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San Diego’s plan unveiled today to cut citywide demand by 20 percent calls for a 45 percent reduction in outdoor water use by all businesses and residences. San Diego’s residential customers would also have to reduce interior use by 5 percent. Businesses would have to cut inside by 3 percent.

For now, though, it appears unlikely that the city will have to call for such a steep cut in exterior usage. While mandatory rationing is still expected to start July 1, it won’t be as dire as projected in recent months. Improving snow pack levels in the Sierra Nevada have increased the amount of water the state has promised to Southern California and other water users that depend on the valuable runoff that courses through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The proposed cut plan comes as San Diego copes with a redefined outlook for its water supplies. Because of endangered species protections for fish found in the delta, an average winter’s precipitation no longer yields an average amount of water supplies. That’s exacerbated by two dry winters that have left statewide reservoir levels low.

Ken Weinberg, the San Diego County Water Authority’s director of water resources, said the region will likely have to cut demand between 10 percent and 15 percent starting in July. That’s less than the 20 percent cut that the San Diego Water Department planned on, but it will still be the first reduction in water consumption to be mandated since the early 1990s.

“It’s not disastrous, but it’s still difficult,” Weinberg said.

A 15 percent cut by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District would bring a 10 percent cut locally, he said, while a 20 percent Metropolitan cut would bring a 15 percent local reduction. The water authority’s Colorado River supplies from the Imperial Irrigation District would help offset the pain.

Metropolitan is supposed to decide on its cut when its board meets April 14.

Alex Ruiz, assistant director of the San Diego Water Department, said any reduction in cuts from the water authority would allow the city to lower the amount of outdoor conservation it calls for. He could not say how much exterior usage would have to be cut if the city gets a 10 percent or 15 percent reduction. But the interior percentage announced today would remain the same, he said.

The cuts the city is preparing for are still likely — even if less severe. At a press conference this morning, Mayor Jerry Sanders told city residents that “we must prepare for a different water future.”

Here’s how the city is planning to address that future:

First, look at your water bill. If you use 6 hcf (4,488 gallons) or less a month, the city won’t require you to cut consumption. The city estimates that 21 percent of its customers in single-family homes meet this criterion.

If you use more than that, the city will calculate how much you can use by examining your consumption from July 1, 2004 through June 30, 2007.

The city will calculate your average interior usage by measuring the lowest 60-day period of use during the winter months. Exterior demand during the winter, defined from November through March, is suppressed by precipitation. Your use during that lowest 60-day period will become your magic number. You’ll be allowed 95 percent of that water going forward. (Businesses will get 97 percent.)

The city will calculate your average outdoor usage using that magic number. Any use above that 60-day period will be considered exterior usage and subsequently cut more.

Those who don’t cut as required will pay penalty rates and possibly fines. Those who use 101-115 percent of their allocation will pay twice as much for each gallon more. Those who go above 115 percent will pay four times as much.

The city also proposes fines starting at $100 if residents use 150 percent more than their allocation. (You’d have to do that twice to be fined.) Even higher fines could come if consumption exceeds that — Ruiz said the city would consider putting flow restrictors on customers who use egregious amounts of water — but the city has not detailed specific triggers for those stiffer penalties.

The proposal goes to the City Council’s natural resources subcommittee for discussion at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday on the 12th floor of City Hall.

ROB DAVIS

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