Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 | Last September, when a federal judge cut water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major source of Southern California’s drinking water, the Long Beach Water Department bucked convention: It immediately instituted mandatory restrictions on consumption.

Monday, Thursday and Saturday are the only permissible lawn-watering days (and only after 4 p.m. or before 9 a.m.). Letting water run off into the street is prohibited. Restaurants can serve water only upon request. Hotels must offer guests the option of not having fresh towels and sheets each day. Violations can bring $50 fines that double with each incident. (Just two fines have been issued in the last year.)

As San Diego water agencies have called on residents to voluntarily conserve water, Long Beach has written it into the law. San Diego residents have cut consumption about 6 percent; Long Beach’s have cut 9 percent. That small increase in savings has been the difference between meeting conservation goals in Long Beach and missing them here.

“We don’t have lawns dying,” said Kevin Wattier, Long Beach’s general manager. “I don’t see any difference. You can get 9 to 10 percent without doing any damage to your local economy.”

With water agencies in San Diego County currently considering how they’ll handle an expected cut in supplies next year — what would be the first water rationing since 1992 — Long Beach’s steps offer a glimpse of what may be in store. Endangered species protections in the Sacramento Delta and prolonged drought on the Colorado River, arid San Diego’s two main drinking water supplies, threaten to make 2009 a tough water year.

Local water agencies are planning for a 10 percent cut in deliveries from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, the wholesaler that delivers a majority of San Diego’s supply. If that cut comes, the 24 local agencies that supply drinking water to county residents will have to deliver savings or face significant fines.

If the call for conservation continues being unsuccessful and mandatory restrictions are put in place, agencies’ strategies for enforcing those measures will vary. Many will turn to financial penalties for excessive use. Homeowners who use water excessively will see a bigger increase in their bills than those who don’t. Rates that would double or triple a users’ typical bill are possible.

“When the rates go way up because we have to use way less, that’s when we’ll see a noted reduction in the use of water,” said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District, which supplies La Mesa.

Some agencies are planning tougher steps. Mark Rogers, general manager of the Sweetwater Authority, which supplies National City and parts of Chula Vista, said his agency’s board will consider a proposal in December to cap the amount of water it delivers to customers based on their historic consumption levels.

Deliveries would vary from home-to-home and business-to-business, Rogers said. Homeowners and businesses would be allowed 20 percent of the water they used based on a three-year average from 2004-2006. Instead of fining violators, flow restrictors on water pipes would halt deliveries to scofflaws.

Rogers calls it “the adult approach.” He said the agency fears financial penalties won’t dissuade some homeowners from keeping green lawns if they can simply pay nominal fines to continue excessive use.

“We don’t want people to be able to pay their way out,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you how to use your water. I am going to tell you how much you can use.”

Other water agencies say they are concerned about penalizing residents who have conserved water since the last drought struck the region from 1987-1992.

“It’s an issue we face now that we didn’t in 1991,” said Ken Weinberg, water resources director at the San Diego County Water Authority. “You have people who are doing the right thing and people who aren’t.”

The region may also face the possibility of water police: Code enforcement officers who ensure that water isn’t being wasted. The Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which supplies almost 100,000 people from Santee to Alpine, in June became the first water agency in San Diego to institute mandatory restrictions on consumption, limiting lawn watering and other outdoor uses.

The district’s staff has been trained to keep a lookout for wasteful water uses — broken sprinklers, irrigation runoff in the streets — while out in neighborhoods, spokesman Mike Uhrhammer said. Since July, the district has sent 100 warnings to residents who are violating the new rules. Just three warnings have been repeat offenders. Uhrhammer said those residents face a $150 fine or the option of attending a two-hour water conservation class. It’s too soon to measure the effort’s success, he said.

Residents can file complaints about their neighbors’ use, but Uhrhammer said Padre Dam won’t issue warnings from such a grievance without follow up, concerned that the district may get caught up in a Hatfield-McCoy dispute.

“We have a lot of neighbor-versus-neighbor type of things going on out there,” Uhrhammer said. “We have had neighbors talk about restraining orders.”

Extensive policing is not likely at the city of San Diego, which asks residents to report wasteful water use. Jim Barrett, the city’s public utilities director, said the Water Department estimates it would have to hire 10 staffers to investigate complaints if they increased. Before declaring a water emergency in July, the city received few complaints; it now gets about six each day. In contrast, Long Beach has received almost 4,000 complaints (that’s an average of about 11 a day) since instituting mandatory restrictions a year ago.

San Diego officials remain hopeful that they will not have to enforce punitive measures to get residents to save water.

“We haven’t gotten to the point yet where we’re willing to admit that mandatory conservation and financial penalties are the only solution,” Barrett said. “We don’t need to come around with a 10-pound sledgehammer and hit people in the head, just because we have one.”

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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