Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009 | San Diego water managers have long been concerned that 2009 would bring the first water-supply cuts since the early 1990s.

The year has dawned, and the cuts haven’t.

They’re expected, though. But not until July.

The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District will consider in April whether to reduce the amount of water it will sell to San Diego and its other customers, a step that would trigger mandatory water conservation throughout Southern California. The decision will come after the agency is able to account for winter precipitation in the Sierra Nevada range.

Many water managers in the region believe a supply cut — what they call an “allocation” — is inevitable. Some question whether Metropolitan should decide on a plan before April, giving residents and water agencies the ability to implement restrictive conservation steps earlier in the year.

“We’re feeling that sooner might have been better,” said Ken Weinberg, water resources director at the San Diego County Water Authority. “You get some time to get everyone used to being on their allocation and you save some water, even though winter is low-use.”

A lack of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada has been driving Southern California’s ongoing water-supply troubles. The last two winters produced below-average snowfall there, a situation compounded by new regulations to protect a tiny endangered fish, the delta smelt. Not only has less snow fallen but less snowmelt can be sucked out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a 738,000-acre estuary east of San Francisco fed by Sierra runoff. The delta and Colorado River are San Diego’s two main water sources.

Any supply cut will have a wide-ranging impact across every city and home in San Diego County. Cuts are a harbinger of a new water consumption paradigm for this arid region. In the old paradigm, development occurred with little regard to its impact on water demand. Residents were allowed to buy and use as much water as they wanted.

When supplies are cut, that will change. Many cities will tell residents how much water they can use or face financial penalties. Some plan to charge fees to developers who need new water meters. In Encinitas, the Olivenhain Municipal Water District plans to charge developers about $3,000 for each new meter issued, which will be used to offset each new home’s demand. Olivenhain will invest the money in recycled sewage distribution pipe expansions for golf courses and irrigation users, freeing up potable water for the new residents.

“It’s going to be a big shock to the system,” said Kim Thorner, Olivenhain’s general manager. “Water cuts are going to be pretty dramatic to the building industry, to the economy.”

And they are becoming inevitable as a dry winter continues. Elissa Lynn, a state meteorologist, said statewide snow pack is about half of normal. Precipitation in January, a month that typically produces the heaviest snow, is expected to finish with 45 percent of normal precipitation. “That’s not good,” Lynn said. “It’s a bad month to miss out.”

Early February looks similarly dry, she said. “It’s been a pretty bad year on top of two dry years,” Lynn said. “Right now we’re looking at our third dry winter.”

Knowing that winter precipitation has been disappointing, some local water managers say they could get a jump on implementing cuts, perhaps helping reduce consumption in the spring. But they’re waiting for the signal from Metropolitan.

“The frustration is that you know they’re drawing down storage and we’re not seeing the water content on the snow pack or the storms that should be coming already,” Thorner said. “There is a concern: How long do you wait?”

Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said his agency is acting upon a lesson learned in the early 1990s, the last time supplies were cut. Then, Metropolitan repeatedly ratcheted up its cuts month-by-month as it tried to gauge the supply shortage. What started as a 10 percent cut became a 50 percent cut.

“It’s probably better to cut once and make it stick,” Kightlinger said. “The best timing people thought was to reduce water by summer, the high water-use months.”

Cuts could range from 10 percent to 30 percent, he said, depending on three factors: How much water Metropolitan draws from storage; how much the state cuts deliveries from the delta; and how much extra supply Metropolitan can buy — a step that would require the agency to make potentially expensive water purchases from farmers, who would fallow their fields in exchange.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a huge draconian cut in 2009,” Kightlinger said.

Not all cities and water districts in Southern California are ready for shortages, despite the months of warning they’ve had.

The city of San Diego’s Water Department is still crafting a shortage plan that will tell residents how much water they can use indoors and out. Instead of limiting irrigation to specific days as a way to cut use, the city will calculate residents’ average consumption from 2005 to 2007 and ration a specific percentage of that. The percentage will depend on the shortage’s severity. Residents who exceed their allotment would pay a rate between two and four times higher than normal.

Plans are being developed for City Council consideration by April. Alex Ruiz, the Water Department’s assistant director, said the city does not believe Metropolitan should declare a shortage until the need is absolute.

“If we get to an allocation, there’s going to be impacts to individuals, there’s going to be way-of-life changes,” Ruiz said. “The question becomes, ‘Do you want to mandate those impacts sooner on the assumption that it’s likely to happen?’ It’s a hard decision to face your customers with.”

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