Friday, Feb. 6, 2009 | On Monday, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders will hold the first in a series of three meetings to gather public input about the city’s plan to handle water supply cuts expected this summer. Faced with regulatory restrictions limiting the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Sacramento Delta, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District may reduce deliveries to San Diego between 10 and 30 percent.

That means the city and its residents will have to cut consumption or face significant financial penalties. That will herald a new paradigm for water consumption. Instead of being able to consume as much as they want, the city plans to tell residents and business owners how much they can use based on their historical consumption. (Those who exceed their limit would pay two to four times more for their excess water.) The plan, which isn’t finalized and needs City Council approval, would call for greater reductions in outdoor consumption. We sat down to talk about the plan with Alex Ruiz, the city Water Department’s assistant director.

A note on terminology: The city measures your water use in hundred cubic feet, or hcf. That’s equal to 748 gallons.

If cuts go into place, what does that mean for an average family who uses 14 hcf (10, 472 gallons) a month?

It depends. Because we’ve got to make sure each customer is using water as efficiently as we can. It’s going to depend on how refined we can be in establishing the bucket of water for each property. If you’re a customer with 12 kids and the interior usage is around 16 hcf — you’re going to need a lot of that water for health and safety. But if you’re single and you’re using 14 hcf — and 12 of that is outside, we’re going to ask you to cut back more of that water. The key thing is how we get indicators for interior versus exterior usage.

You would use 2005 through 2007 as a baseline (for measuring residents’ and businesses’ historical use). Would you take totality of those 36 months, divide it by three and give them a percentage of that?

We haven’t finalized things. Hypothetically, we won’t be looking strictly at baseline consumption to get an average. We have information on sewer consumption. We know how much water is typically returned to the sewer system by individual property owners. We can look at how that interior usage as a portion of total consumption varies into the summer months. If you’re using 9 hcf in winter and in July it’s 21 (hcf), that represents discretionary outdoor usage. We’ll take a look at those two points and start figuring out what can we ask folks to reduce exterior.

I got questions from people who said: I had twins last year. What about their usage?

Anything that we put in place, if it’s based on past usage, any change in the property characteristics that are dramatic — like home additions, development, additional bathrooms added — we’ll provide a process where folks can apply for a hardship variance to their initial allocation. We want to be fair. I suspect we’ll get a good chunk of folks who’ll appeal their allocation because it’s hard. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’ll qualify for a hardship variance.

Would that include folks who in 2004 tore out their lawns and installed drought-tolerant landscaping and made landscape irrigation as efficient as possible?

We get that from a variety of customers: “What credit am I going to get from being a good citizen back in 1998 or 2000?” That’s a hard nut to crack. The county water authority, when they give us our allowance, they’re only going to look back three years. They’re not going to give the city of San Diego credit for the work we’ve done since 1992 (when the last drought ended). It’d be difficult for us to give credit for conservation before 2005 because we’d be out of alignment with the [county water authority]. There’s something to be said for customers who understand we’re in a semi-arid climate. Giving them credit becomes very problematic.

Is there not a way, though, to require them to cut less? Or to require the person who’s using 1 million gallons a year to cut more, based on lot size or their acreage? It’s clear there are water hogs in the city that you could more easily effect conservation from because they use so much.

The optimum way to do an allocation would be to do a survey that takes into account all those factors. We’ve got 240,000 accounts and about four months to make this thing work. We’re not going to be able to get to a site-by-site survey. One methodology for allocation will call for more (cuts) from a volume standpoint from individuals who use a lot of water outside. Those who are using water outside will have a 50 percent reduction outside — aggregate they’re going to have to make a greater reduction for them. They’ll have to make more of a change than someone who’s only going down 3 hcf in their outdoor consumption.

(Bill Harris, a mayoral spokesman sitting in on the interview, interrupts.) “It’s the stuff we’re exploring and the public will be giving input on,” he says.

Ruiz: I’m giving out things we’re exploring as a team.

Why not come up with an average use per lot size and cut those who are above it?

We’d have to index all 270,000 accounts and figure out the landscape size. That’s very difficult to do in a short amount of time. Average consumption doesn’t mean efficient consumption, either.

You talk about the short timeframe. This, though, is something that everybody in the world of water in California has known will be coming for a year, if not more.

I would not agree with that. The delta issue was just recently refined last November. Even if we had a year’s lead time, getting to a budget for each individual property — 240,000 residential properties — that’s going to take a long time. I’m talking five years, with a staffing increase, which everybody is concerned about. We don’t want to burden the water fund (the department’s budget) with additional people to implement this if we can get to it through the billing process.

What does this mean for businesses? How do you account for the different ways businesses consume water?

Not all businesses are the same. You’ll have a strip mall with a travel agency next to a restaurant. Clearly the travel agency just needs water for sanitation; the restaurant needs it as process water. We’re looking at how we can address process water. We do know how much water they return to sewer. It is tough, when you talk about water for Coca-Cola (the bottling plant) or restaurants. There is something to be said for recognizing the different criticalities associated with water use for these businesses. Whether that translates into a different approach for them, I don’t know.

Can you do that?

We’re trying hard to see whether there’s a way to get there fairly. I don’t see one at this point. Other than treating everyone the same.

Other than pissing off the entire business community?

Everyone’s going to find something they don’t like in this. When we tell folks they can’t use the amount of water they previously used, no one’s going to like being restricted.

But it seems easier for customers dumping 100,000 gallons of water annually on their lawn to cut back because the end result is that your grass may not be as green. Whereas for the Coca-Cola bottling company, which uses that water to produce a business product and sustain jobs, there’s a clearly different benefit to that water. And you’re saying there’s no way you know of?

At this point, we haven’t been able to run that out yet. We’re looking at whether it makes sense to do individual surveys for large businesses to make sure they’re using water efficiently. If businesses are hooked up to recycled water, they’re exempted. But I recognize the dependency these businesses have on process water. We can do that for a handful of high consumers. But to do that for every restaurant is going to be very tough.

Have you considered a different approach besides allocations? Other water agencies are doing drought rates. You’ve clearly picked something that is a challenge to explain to people. Why do that?

We have looked at other ways. There’s the behavior-only option. We can try that — increasing restrictions on how you can use water. Watering three days a week for 10 minutes. But to get to a 20 percent reduction voluntarily — we’re not sure we’d get there. We’re asking folks to voluntarily do those things now and we’ve only gotten a 4.9 percent reduction. If we don’t get to a 20 percent reduction, we’re going to have to pay millions of dollars to the county water authority. That means millions we’d have to recover.

And pricing options. I’m aware that other agencies are going for that. But they’re, in my opinion, doing it as a revenue recovery strategy. If they’re selling less water, they need to recover that lost revenue. They’re not using pricing to drive a demand reduction. All the literature I’ve read indicates that you’d have to double the price of water to get a 20 percent reduction in demand. I don’t think that’s where we need to be.

Once cuts start, how long should customers expect them to stick around? Is there any end in sight?

It’ll be for a year. It’s difficult to run it on a monthly basis. You get too much variability. It’ll be what we have to make by the end of the year.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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