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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009 | Even San Diegans who have torn out their lawns, planted drought-tolerant landscaping and scrimped on irrigation will have to cut their water use if supplies are reduced in July.

That’s the approach the San Diego Water Department is contemplating and selling at forums across the city this week. The plan is still being drafted and will require City Council approval. But as it currently stands it will penalize residents who’ve been civic-minded, requiring them to cut the same percentage as the water hog with the plush yard next door.

Across San Diego County, water consumption will be redefined in the coming year. Both of San Diego’s major supplies are constrained and storage reservoirs are low. A region that has historically allowed its residents and businesses to use as much as they want is undergoing a radical shift. Come July, San Diego residents likely will be told how much they can use.

The city’s plan calls for residents who’ve conserved to cut water use by the same percentage as massive users such as CalTrans, which dumped 635 million gallons on San Diego freeway shoulders between July 2007 and June 2008. Those who are efficient will have to cut their use by the same percentage as those who aren’t.

That has brought protests from city residents who have conserved.

The city says the approach is the most equitable. At a recent news conference, Mayor Jerry Sanders said the city could not guarantee cuts would be fair.

“You’re never going to make everybody happy,” he said. “In fact we’ll probably upset everybody to some extent. And that probably is going to mean that we’re in the ballpark of where we should be.”

Other water agencies believe they’ve found ways to fairly distribute water cuts to avoid penalizing those who have conserved.

The Sweetwater Authority plans to follow the same model as San Diego — with one difference. Homeowners who use less than average will not be required to cut further.

If a 20 percent cut comes, residents whose consumption is already 20 percent below average will not have to cut more. Higher users will.

“We’re targeting the people who have used a lot of water,” said Mark Rogers, the authority’s general manager. “I don’t want to penalize people who’ve already been conserving.”

If the authority has to cut consumption and doesn’t require all of its customers to do it, it will have to ensure that the largest users exceed the goal. They’ll have to make up the difference. “If we ask 20 percent I think we’ll get it,” Rogers said.

Other agencies will hike rates to provide an incentive for large users. The Helix Water District in La Mesa will double the largest users’ bills. Big users will “get a real loud price signal,” said Mark Weston, Helix’s general manager.

Alex Ruiz, the department’s assistant director, doesn’t believe that will affect enough savings. The city must guarantee that its approach works. The city will receive a set amount of water from the San Diego County Water Authority based on historic usage. The city will pay two to four times more for each gallon that exceeds that allocation.

San Diego’s approach has another notable difference: The city doesn’t plan to charge more for the water it sells — even though the Water Department’s budget is dependent on water sales. A 20 percent cut in sales will bring a 20 percent revenue cut. Ruiz told a forum this week that he believes the city can withstand the drop simply by tightening its belt.

Other agencies are adopting what they call “drought rates” to make up the foregone revenue. Customers who save 20 percent would have the same size bill they did before. They’d pay the same for less water.

Weston said his district couldn’t withstand a large revenue drop without cutting its maintenance budget or reducing customer service. Helix will use drought rates.

“We have a lot of fixed costs that don’t change,” Weston said. And deferring maintenance, he said, would only cause more costly problems in the future.

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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