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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008 | Don’t tell anybody, but when Kim Edwards has guests over to her Mission Hills home, she always makes sure to flush the toilets first. In an effort to save water, she’s stopped flushing regularly and doesn’t want to appear unhygienic.

Edwards is saving water outside, too. The black bamboo and black pine in her front yard are turning brown. Before she started hearing news about the region’s water-supply crunch, she’d water them three or four times a week. Now she irrigates once or twice a week.

Each day, Edwards says a prayer for more rain — that an arid region that relies on importing drinking water from the far-off Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada will somehow find a way out of the current supply problem.

Next year brings the possibility of water rationing and the first mandatory water use restrictions for San Diego County residents since 1992. The Rockies are suffering from years of prolonged drought. A federal judge has restricted how much Sierra Nevada snowmelt can be pulled out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a step taken to attempt to keep a tiny fish, the delta smelt, from going extinct. If the region’s residents are to avoid being told by the government how they can use water next year, they’ll have to follow Edwards’ example.

As the possibility of restrictions on use grows, water agencies face two predominant criticisms from the residents they’re asking to save. Some residents, such as Edwards, say they have conserved all they can. Others, such as North Park resident Judi O’Boyle, question why Mayor Jerry Sanders is asking people to save water at the same time the city is approving new developments like the 4,800-unit Quarry Falls in Mission Valley.

“You can’t stop all development, you have to grow,” O’Boyle said. “But these major huge developments have to have solutions to pollution and water before they’re allowed to go forward.”

The backlash from residents promises to be one of the greatest challenges water agencies will face as they increase their calls for conservation and threaten the possibility of mandatory use restrictions next year. Those could include specifying days of the week when lawn-watering is allowed and making restaurants serve water only on request.

“This is going to be a tough change for folks,” said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa. “A lot of people have saved water, and they’re frustrated because they’ve helped. And now people who are still using a lot of water — it’s their responsibility to use less.”

The call for conservation over the last year has netted about a 6 percent savings among residences across San Diego County. But if mandatory restrictions are to be avoided, residents will have to do more. The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which supplies a majority of San Diego’s drinking water, is expected to cut deliveries by at least 10 percent next year. Conservation will have to increase to 10 percent to forestall mandatory restrictions.

When drought hit San Diego from 1987-1992, water conservation was not as widespread as it is today. Now, some residents have already saved water — inside their homes and outside. There are the Kim Edwardses of the world and then there are the residents whose wasted water washes down the curb in front of her home each morning.

Water officials say they’re aware that some in the region have saved and they must target those who haven’t — a challenge they did not face when trying to effect savings in the last drought. They say their efforts will focus on convincing residents to use less water to irrigate their lawns and gardens.

“There is still ample opportunity to reduce outside,” said Jim Barrett, the city of San Diego’s public utilities director. “The biggest point when it comes to conservation is convincing people that the need is real.”

O’Boyle and her husband, Tim Johnston, started saving water before the call for conservation began in earnest last summer. The retired North Park couple tore the grass out of their front yard nearly two years ago, planting drought-tolerant vegetation and netted a 30 percent monthly savings in their water consumption. While they once watered their back lawn four times a week, they’ve cut it to twice weekly — a conscious effort to try to save water. “It looks awful,” O’Boyle admitted.

O’Boyle, though, worries that their conservation efforts are being negated by development. Edwards shares a similar concern. “They keep putting in these new complexes,” Edwards said. “Where’s that water coming from?”

Barrett and other water officials said the region does not need to prohibit new construction just because water supplies are currently crimped.

“We as a region are not there yet,” Barrett said. “We are still under the belief that we can manage our way through this by asking people to voluntarily conserve. We can step it up to mandatory, and we have a couple of more steps before we’re turning off building permits.”

Ken Weinberg, the water authority’s director of water resources, said water agencies are currently discussing how to avoid penalizing the residents who have saved water if cuts occur next year. One way to do that, he said, is by adjusting the price of water. Those who use less would pay a lower rate than higher users.

“You have multiple ways you can address that issue,” Weinberg said. “It’s an issue we face now that we didn’t in 1991.”

That time, conserving water was simpler. A massive effort to promote efficient showerheads and toilets effected immediate, easy savings. Since then, Edwards and others like her said they feel as if they’ve already answered the call.

“We’ve done our part,” she said. “I’ll try to save any more I can. But there’s only so much you can do.”

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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