 per day — from the state water board. Districts will ultimately pay those fines with money from their customers.

The cuts range from 8 percent to 36 percent of residential per-capita use, compared to the corresponding month of 2013, starting in June. Agencies whose residential customers use more water are faced with heavier cuts, because their residents presumably are using more water for optional uses, such as for outdoor landscaping.

The reductions will be tough, even for the agencies that have cut back the most. The Sweetwater Authority faces a 12 percent reduction — the lowest in the county — but it won’t be easy to meet. The agency's customers use an average of just 66 gallons per person daily. The county average is 150 gallons daily.

“Now you’re getting into basics,” said Ron Morrison, mayor of National City, which is in the Sweetwater district. “I no longer have a lawn in my front yard or back yard. Most of my outdoor irrigation is done from graywater off of my showers and such. There’s a lot of brown lawns, a lot of cutback here.”

There are exceptions. Since the cuts are limited to potable water, landscaping or other uses with recycled “purple pipe” water not meant for drinking are not restricted. Graywater, from sources such as laundry or kitchen wastewater, can likewise be used outdoors.

For its part, the state water board said at Tuesday’s meeting that it doesn’t want to play the heavy. Districts that find themselves falling short of their conservation target are encouraged to contact the water board quickly, and develop a plan to come back into compliance.

Some things are not subject to discussion. The water board has already prohibited the following:

• Using potable water to wash sidewalks and driveways

• Creating runoff when irrigating with potable water

• Using hoses without shut-off nozzles to wash cars

• Using potable water in decorative water features that do not recirculate the water

• Using outdoor irrigation during and 48 hours following measurable precipitation

San Diego County faces a special challenge in meeting the conservation mandates. Its residents have already performed considerable conservation, reducing per-capita use about 30 percent from 1990. And the region is not allowed to deduct from the mandates the water soon to be produced from the $1 billion Poseidon desalination plant in Carlsbad, which has the capacity to make 50 million gallons of drinking water daily from ocean water.

The county’s retail water districts face cuts running nearly the gamut of possibilities. Sweetwater Authority in the South Bay area must cut 12 percent; the city of San Diego must cut 16 percent, while some districts must cut the 36 percent maximum, including Valley Center Municipal Water District and the Santa Fe Irrigation District.

Waiting for instructions

At the largely agricultural Valley Center Municipal Water District, customers are being told to rely on official instructions, which will be mailed to them by the end of May, said Gary Arant, the general manager.

“We’ve been telling customers to sit tight and wait until all the dust settles,” Arant said. “We’ve been telling them they’ll have to deal with mandatory use restrictions such as two days a week watering, not letting your water run off the property, and we’ve also been telling them to think of more ways to conserve water.”

Valley Center customers have been sometimes confused by inaccurate or outdated information in the media, said Gary Arant, the district's general manager. For example, growers were warned by a publication called the Times-Advocate, Valley Center Edition, that they face cuts of 36 percent along with residential users. But a short time later, a revised conservation proposal from the state water board exempted the growers.

The Valley Center water district posted a notice to customers about the article on its website.

However, local growers aren’t entirely off the hook. They are likely to be hit with a 15 percent cutback, Arant said. That cut will be voted on next week at a May 14 board meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority. The proposed cut applies only to growers taking part in a program that provides discounted water rates, in return for agreeing to take less water during shortages.

The proposed agricultural cut matches a 15 percent reduction in water delivered to the Water Authority from Metropolitan Water District, which supplies about half of the county’s imported water, including all the discounted agricultural water. Metropolitan, which supplies most of Southern California’s, voted for that reduction at its April meeting.

Arant said his district is waiting until after the Water Authority acts, so enough information is available to develop specific plans. On May 18, the district’s board is scheduled to meet to decide on how to meet the mandate.

Enforcement boosted

The city of San Diego stepped up conservation measures early in April, days after the governor’s order. The city is now boosting enforcement against water waste, said Halla Razak, the city’s director of public utilities.

“We have 17 staff members that are out there investigating water waste complaints, and will be issuing notices of violation initially,” Razak said. “If the infractions are not corrected, they will be followed by citations.”

Citation costs depend on the infraction, Razak said, and will range from about $100 to $500.

San Diego gives more information on its website at www.sandiego.gov/water. A complete list of prohibited or restricted water uses is available at utsandiego.com/sdcitywatercuts.

The Santa Fe Irrigation District, which includes Rancho Santa Fe, is looking at ways of tightening up existing rules, said spokeswoman Jessica Parks. Rancho Santa Fe’s high per capita use is caused by the predominance of luxury homes on large parcels with profuse landscaping. Because the region is lightly populated, the landscaping boosts per capita use.

“We’ve been in mandatory water use restrictions for the past eight months,” Parks said. “We’ve been making our customers have been aware of this and in compliance.”