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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008 | It’s dinnertime Monday night, and Mayor Jerry Sanders is talking water with 40 people in a dimly lit room in the Mira Mesa Branch Library.

Sanders and Jim Barrett, the city’s public utilities director, are imploring the crowd to save water and irrigate their grass less frequently. Conserve water now, they say, and the city may avoid mandatory water-use restrictions next year. Up on a screen, an illustrated slideshow paints a dire picture of San Diego’s water supply future: Images of a depleted Lake Mead flash by.

Sanders concludes with a plea: “We’re all in this together.” And after 60 minutes of presentations and questions, off goes the audience into the night.

Forty city residents down, 1,336,825 more to go.

As arid San Diego stares down the possibility that 2009 will bring the first water rationing in nearly two decades, Sanders has frequently emphasized the need for residents to conserve water. The mayor is in the midst of holding water forums across the city. But they’ve been sparsely attended. Monday night’s audience was the largest; others have attracted crowds as small as 10 people, highlighting the difficulties of conveying the serious nature of San Diego’s water supply crunch to a populace that does not appear to be listening.

San Diego County residents may be forced next year to conserve water or face mandatory restrictions on how much they can use. Water agencies are considering designating specific lawn-watering days or capping the number of gallons households and business can consume.

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 supplies 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, the result of prolonged drought on the Colorado River and a court order to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, San Diego’s two major supplies.

But so far, as water agencies draft plans to cut demand if supplies are trimmed, county residents have failed to fully heed public officials’ requests to voluntarily conserve 10 percent this year. Such a step would help keep more water in storage reservoirs for next year. But the call has netted just 6 percent savings compared to 2007 — not enough to avoid mandatory restrictions if the supply is cut next year.

“I talk about it at every speech I give, and you know, you’re still only addressing a small portion of San Diegans,” Sanders says in an interview. “It’s one of those things we’re going to have to get better at. I don’t want their first time to hear about this to be when we say we’re cutting their water supply. That’s not a good way to do it.”

Sanders acknowledges a need to reach more residents. The city, which has cut its water conservation budget in each of the last three years, has relied on the San Diego County Water Authority to do that. The authority is spending an unprecedented $1.8 million this year on a conservation outreach program. Sanders says there is room for improvement.

“I see the County Water Authority’s billboards up and all of that, but you know what, they don’t hit you,” Sanders says. “They’re kind of cutesy, but they don’t hit you with: We’re in a drought, we’ve got to conserve.”

That ad campaign is slowing down as cooler weather and the elections (too many other competing messages) approach, spokesman John Liarakos says. The authority is currently in the midst of planning next year’s outreach but hasn’t settled on the message or the price.

“This is the toughest kind of effort you can undertake,” Liarakos says. “You’re trying to change intrinsic and inherent behaviors and people don’t change those behaviors without a lot of push and a lot of motivation.”

With cuts lurking, water managers say they are concerned about the region’s capacity to respond to calls for conservation next year after having already cut consumption after the 1987-1992 drought hit.

“There’s definitely a stronger resistance to the (conservation) message,” says Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District, which supplies La Mesa. “We hear: Stop issuing building permits. We hear: It has to do with someone else. It’s more difficult for people to own the problem this time.”

Residents at Monday night’s forum echoed that. Some wanted to know whether they’d be given a financial incentive for saving. (No, Sanders said, because the city would have to raise rates on other customers.) Others said they’d already saved; that they’d conserved every time they’d been told. What more could they really do?

After the last serious drought, which stretched from 1987 to 1992, efficient showerheads and toilets were installed to save water in homes throughout the region. Changes now will have to come outdoors, with more efficient (and less frequent) irrigation of lawns and gardens.

“We don’t have a lot of low-hanging fruit,” says Mark Rogers, general manager of the Sweetwater Authority, which supplies 185,000 people in National City and Chula Vista. “There are a lot of brown lawns in western Chula Vista. I’m worried about making the cutbacks for our agency. I hope some of our larger users are going to pick up the slack, because our residential customers have already responded so well.”

Though conserving water outside will take a behavioral change, the amount of water wasted in irrigation presents a significant conservation opportunity, says Ken Weinberg, the water authority’s director of water resources. About half of all water consumed in San Diego County is used outside.

“When we have to get savings in a hurry, it’s going to come out of the landscape,” Weinberg says. “The savings potential is what is going to carry us through this period.”

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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