Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008 | Time to put the hose away and bring out the broom.

If you’re going to clean the sidewalk, and you live or work in the city of San Diego, you’re now prohibited from using a hose to do it (unless it’s a power washer).

If you’re staying in a hotel here, you should have the option of eschewing clean linens and towels each day.

If you’re eating out, you should have to request water.

And no more over-watering your yard to the point that water runs into the street.

The City Council voted Monday 6-0 to tighten its water-use regulations as of Jan. 1, including all of those water-waste fighting tactics. (Councilmen Brian Maienschein and Tony Young were absent.)

The steps reflect the growing seriousness of San Diego’s water supply problems and come as the region steadily marches toward the first potential mandatory restrictions for water consumption in almost two decades. In adopting permanent restrictions — some regardless of whether supplies are crimped — council members said they felt it was important to send a message to residents about the tenuousness of the city’s water supply.

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. The Colorado River is also suffering from years of drought and is no longer as robust a source as it once was.

Local water agencies throughout the county are preparing for the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District to not meet demand next year for the first time since the early 1990s. The district, the wholesaler that delivers water to San Diego from the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta, is expected to cut deliveries by at least 10 percent next year. Residents, who are using about 6 percent less water than they did a year ago, will have to increase their savings to 10 percent to forestall mandatory restrictions.

“Our situation is very serious,” Bob Yamada, the San Diego County Water Authority’s water resources manager, told the council. “Our key supply reservoirs are approaching historic lows,” and are drained as low as they’ve been in 15 years.

The council’s changes help add definition and certainty to the city’s regulations about water use during times of drought.

As the current situation has unfolded, Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre have bickered about whether the city needed to declare a water emergency. They’ve argued about an ambiguous part of the city’s law, which was adopted in 1991 during the region’s last drought.

City law currently allows the city to declare a “water watch” when the possibility exists that the city won’t be able to meet all of its customers’ demand. But in theory, such a possibility always exists. An emergency at any time could interrupt supplies.

That’s being cleared up.

The city will still have a four-level response to water shortages. But they’ll have more concrete triggers.

The city will now declare a “drought watch” when a supply shortage is likely and demand must to be cut as much as 10 percent to conserve water for the future. (The city is currently in this phase and appears headed for the next phase.)

The city will declare a “drought alert” when residents must cut water consumption 20 percent. When this occurs, landscape irrigation would be limited to three days weekly during summer and one day a week during winter. Residents could only water their lawns for 10 minutes and would be compelled to repair leaks within 72 hours.

At this stage, the city could establish water allocations for each customer — an estimate of how much each household uses — and levy penalties if consumption exceeds that level. Such a step would help the city enforce any cuts imposed by its suppliers. If wholesalers make cuts, they’ll enforce them with the threat of financial penalties. The city wants the same power to enforce restrictions citywide.

The city would enter a third stage, “drought critical,” when consumption must be cut up to 40 percent — a scenario that played out during the 1987-1992 drought. At this point, no new water meters would be issued for new development unless the project offsets its demand.

At “drought critical,” residents would be able to water their lawns only twice weekly in summer and once a week during winter. Filling ornamental lakes would be prohibited, “except to sustain aquatic life of significant value,” the city’s staff report says.

The city would trigger the fourth and final stage, “drought emergency,” if demand must be cut more than 40 percent. This is the doomsday scenario. All landscape irrigation would be prohibited, except for watering trees and shrubs twice a week. Golf course greens would still be allowed to be watered twice weekly, but landscaping could only be watered for fire protection and erosion control.

The city’s Water Department did not offer any details of how it will determine a customer’s allocation or how the offset program triggered in the third stage would work. Those will be outlined and considered in coming months.

That drew criticism from some business groups, who said they wanted certainty about how much they would have to offset, what methods the city would allow and what baseline the city would use for determining allocations.

“It leaves a big, gray area,” said Craig Benedetto, a lobbyist for the Building Owners and Managers Association.

The California Restaurant Association also protested the changes, saying that its members — particularly fine-dining restaurants — ought to be able to serve water without its customers asking for it when supplies aren’t crunched. The council’s action prohibits serving water unless requested no matter the supply forecast.

City Councilman Jim Madaffer said the restriction would help send a message to residents about the city’s supplies. That issue could be revisited when the council has its second reading of the ordinance Dec. 2, a step that is typically a formality.

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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