Wednesday, March 25, 2009 | Details remain to be worked out, but the city’s plan for getting San Diego residents to cut their water consumption as much as 20 percent inched forward Wednesday.

With unanswered questions lingering barely more than three months left before the plan would have to be implemented, a City Council committee voted 3-1 to forward it to the full eight-member council for discussion in April.

The committee didn’t make any recommendation about whether the plan should be approved or rejected. Councilman Carl DeMaio cast the dissenting vote.

The city’s plan comes as San Diego copes with its tightest water supplies since the early 1990s. Lower than average precipitation and endangered species restrictions cutting water exports from Northern California have helped combine to leave reservoirs at historic lows across the state and local agencies scrambling to find every drop of water they can.

Efforts to get residents to voluntarily conserve 10 percent failed to effect the requisite savings. Now, the city is drafting a plan that will tell residents how much water they can use. It will set a ceiling for consumption depending on residents’ average use between July 2004 and June 2007. Residents would cut 45 percent of their outdoor water use and 5 percent indoors. It would be implemented only if San Diego’s supplies are cut, a step that could happen in April and go into effect in July.

When the full council hears the plan next month, they’ll have a lot of issues to sort through — with almost no wiggle room if they want to pursue another strategy. The Mayor’s Office wants the plan in place by July 1, when the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District would restrict the city’s supply. And once it settles on a plan, it must allow 45 days for residents to lodge protest notices before a final public hearing in late June.

While water-supply cuts have been a threat for more than a year, the city is working on a tight timeframe to develop a policy to address them. It’s leaving a 10-day window between that public hearing and July 1, the day it’d potentially have to implement the plan.

The council committee raised several issues Wednesday. Councilwoman Donna Frye and DeMaio both voiced concerns that the plan would not fairly credit residents who have cut their consumption in recent years. DeMaio called the plan “fatally flawed.”

“The process you’ve laid out is going to make a Soviet breadline look attractive by comparison,” he said.

Alex Ruiz, the Water Department’s assistant director, told the council that the methodology would credit previous conservation.

That doesn’t tell the whole story. The plan will credit conservation since July 2007, when Sanders and other local leaders began calling for residents to use less water. But it will not credit conservation steps residents took before July 2004, the beginning of the period the city will examine to calculate residents’ average use.

A water hog could’ve become a water miser in 2003 and would now have to reduce use again. While today’s water hogs will suffer a greater percentage cut than water misers, they’ll still be water hogs by comparison.

Water misers wouldn’t have to cut any more if they use less than 4,488 gallons per month. An estimated 21 percent of residents will be exempt.

Sanders told the council that his plan was fair. “Everybody has to share in this so that we’re ready,” he said.

Concerns also remain among businesses about how the city will credit them for what’s called “process water” — the water that biotech companies use to sterilize equipment, that hospitals use to mop down their floors, that restaurants use to wash dishes.

The city wants to ensure that any business claiming it can’t reduce any more has taken every possible step to conserve. The question the city faces is this: How much of an individual business’s demand for water is fixed and how much could it save if it’s forced to? If it can’t save indoors, could it instead cut irrigation even more?

Ruiz said the city is looking “very hard” to determine whether it can define process water — unchangeable demand — and account for it from property to property.

Some businesses say they have little capacity to save water indoors — even the 3 percent indoor cut the city has proposed for businesses.

Michael Bardin, government affairs director for Scripps Health, said his hospitals’ interior usage is driven by infection control and cleaning — and deserved an exemption. Scripps used 146 million gallons at its three San Diego hospitals from July 2007 to June 2008, making the hospital chain one of the city’s largest water users.

“Patient safety is absolutely the most important thing we’ve got inside hospitals, and we use water for that,” Bardin told the council.

This example highlights the difficulty of accounting for process water versus discretionary irrigation. At least one Scripps hospital used a large volume of water outside — consumption that doesn’t affect patients’ health.

That hospital, Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, managed to cut its use 52 percent from 2007 to 2008 by connecting to the city’s reclaimed water system. Instead of cutting indoor water consumption, the hospital simply stopped using potable water for irrigation. Now that it’s using reclaimed water — highly treated sewage — Scripps Clinic won’t have to cut again.

Bardin promised the council that Scripps would work “big time” on external water use at its hospitals.

Other details of the city’s plan are still being worked out. The Water Department has proposed $100 fines for residents who exceed their water-use ceiling by 150 percent. It is considering even higher fines for residents who use more than that, but hasn’t specified the range of penalties. Nor has the city detailed how much residents’ indoor and outdoor use would be reduced if the city’s supply isn’t cut 20 percent. The San Diego County Water Authority has said the cuts will likely be between 10-15 percent.

As the city’s plan moves forward, residents across the region will pay more for each gallon of water they use, no matter how the city cuts consumption. Frank Belock, the San Diego County Water Authority’s deputy general manager, told council that he expects rates to increase 30 percent this year. An average family’s water bill will jump $9.45.

Because as water grows more scarce, it also becomes more expensive.

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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