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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008 | When a major drought hit San Diego from 1987 to 1992, the region’s water conservation began. To save water from being wasted, the initiative focused indoors: replacing showerheads and toilets.

As the threat of another water shortage looms, that effort is shifting outdoors, an area where water managers say saving water is harder. At the same time that shift is occurring, though, the city of San Diego is spending less to promote conservation.

The city’s Water Department will spend $2.7 million this year on everything from a staffer who investigates complaints of water waste to educational campaigns. Spending is down 20 percent compared to last year (and 5 percent compared to 2006).

The cut comes at a time when attention is increasingly focusing on the region’s precarious water supply. Court-ordered reductions in water exported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and an almost decade-long drought on the Colorado River have left the region facing one of its tightest water supplies since a drought ended in the early 1990s.

That drought launched water conservation efforts throughout Southern California. But as another possible shortage sets in, many of the early efforts have run their course. The city of San Diego has lowered its annual conservation targets for its residents — though it has set informal internal goals that boost those figures.

Since that drought, the city says it has taken steps to conserve about 30,000 acre feet of water annually — enough water for 15,000 homes. (An acre foot is equal to about 325,000 gallons.) That has helped drive down the average San Diegan’s daily water consumption from 201 gallons each day in 1989 to 162 gallons last year. That represents a 19 percent cut and has kept overall demand steady despite the city’s population growth.

Other cities have had more conservation success than San Diego. Long Beach, the first Southern California city to institute mandatory water conservation measures last year, has outpaced San Diego’s historical reduction in water use. Residents there use about 25 percent less water than they did when that historic drought began in 1987. Anaheim reported a similar decline, 24 percent since 1987.

“In terms of the big picture, [per-capita water use] is what people need to focus on,” said Matt Lyons, the Long Beach Water Department’s director of planning and conservation. “Southern California has got to control its per capita water use. There’s going to be more people putting demand on the system. The only way we’ll be better in the long run is by reducing that.”

The region’s water conservation began in earnest near the end of the 1987-1992 drought. Hundreds of thousands of showerheads and toilets were replaced with low-flow varieties — often with subsidies from governments. Building codes were written to mandate the inclusion of low-flow fixtures in new housing.

The city of San Diego has pointed to conservation as the cheapest way to address demand, particularly as the price of imported water continues to increase. Lowering demand decreases the need for transporting and storing water, allowing water once wasted to be put to a more productive use.

As the potential of another water shortage draws near, the focus for water conservation is shifting outdoors — slowly. Water managers say saving water outside has proven to be more challenging than giving out showerheads and toilets, requiring more active involvement from homeowners — monitoring irrigation, turning it off during stormy weather and ensuring lawns aren’t given too much water.

Since 1991, the San Diego County Water Authority, the region’s water wholesaler, has increased conservation to 52,000 acre feet annually. By 2010, the authority aims to conserve another 28,000 acre feet. That’s a benchmark en route to saving 100,000 acre feet in 2030. Ken Weinberg, the authority’s director of water resources, said he doesn’t expect to meet the intermediate goal — but believes the 2030 goal can be achieved.

“It’s got to come in the landscape,” Weinberg said. “It’s not like installing a toilet or showerhead. You have to make people change their behavior, their choices in plants and do it over the long term. We don’t underestimate the challenge of doing that.”

The city of San Diego aims to cuts its water consumption by 2,400 acre feet this year, representing a 1 percent cut in total supply. While the city took steps in the wake of the early 1990s drought to increase conservation, those efforts have slowed and its long-term goals have shrunk.

“Can we do more in saving water? Yes, we can,” said Luis Generoso, the city’s water conservation program manager. “The new frontier is outdoors. But we just don’t know how much water we can save there.”

Environmentalists say the city can achieve more than it has been. Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group, said he did not believe the city’s conservation efforts were bold enough.

Reznik pointed to a host of options for the mayor and City Council: Strict ordinances on watering, rebates for rainwater harvesting systems or gray-water recycling, which allows sink or shower water to be recycled for irrigation, or a water billing system that penalizes excessive residential water use.

“You can do it economically, you can do it with mandate,” Reznik said, “but it has to be a serious commitment, and it isn’t there.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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