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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 | Save water.

Politicians and water agencies in arid San Diego are turning that simple message into gospel. With supplies constrained and water cuts expected this summer, conserving is as important as ever.

But the region’s performance hasn’t measured up.

Residents and businesses haven’t heeded the call to voluntarily use 10 percent less water. Across San Diego County, they cut consumption 5 percent last year.

Conservation efforts that predated the current supply pinch are falling short, too. The San Diego County Water Authority, the wholesaler that supplies local cities and water districts, will likely miss an internal goal to annually save as much water as 160,000 homes use by 2010.

Since the early 1990s, the authority has subsidized the installation of 600,000 efficient showerheads, 518,000 ultra-low-flush toilets and 53,000 high-efficiency clothes washers. The two-decade-long effort saves enough water annually to supply 112,000 homes.

Despite it, San Diego County’s water demand has soared, increasing 33 percent from 1998 to 2007. The county’s population has increased just 13 percent in that time.

The authority says its conservation goals will increase in coming years. That will be a challenge, though, because the agency has not met its existing targets.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Ken Weinberg, the authority’s water resources director. “We’ve set some ambitious goals, and the goals are going higher.”

So far, the water authority’s efforts have been voluntary. If the agency misses its internal 2010 goal, it faces no repercussions. But as California grapples with a statewide water shortage, state lawmakers are weighing whether the authority and suppliers should be forced to do more.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for urban areas to conserve 20 percent of their water by 2020. The state Legislature debated last year whether to mandate the goal. The effort failed, but the bill has been reintroduced this year.

“We have to become way more water stingy than we are now,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, who supported the legislation. “I think the reason we haven’t taken more of a leadership role on water conservation is that it’s hard to do. It takes discipline and a concerted effort over time to get results.”

San Diego and California are confronting a significant shift in water availability. Past water shortages such as the 1987-1992 drought were weather-driven, fueled by consecutive dry years. The current shortage is more complex. Drought has cut supplies on the Colorado River, one of San Diego’s two major sources. The amount of water that can be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — the other major source — has been limited to protect declining fish populations there. Even a winter with average precipitation can now yield a water supply cut.

San Diego is planning for temporary supply reductions as high as 20 percent in July. Without above-average winter precipitation in the Sierra Nevada next year, those restrictions could remain in place longer than a year.

If cuts arrive in July, cities across the county will require residents to save water immediately or face financial penalties. In the short-term, that may mean watering a lawn less. The broader conservation effort seeks permanent reductions, such as replacing that lawn with artificial turf. Weinberg said the long-term effort will take more than rebates. “There’s a big regulatory and pricing component that has to be part of the picture,” he said.

That could have implications for lawns across San Diego County.

If the Legislature mandates a 20 percent demand reduction by 2020, water managers say a wholesale change in residents’ landscaping may be needed. That would require a shift away from grass lawns to drought-tolerant plants and artificial turf with limited patches of grass. Las Vegas, for example, no longer allows new homes to plant grass in the front yard.

“There gets to be a point where the way we landscape has to be totally redone in San Diego County,” said Mark Weston, general manager of the Helix Water District in La Mesa. “That is a major overhaul. Twenty percent water savings is a huge goal and a really, really big change.”

Water managers say addressing those cuts will require a new consumption ethic. While they’re now calling for temporary conservation efforts to get through the current supply shortage, those changes could be adopted as a new normal.

“We’re going to have to conserve water as a permanent part of our way of life,” Weinberg said. “Not as a temporary choice. It’s got to be permanent.”

Some see room for improvement. Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a utility watchdog, said the region’s conservation goals have not been ambitious. Local water utilities should spend more on conservation, Shames said, or set higher rates for customers who use the most.

“Lots of lip service, but nothing more is being done for conservation,” Shames said. “They’re ignoring the fact that water conservation is the cheapest source of new water available.”

Conservation makes economic sense. The water authority estimates that cutting demand by an acre-foot of water — enough to last two households a year — requires an investment between $100 and $400. Buying an acre-foot of water costs the authority between $283 and $589.

The water authority spent less than a half percent of its $710 million budget on conservation rebates last year. It spent $7.1 million in all; the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District contributed $3.7 million.

Water managers do not believe conservation alone is the solution to accommodate population growth. “You’ve got to do everything,” Weinberg said. “There is no one magic answer. Conservation is a big part of it, but we also need additional supplies.”

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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