Sunday, March 29, 2009 | Mayor Jerry Sanders and San Diego Water Department officials have repeatedly insisted on the fairness of their strategy to reduce citywide water use by 20 percent if supplies are cut in July.

Their plan, though, which calls for residents to cut 45 percent of their exterior irrigation and 5 percent indoors, does not base individual cuts on how much water each resident and business should be using. Instead, cuts are based on how much the residents have been using.

Water Department officials acknowledge the plan is imperfect. They say in coming years they’ll evaluate an approach that would set individual water budgets for homeowners and businesses. A water budget gives customers a specific amount of water to use based on their individual needs, and can be accompanied by rates that penalize inefficient users and reward conservation.

While city officials have signaled a willingness to consider that strategy, which is currently employed in the Irvine Ranch Water District in Orange County, they describe it as impractical to develop and implement in a short, six-month timeframe. But they don’t appear to have done any research to justify that claim. They have had longer than six months to prepare and, as the days of mandatory water cuts have approached, they have at times misrepresented Irvine Ranch’s approach.

Irvine Ranch, which serves 330,000 people in Irvine and parts of Tustin and Newport Beach, adopted its strategy in the face of the major drought that struck Southern California in the early 1990s. In the district, each home’s water budget is based on site-specific data: How many people live in a house and how large the property’s landscaping is. Those who go above their allocation pay higher rates the more they exceed their allowed use.

The Irvine Ranch model offers evidence that homeowners will use less water if given financial incentives to conserve. A person living in the Irvine Ranch district uses 90 gallons per day. An average San Diegan uses about 162 gallons a day.

In a February interview, Alex Ruiz, assistant director of the San Diego Water Department, said adopting Irvine Ranch’s model now would be impractical.

“They’ve got 90,000 (customer) accounts and it’s taken them eight to 12 years to refine their approach,” Ruiz said in the interview. “We’ve got 240,000 accounts and we’ve got about four months to make this thing work. We’re not going to be able to get to a site-by-site survey.”

But Irvine Ranch did not take years to implement its plan. And the district did not do site-by-site surveys as Ruiz claimed in the interview. Fiona Sanchez, Irvine Ranch’s conservation manager, said the district’s plan was drafted and implemented in six months. The bulk of work was concluded within a year. The district did so as it faced the threat of mandatory water restrictions in 1991, during the region’s last drought.

“It certainly was not a 10-year process,” Sanchez said.

Ruiz said in February that creating a water budget like Irvine Ranch did for each homeowner would take “five years — with an additional staffing increase, which everyone is concerned about.” He said the city would need to go site-to-site to determine how many people lived in each house, how many plumbing fixtures each had and to measure lawn size.

Sanchez said Irvine Ranch’s implementation was simpler than that. The district assumed every house had four residents, and allocated 75 gallons per day per person. District employees didn’t need to go house-to-house to measure lawn size, Sanchez said. The district assumes that each house has 1,350 square feet of landscaping, and then sets its monthly irrigation allowances based on weather conditions.

Customers are allowed more water if they have more than four residents or larger lots.

Information about residential lot sizes is readily available through public records and satellite mapping imagery. The district uses industry-accepted formulas for calculating how much landscaping each residence has based on its parcel size. The calculation is as easy as plugging a parcel’s acreage into a formula in Microsoft Excel, Sanchez said.

“I put in the parcel and it spits out (the answer),” Sanchez said. “I can put in 10,000 accounts and I get the answer.”

Irvine Ranch hired no more than 20 temporary interns for one summer to help implement the plan, she said. Today, three full-time employees and a manager oversee allocations and exemptions for 100,000 customers.

In an interview Friday, Ruiz said he based his representations about Irvine Ranch on a presentation an Irvine Ranch official gave last fall to local water agencies. Ruiz said he was 20 minutes late to the presentation. He did not recall how much of the presentation he’d watched nor the presenter’s name.

Ruiz said the city planned to evaluate in the future whether an approach like Irvine Ranch’s makes sense here. “We need to not stop on July 1, but continue to refine,” he said. “This is the best we can get by July 1. We need to get to a better spot long-term.”

The city has not adopted any formal commitment to such a plan. Ruiz acknowledged that the city’s current plan to base water cuts on historic consumption is “not a perfect system,” but said his department had only six months to draft a strategy to reduce citywide water use.

But the first warnings about the potential for mandatory water restrictions started more than six months ago. Maureen Stapleton, the San Diego County Water Authority’s general manager, warned the City Council in October 2007 that preparations for mandatory water-use restrictions were underway.

In an October 2008 interview, Jim Barrett, the city’s public works director, acknowledged the possibility, too, and said the city was discussing possible options for reducing city-wide water use. The Water Department still had nine months to develop and adopt a plan.

The city’s chosen strategy, if approved by the City Council, will set water-use ceilings for each resident. Those who’ve used the most historically will have the highest ceilings; those who’ve used the least will have the lowest — regardless of their property size or whether they’re using water efficiently. (The stingiest water-saving residents — 21 percent in all — will not be cut.)

That’s the persistent criticism of San Diego’s plan for cutting consumption: Residents in one single-family home may be penalized for using gallon No. 100,001. A next-door neighbor who irrigates more may not be penalized until using gallon No. 500,001.

Sanchez said that’s a drawback to San Diego’s strategy. “You can inadvertently penalize the most efficient customers when you base allocations off historic use,” she said.

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a utility watchdog, said San Diego’s resistance to the Irvine Ranch approach is likely political.

Mayor Sanders and Water Department officials likely fear that inefficient customers who fall into more expensive billing tiers “could be used to fan some political fires against the proposal,” Shames said in an e-mail. “I believe it is more of a political calculation than a legal or ratemaking justification.”

Ruiz rejected that criticism and said the city “did not take into account any political ramifications of how this would impact particular market segments. We’re looking at how best to achieve the reduction targets. We came up with a model that I think is fair. We didn’t look at whether there’s some backlash from high-end users to modify our process. That would not be true.”

Six percent of Irvine Ranch customers fall into the district’s excessive and wasteful user categories, forcing them to pay rates four to eight times higher than their efficient neighbors. Those penalty rates generate about $2.5 million annually, which is then used to subsidize the lowest rates and fund conservation programs.

“What we are trying to do is send a very strong price signal to customers that they have inefficient use,” Sanchez said. “The message we have is that you can use as much water as you want. But if you choose to be inefficient, you’re going to pay for that inefficiency.”

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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