On a day when it hiked water rates by 20 percent, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District — the wholesaler that supplies 19 million Southern California residents — also announced it would cut deliveries by what two district spokesmen said was 10 percent.

Yet officials at the San Diego County Water Authority, the local supplier that buys water from Metropolitan, said the cut was actually 13 percent.

They’re both technically right. But Metropolitan’s number is artificially rosy.

Metropolitan says it will deliver 1.98 million acre feet of water between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010. That’s 10 percent lower than demand. (An acre foot is enough water for two households for a year.)

But Metropolitan included 116,000 acre feet of water that the San Diego County Water Authority buys from farmers in Imperial County. Metropolitan delivers that water to San Diego from the Colorado River and counts it as a sale (it gets a nominal fee for conveying the water). But Metropolitan doesn’t control that supply, and it’s not being cut. The authority has guaranteed rights to that water, regardless of any reductions.

Metropolitan also included 35,000 acre feet that will be sold to agricultural customers (mostly in North County). That supply has already been cut.

When you subtract those two supplies, Metropolitan is actually delivering 1.83 million acre feet from its own sources to Southern Californians during the year. That’s 13 percent below demand.

“It really isn’t a 10 percent (cut),” said Ken Weinberg, the water authority’s water resources director. “Their numbers say it’s 13 percent. Because it’s so confusing, they didn’t want to talk percentages. But that’s the first question anybody’s going to ask.”

Metropolitan did shy away from citing percentages. In a press release sent this afternoon, the water wholesaler said it would cut deliveries for the first time since 1991 to the agencies it supplies. But it didn’t say by how much.

“It’s important for Metropolitan not to cite these percentages, because it gets in the way of these member agencies,” said Steve Arakawa, Metropolitan’s water resources manager. “They each have different situations.”

Different cities in Southern California are each dependent on Metropolitan for varying amounts of water. An agency solely dependent on Metropolitan would be cut 13 percent; an agency that gets half of its water from the district would be cut 6.5 percent.

But the specific percentage is a vital tool for understanding how severe the cutbacks will be — and how to respond. Metropolitan’s 13 percent cut will require the county water authority to cut deliveries to cities throughout the region by 8-10 percent. (The final number will depend on how much water the authority is able to buy from other sources.)

Local officials have repeatedly cited specific percentages as conservation goals for residents. Mayor Jerry Sanders and other local officials have urged San Diego residents to cut consumption by 10 percent. Residents responded with a 5 percent reduction.

Metropolitan’s cut will be in place until June 30, 2010. Weinberg said he expects it to continue longer. The region should expect tightened water supplies “for the foreseeable future,” he said. An interim infrastructure fix to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — one that could allow water to be pumped out without harming endangered fish — would be first needed, he said. “There’s no quick answer here.”

Residents will also see a significant rate hike. Metropolitan’s board agreed to increase rates almost 20 percent, starting in September. The county water authority will decide in June how much its rates will have to increase to pass the hike through to local cities.

ROB DAVIS

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