Friday, Sept. 26, 2008 | For the first time since 1992, San Diego is facing the possibility of water rationing, a step that could happen as soon as January. The threat is expected to loom for years as Southern California readjusts to the tightest drinking water supplies it has experienced in almost two decades.

The Metropolitan Water District, the Los Angeles-based wholesaler that provides about 75 percent of San Diego County’s supply, will consider as soon as January whether to cut deliveries to the 13 million people it serves — including the San Diego County Water Authority, which provides water to the city of San Diego and 23 other local agencies.

While no decision has been made, many believe a 10 percent reduction is a foregone conclusion. Mike Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, said he is “fairly certain” that Metropolitan’s board of directors will cut deliveries regardless of whether the winter is wet. That sentiment is increasingly common among water managers throughout Southern California.

“We’re going to run out of water next year, and people don’t have a clue,” said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa. But water districts don’t want to make water-use restrictions mandatory, he said, until Metropolitan formally declares that it’s cutting back.

A cutback from Metropolitan would crimp San Diego’s primary supply and require residents throughout the region to cut their consumption. Even though cuts may happen, several water managers said it is still too soon to implement mandatory restrictions on water use.

For residents across the region, mandatory water restrictions would include limiting lawn watering to specific days of the week, prohibiting restaurants from serving water unless requested, and requiring the use of a bucket and hose with a shut-off nozzle to wash cars. Violators could be fined or punished criminally by city code enforcement officers; penalties could include limiting water deliveries to customers.

In past droughts, voluntary conservation efforts have been successful in the city of San Diego. When a severe drought struck from 1987 to 1992, the city faced a 50 percent cut in deliveries before a heavy spring rainfall ended the threat. The city relied on residents to voluntarily curtail their consumption. They did, and mandatory restrictions were narrowly avoided.

But those gains — achieved by installing efficient toilets and showerheads — are already in place this time. Achieving more savings will be harder and will require residents to change how they use water outside. Despite public officials’ repeated pleas, consumption this year is down only about 6 percent countywide. If cuts come, those efforts will have to increase. Any initial reduction from Metropolitan would require the region to save at least 10 percent of its water.

“People are feeling like they’ve already conserved,” Weston said. “It’s going to be harder to get people to conserve. It’s a slow accident happening.”

Jim Barrett, San Diego’s director of public utilities, said even if the region is forced to conserve 10 percent, the city may be able to achieve that target without making restrictions mandatory. Those more draconian steps could include limiting residents’ lawn watering to three specified days a week.

Barrett acknowledged that voluntary efforts haven’t been sufficient, but said mandatory restrictions aren’t yet needed. “We haven’t gotten to the point yet where we’re willing to admit that mandatory conservation and financial penalties are the only solution,” he said.

If Metropolitan enacts restrictions this winter, they will likely stay in place through 2010, water managers said.

Bob Yamada, water resources manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, said the agency is already counting on residents to heed its call to cut their consumption by 10 percent, an effort dubbed the “20-Gallon Challenge.”

“Everything we’re looking at going forward has that achievement as a baseline assumption,” Yamada said. “If we don’t achieve that, rationing becomes all the more likely.”

Unlike in 1992, when March rains saved the day, today’s problems facing San Diego and all of Southern California are chronic. Metropolitan’s two key supplies — the Colorado River and snow melt from the Sierra Nevada — are both providing a fraction of the water they did in their best years. The situation, caused by long-term drought and protections for endangered species, shows no signs of abating.

Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said a heavy snow pack could forestall the need to reduce deliveries. But even that would be a short-term relief.

“We’re facing some difficult, uncertain times here for the next five, six, seven years that we’re going to have to work through,” Kightlinger said. “The longer we take to implement solutions in the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] delta, the longer we’ll face those uncertain times.”

To understand the problem, chew on these numbers: To satisfy demand, Metropolitan needs 2.2 million acre feet of water. Metropolitan got 1.2 million acre feet from the Colorado in 2000; last year it took about 800,000 acre feet. (An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water to satiate the thirsts of two families of four for a year.)

As those supplies dwindled, Metropolitan turned to the Sierra Nevada snowmelt that flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make up the difference. In 2006, the agency got 2 million acre feet from the delta — enough to make up for the Colorado River drought and save some in storage. Next year it may only get 200,000 acre feet.

A federal judge has restricted the amount of water that can be sucked out of the delta, a step taken to protect the delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish with a dwindling population. So instead of enough water for 16 million people coming from the delta, Metropolitan may only get enough next year for 1.6 million people. “They’re talking some pretty scary numbers,” Kightlinger said.

The rest comes from storage, and there’s only so much there. In the last two years, Metropolitan has drawn down about a third of its storage. “Obviously that’s not sustainable for too much longer,” Kightlinger said.

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