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Added financial incentives for people to conserve water in San Diego are a long way off.

San Diego is pushing forward with a study of a billing structure that could include rewards for the city’s water-wise consumers. The examination, which Mayor Jerry Sanders called for last September, won’t start until June. It’ll be complete by the end of the year, Alex Ruiz, the city’s assistant public utilities director, told a City Council committee Wednesday.

As I noted in my Wednesday story, the cost of water has increased so much that even San Diego’s most efficient users are being pinched in the pocketbook, paying more money for less water. That’s attracted the attention of council members and utility watchdogs.

The city’s study would evaluate whether it’s practical to create what are called “water budgets” — guidelines for how much water each household should use depending on things like its lot size and the number of residents. In cities such as Irvine and Los Angeles that already have them, residents who use more than their allotment pay higher rates, those who conserve pay lower rates.

The effort is only the first of two necessary studies, and Ruiz said he wouldn’t recommend doing the second study — a rate overhaul — until sometime after July 1, 2012, when rates would need to be increased again. An overhaul could be done sooner, he said, but would build water budgets based on five-year-old city data.

City Council members said they wanted to know more about how budgets could work. Councilman David Alvarez called them a priority. Councilman Carl DeMaio said he was open to it, as did Councilwoman Lorie Zapf. Councilwoman Sherri Lightner said she wanted more information about a city pilot study of water budgets’ feasibility conducted last year.

Sanders has said he’s willing to study the concept, but under the schedule Ruiz outlined Wednesday, the mayor would be out of office by the time any decision would be made. A Sanders spokesman has said the mayor believes residents already have incentives to conserve: Water costs money, and using less water means residents spend less.

Other localities, however, have taken steps to ensure that people who conserve aren’t still penalized by the increasing price of water.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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