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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | When Mary Ellen Lenz and her husband moved here from Chicago last May, she was surprised at what she perceived as San Diego’s lack of water conservation efforts.

Even in wet Chicago, which sits on the shores of the expansive freshwater Lake Michigan and gets three times more rain than arid San Diego, Lenz had specified days for lawn watering and car washing. But not here. “I feel like there was more of a push back there,” said Lenz, a staff researcher at University of California, San Diego.

But now, as San Diego wrestles with its first drought since the early 1990s, the region’s water-use paradigm is being redrawn. If water-supply cuts — which could be as high as 20 percent — come as expected this summer, San Diegans will be told how much water they can use, and any excessive use will bring financial penalties.

This has Lenz worried about how her Carmel Valley condominium complex will adapt to a drier city, and how it might hit her pocketbook. And the issue goes far beyond Lenz and Carmel Valley. Nearly half of San Diego’s housing stock is composed of multi-family units.

Those residents in apartments and condominiums could be hit with higher rents, monthly utility surcharges or increased homeowners association fees if their entire complex does not reduce consumption by the called-for amount.

And because the city has only one meter on most multi-family complexes, it’s impossible to separate water hogs from conservation-minded residents. This means every resident in a particular complex, whether deserving or not, could face financial penalties if the overall complex exceeds its water allocation.

Water bills are typically paid by homeowners associations or property managers and incorporated in rents or HOA fees. So property managers and homeowners associations would either have to eat those penalties or pass them on to residents.

Lenz said she doesn’t mind using less and paying more for water. But she worries about the lack of accountability in big projects like the Groves, her 173-unit condominium complex in Carmel Valley.

“I could be running tap water all day — and we suffer as a unit, the whole complex,” she said. “I don’t know how they’ll enforce it.”

Monitoring those restrictions for single-family homes will be relatively easy. The city reads every house’s water meter every two months. The owners of each home are responsible for their own use. Not so in multi-family complexes, where a single meter’s data accounts for all the units.

The city says conservation will have to be a team effort, led in multi-family units by property managers or owners. The city will enforce its water-use restrictions at multi-family units the same as it would at a single-family home — by assessing financial penalties.

“The property owners are in the best position to ask them to cut back,” said Alex Ruiz, assistant director of the San Diego Water Department. “They’re going to know that better than we are.”

Apartment managers are already beginning to charge residents monthly surcharges on top of rent to cover the cost of trash, sewer and water. Rick Snyder, owner of R.A. Snyder Properties, a San Diego company that manages more than 7,000 apartments, said he expects those fees to become more common in the next two years.

“It’ll become more of the norm than the exception,” said Snyder, president of the San Diego County Apartment Association, an industry group. “The process is going to be accelerated depending on the level of the water crisis.”

Between 25 percent and 35 percent of Snyder’s units are assessed the fee, he said, which averages about $25 monthly. The charge varies from complex to complex, depending on utility use. Snyder said in some cases his company has turned to the fee instead of rent increases as way to give a financial incentive for conservation to residents who wouldn’t otherwise get a water bill.

The ideal solution, Snyder said, is to install meters on every individual apartment or condo and bill each resident for what they use. But that’s a difficult proposition. Some older apartments have complicated internal plumbing. Some units share hot water heaters, making it hard to determine how much water each is using. And Ruiz said the city would not bear the cost of installing those meters.

Apartments and condominiums in San Diego with less landscaping should have an easier time coping with water cuts. Under the city’s plan, which has not been adopted, residents’ interior use would be cut a smaller percentage (likely 5 percent) while exterior use could be cut 50 percent. That will put more of an onus on apartment managers and condo associations to reduce irrigation more than on individual residents to take shorter showers.

In 2008, each unit in Lenz’s condominium complex was assessed $63.58 monthly for water. The complex’s homeowners association budgeted $132,000 for water for the year.

So Lenz has an incentive to conserve. She said she is trying to save water. When she moved in, she said she was surprised to find two toilets in her condo that aren’t low-flow.

She plans to replace them, but said that’s tough to afford during a recession. “It’s hard to turn around and start remodeling,” she said.

“I just don’t see how it’s going to work in our complex,” Lenz said. “All it takes is a couple of people to bring the whole complex down. That’s my concern.”

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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