Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 | Mayor Jerry Sanders admits he hasn’t been flushing the toilet as much at home. It’s just one step he’s taken to conserve water.

And he’s not just saving water in the privacy of his own bathroom. This year, the mayor is delivering messages publicly about the benefits of water conservation more frequently than he has before. Just last week, Sanders stood behind a podium on a city sidewalk and touted the beauty of a Kensington family’s lush (and drought-tolerant) garden.

Sanders lauded homeowners Martin and Cynthia Offenhauer as “urban environmentalists,” pointing to the native species they’d planted in the garden behind him as perfect examples of ways to conserve water. The mayor repeated several conservation messages: Half of the region’s water is used for irrigation. Much is wasted on over-watering — enough annually to fill the Sweetwater Reservoir. Saving water saves money.

It was the second press conference about water conservation that Sanders has held in the last month, part of a mayoral mini-barrage on ways to save water. In late January, he visited the Miramar Wholesale Nursery to showcase its low-water-consuming plants. His office has sent out five press releases exhorting the benefits of conservation this year. And Sanders highlighted its importance during his annual State of the City address.

The mayor talked less about water conservation last year, despite helping to launch the San Diego County Water Authority’s 20-Gallon Challenge in June. Sanders addressed conservation later in the summer, but it was largely a response to City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s call for the city to institute a Stage 2 water alert, which would bring some mandatory water-use restrictions.

Sanders said he has realized he needed to continue touting the benefits and ways city residents can save water.

“What I’ve learned about news and media cycles is that people will watch it and it won’t register on the first time,” Sanders said. “It’s repetition. We’re trying to provide that repetition. I think it lets people know I’m serious about it. It’s just a critical issue.”

As the mayor has talked about conservation more, he’s also followed through in deed. His home water use dropped 39 percent in the last half of 2007 compared to the same time in 2006. Sanders said he hasn’t turned on his sprinkler system since Thanksgiving and has only hand watered his plants once. And there’s the whole if-it’s-yellow-let-it-mellow toilet flushing thing. “That’s part of it,” Sanders admitted.

Some question the sincerity of Sanders’ increased talk about conservation. The mayor vetoed a City Council plan to use treated sewage to boost water levels in city reservoirs — a new water source. (The council overturned his veto.) And he has resisted Aguirre’s calls to institute the city’s water shortage guidelines, which would enable the city to prohibit home irrigation during certain days and times and curtail washing sidewalks and driveways with potable water.

“Right now, it’s all moral exhortation,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “There’s no real penalty or pain. But that would cost him votes. These are all feel-good measures. And I don’t think they really amount to much.”

Bolder action is needed, Erie said, with the Southwest facing one of its most severe droughts in history and water flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta restricted this year by a federal judge’s ruling to protect an endangered fish.

Aguirre said the city needs to begin expanding its water storage reservoirs, tap a desalination plant and expand water reclamation in addition to its conservation efforts.

“Treating water as a precious commodity is going to be a part of the future,” he said. “The quicker we get there, the better it’s going to be. What we’ve been doing is the fairy godmother approach — that some fairy godmother would come along and make water available.”

Sanders said he remains opposed to using recycled sewage as a drinking water source. And he rejected mandatory water restrictions as unnecessary. “There’s two ways to do things,” he said. “You can impose rules and laws or ask people to voluntarily be a part of it. I think we’ve seen a good response.”

But the call for conservation was slow to catch on. While demand has been lower this winter than it was a year earlier, water authority officials attribute it to the rainy weather — not their messages about saving water.

The authority’s board is taking steps to tell more people about the need to conserve. It will vote Thursday on whether to spend $112,000 on a consultant to develop a blueprint for a water conservation advertising and outreach effort estimated to cost $1.5 million to $1.75 million. That call for short-term conservation — what the water authority is dubbing “extraordinary conservation” on top of its earlier efforts to reduce use — will continue despite the winter’s precipitation.

San Diego has “probably” avoided water rationing this year, said Ken Weinberg, the authority’s director of water resources, thanks to California’s average levels of rain and snowfall this winter. The region used 42 percent less water in January than it did in January 2007. December also showed a 27 percent drop compared to a year before.

“That’s good news, but we’re not anywhere near out of the woods yet,” Weinberg said. “Average weather is not going to get us average water supply.”

Last year, a federal judge limited the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a move designed to protect the delta smelt, a small fish listed as a federally threatened species. San Diego County gets as much as 70 percent of its water from the delta, a triangle-shaped area bounded by Sacramento, Tracy and Antioch. The smelt’s population dropped to its lowest recorded levels in 2007.

Though the region may have avoided mandatory rationing this year, the judge’s ruling means the short-term future is still troublesome, Weinberg said. Conserving water this year will allow the authority and its supplier, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, to avoid tapping storage reserves, which would be needed if next winter is dry.

“There are changes that have to be made — or we have to have another El Niño — for us to get through year-to-year,” Weinberg said. “We’ve got to get through the next several years until we understand how we’re going to get out of this situation.”

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