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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008 | Water court appearances for people who waste water. Conservation scorecards for water districts. A requirement that all new landscaping be drought-tolerant. And a recommendation for homeowners to spend 84 cents on a bucket to capture that first cold 30-second burst from the morning shower (to later be used on watering plants).

Those ideas are among the wide-ranging recommendations for boosting water conservation contained in a report being released Thursday by the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a local ratepayer advocacy group.

The report calls on area officials to be more creative and inspired in their efforts to induce the county’s residents to save water, saying the region’s supply is tight — and likely to stay that way.

Michael Shames, UCAN’s executive director, said elected officials need to do much more to target conservation throughout all facets of life. Pointing to examples from cities as diverse as Sydney, Australia and Tucson, Ariz., the report highlights dozens of potential conservation strategies. Shames said the region’s water conservation efforts — which in San Diego have succeeded at keeping consumption steady despite population growth — have been timid.

“Somebody needed to throw out a well-thought, reasoned proposal to ratchet up the quality and urgency of the discussion,” he said. “I think the region has suffered from an overzealous desire to reach consensus without providing any kind of clear vision.”

San Diego’s water supply once looked more reliable than it does today. But a prolonged drought on the Colorado River and legal restrictions on exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have forced the region’s water wholesalers to tap storage reserves to meet demand. Unless the state experiences an unusually wet winter, water restrictions are possible next year.

Mayor Jerry Sanders began pushing residents earlier this year to save water. He acknowledged last week, though, that the effort had failed and said the city may in fact use more water this year than it has previously.

That signals that the widespread call for voluntary conservation has been ineffective. Those efforts alone are often not successful unless accompanied by tangible steps, said J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas.

With public education campaigns, “you’re basically trying to reduce opposition to the idea of conserving water,” Davis said.

“You can’t solve a problem until you’ve identified what it is,” Davis said. “It has to be actionable. You can’t fix something under as broad a heading as: ‘We’re using too much water.’”

The San Diego County Water Authority began urging conservation last summer and is now in the midst of a $1.8 million advertising campaign to promote additional steps. Ken Weinberg, the authority’s director of water resources, had not fully examined the UCAN report, but said he welcomed its ideas. The effort has sought to achieve savings solely by asking residents to use less.

Shames dubbed the authority’s 20-Gallon Challenge, which has urged residents to save 20 gallons each day, “woefully inadequate.”

“I violently disagree with this almost pathological preoccupation with education,” Shames said. “Education is like an excuse for yet another pamphlet.”

Weinberg said the outreach campaign is an effective way to achieve a short-term reduction in consumption — and may also set the stage if rationing or mandatory cutbacks are needed next year.

“I think it’s a combination of incentives and education,” Weinberg said. “And there is a regulatory component out there, if we get to rationing and cutbacks.”

The city has declared a stage one water emergency, an amorphous designation calling for residents to voluntarily use less. Sanders said more stringent restrictions may be needed next year.

At the same time, though, the city has again cut its spending on promoting water conservation. Sanders’ 2009 budget included $2.3 million for conservation, down 33 percent from two years ago. That same budget projects the city will use less water than it has previously — pointing to a goal of conserving 15 percent of its water in the coming year.

Alex Ruiz, assistant director of the city’s water department, said its conservation efforts remain “robust” despite the declining budget. “If we’re saying you need to cut back 10 percent, we need to make the case as to why it’s necessary,” Ruiz said. “I believe we’re doing that.”

The UCAN report says officials from cities and water districts throughout the region must increase — not decrease — their conservation efforts. One of the most important steps, Shames said, is to establish tiered water rates that penalize the heaviest users. While many districts charge more as a customer consumes more water, the price hike isn’t significant enough, he said.

“The customer who conserves isn’t being given the proper message that you’re doing a good job,” Shames said. “Because it doesn’t have much of an impact on what they’re charged. The signals are so horribly upside down in the way we charge for water in this county.”

Other steps could also help the region ultimately save 30 percent of its municipal water use, he said. Permits could be required for residents who want to fill up new pools. Sewage recycling efforts could be expedited. Fees could be charged to residents with large lawns, creating a pool of money that could be used to subsidize purchases of drought-tolerant plants.

Ultimately, the goal is to instill a new conservation ethic in the region, Shames said.

Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said the region and its elected officials often resist efforts to change residents’ water-consumptive lifestyles.

“We’re the most water-challenged region in California, and yet we don’t act as if we have a serious long-term water crisis,” Erie said. “[Conservation] has to become part of the long-term ethic of San Diego, and I don’t see them doing that.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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