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Tuesday, March 31, 2009 | As water supply challenges intensified on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in 2007 and the threat of water rationing reappeared, the state Department of Water Resources launched an outreach effort to help cities like San Diego cope with the coming problem.

The state gave cities a 208-page, step-by-step guidebook for the looming water shortage, with tips on dealing with the media, managing existing supplies wisely and reducing demand.

The document, provided to San Diego city officials during an Oct. 11, 2007 workshop at the San Diego County Water Authority, highlights the pros and cons of several strategies to cut urban water demand.

It points out flaws and inequities that the state identified in the type of water-cut plan Mayor Jerry Sanders and the city’s Water Department eventually chose and subsequently touted as being the fairest plan for residents. According to the document, San Diego’s chosen plan is easier on city government but less fair to residents. Another option that San Diego rejected would be harder on the city but fairer to residents.

City water officials have tried to frame the debate about their plan’s fairness by ruling out that other option, which would base cuts on how much water residents need. Those officials have acknowledged that a better, fairer option exists, then mischaracterized the challenges of implementing it and held up their plan as being better and more practical.

Their plan proposes to cut water consumption based on residents’ historical use. Those who’ve used the most would still get the most, regardless of whether they’re efficient.

The state told cities that such a strategy would be easy to implement and administer. But the state warned about creating “huge disparities” in water allotments among similar customers. As it stands, one resident 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.

In the 208-page guidebook, the state identified three cons to the city’s chosen approach:

  • It penalizes residents who’ve conserved.
  • It rewards above-average users.
  • It promotes water use during periods without shortages.

The strategy was commonly used when drought hit California in 1977. The state noted that the public did not like it.

It “was widely perceived as inequitable because it had the effect of penalizing former water conservers while rewarding those who had previously used large water quantities,” the report says. “Neighbors living in identical houses could therefore receive vastly different water allotments.”

The city has taken steps to address some of the state’s issues. The city will exempt 21 percent of residents from cuts because they use less than 4,488 gallons per month. And the city will try to distinguish between the water that residents use inside for sanitation and outside for irrigation. In the unlikely case that a 20 percent cut is needed, the city will ask for residents to cut interior use by 5 percent and irrigation by 45 percent.

The city’s efforts to pinpoint interior use (which won’t be cut as much) will be imperfect. It will find the lowest 60-day period of winter water-use between July 2004 and June 2007. That estimate can be inflated if a resident unnecessarily watered plants or a lawn during that time. Residents can get credit for as much as 14,960 gallons a month of interior use — enough for a family of 10 — regardless of how many people live in the house.

The state warned local districts that basing cuts on historical consumption would not foster long-term conservation — only a small, unsustained effort. It said residents would potentially increase water use when the shortage abated, so as to increase their baseline allocation the next time cuts came.

Jim Barrett, the city’s public utilities director, rejected the state’s warning that strategies like San Diego’s would promote increased water consumption if the shortage abates.

“I do not see that as a potential outcome,” he said. “We’re talking about reasonable people. They’re not going to pay more now just betting that they’ll have more later.”

The state report pointed to strategies similar to the one employed in the Irvine Ranch Water District (and in a handful of other agencies across the state) as being optimal for residents. Irvine Ranch gives its customers 300 gallons a day for internal use, assuming a family of four, and bases outdoor needs on lot size and weather conditions. Residents who exceed their allocation pay higher rates.

San Diego Water Department officials have rejected that strategy in the short-term, saying that it would take too long to implement. City water officials have said that Irvine Ranch took years to implement its plan and had to survey every residential property’s lot size. That’s incorrect, though. Irvine Ranch’s program took a year to draft and implement; the district did not do site-by-site surveys.

City water officials say they chose their strategy because they were under a time crunch to ensure a policy was in place by July 1 if mandatory cuts came. “We were really under the gun to do something should allocations be implemented at Metropolitan (Water District) and the County Water Authority,” Barrett said.

But the city has had warnings since late 2007 that they’d need such a policy.

Barrett attended the Oct. 11, 2007 state workshop that pointed to the threat of potential mandatory water rationing. The San Diego County Water Authority’s top official in October 2007 said preparations were underway.

The city has also been delivering warnings about the potential for rationing. Mayor Sanders acknowledged the possibility as early as September 2007.

The city did not immediately begin drafting a strategy to address the threat, though. With former City Attorney Mike Aguirre calling for stricter water-use restrictions, Sanders and other city officials said in 2007 that they believed voluntary conservation would be sufficient. That approach has only netted a 5 percent decrease in city water use.

The Water Department secured City Council approval to establish water allocations for residents in November 2008. That allows the city to set a ceiling for use at each home and business — and levy penalties for excessive consumption.

City officials continue asserting that they’ve chosen the fairest plan, while acknowledging they didn’t choose better options. But they have dismissed those better options as unreasonable to implement in a short time, even though they’ve known about the potential for shortages since 2007.

Choosing a plan like Irvine Ranch’s wouldn’t be without challenges. The state pinpointed two: Water agencies would have to increase staffing and do computer work, as well as boost public education. Irvine Ranch hired no more than 20 temporary interns to implement its plan.

At least one local water district plans to adopt a similar strategy to deal with the current supply crunch: The Padre Dam Water District, which serves 125,000 people in Santee and El Cajon. Residents will be given an allotment based on their lot size; most will be allowed about 450 gallons per day.

Padre Dam spokesman Mike Uhrhammer said presentations that Irvine Ranch officials gave in San Diego last fall were vital in helping them to decide to follow that model.

“Everyone saw those presentations last fall and said that’s the more fair way to do it,” Uhrhammer said. “We decided that we weren’t going to penalize people who’ve been conserving from the outset.”

San Diego officials say they didn’t want to adopt that type of plan because it does not differentiate between the number of people living in a home.

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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