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We sometimes hear that new development is going to make San Diego run out of water.
That’s not true, say city and county water officials.
The San Diego County Water Authority expects the county will have enough water to accommodate a growing population and new development for the foreseeable future, including major projects like the controversial One Paseo in Carmel Valley.
Yet, somewhat paradoxically, the short term may be a different story. At least a handful of public water utilities in San Diego County may stop issuing water meters or begin charging higher fees to hook meters up to the public water system. Those moves would complicate new development, if not stop some projects in their tracks.
In the long term, the County Water Authority still expects to have enough water to accommodate all the growth that cities expect, plus a cushion for unanticipated growth.
But in the short term, because of the drought and water restrictions ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown, some utilities may adopt policies that curb development or hike up project costs.
At least five water agencies outside of the city of San Diego are talking about either issuing no new water meters or requiring new customers to find some way to offset their demand. They’re expected to make their final decisions over the next few weeks.
How do users offset their demand?
During the 2008-11 drought, San Dieguito Water District, which is one of two agencies that provide water to Encinitas, created a “demand offset fee” for new customers. To get a meter and be hooked up to the water system, new customers had to help pay for projects that reduced the drain of the public water supply. The fees helped a school ball field switch from using drinking water to recycled water for landscaping. That project freed up drinking water for new water customers.
Bill O’Donnell, San Dieguito’s assistant general manager, said the district is likely to bring back offset fees this year. If so, it’ll cost $13,900 to hook up a single-family home to the water system using a three-quarters inch meter. It normally costs $12,100 for that meter.
Larger meters for larger projects will cost more.
Fallbrook Public Utility District may have a similar fee, or it could go a more drastic route and issue no new meters at all, said district spokeswoman Noelle Denke.
“Our board could very well say this is too serious, we just want a meter moratorium,” Denke said.
Districts are in a pickle. The County Water Authority expects to have about 99 percent of the water it needs to meet demand this year without any reductions. Yet the governor has asked for mandatory reductions in municipal drinking water use, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent for local water utilities.
But to impose drastic measures like offset fees and moratoriums, agencies have to prove water is in short supply, which is not necessarily true in San Diego County.
The city of San Diego, which uses about 40 percent of the county’s water, isn’t planning such restrictions that would curb new development, though it may have to curb demand by 16 percent this year.
That means water policies may vary widely across San Diego County. The County Water Authority doesn’t dictate local utilities’ policies.
“Really, it’s their decision on what program they implement or whether they implement it,” said Dana Friehauf, the authority’s principal water resources specialist.
Some new customers may have to pay extra fees to get meters, receive meters with rations that other customers aren’t subject to, or not be able to get new meters at all. New customers in other areas will not face such restrictions.
Still, while all this is happening in the short term, officials say they have the long-term water supplies taken care of, even for major developments, like One Paseo and Chula Vista Bayfront.
One Paseo will use about 216 acre-feet of water per year, according to 2013 estimates by Atkins, an engineering consulting firm. An acre-foot is a typical measure for big amounts of water. One acre -foot is roughly enough to cover a football field in a foot of water. Two four-person families use about an acre-foot of water each year.
The city didn’t plan for that much demand on that site; in fact, One Paseo’s water use is expected to use 130 acre-feet more water than the city’s plan anticipated.
But city and county officials say they’re not worried.
“Two hundred acre-feet doesn’t even move the needle,” said Mark Watton, a member of the County Water Authority’s Board of Directors and general manager of the Otay Water District.
The County Water Authority’s supply in 2014 was 670,000 acre-feet of water.
The authority has a multi-decade plan, which includes ways to increase water supplies to meet that demand through 2035. It has a built-in margin of error of several thousand acre-feet every few years above and beyond the growth that cities expect to have.
One Paseo plans to grab the 130 acre-feet the city didn’t plan for from that margin of error in the county’s plans.
It’s expected that water supply concerns will begin to factor heavily into opposition to new major developments.
Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for One Paseo’s developer Kilroy Realty Corporation, said arguments to just stop development because of water and other concerns amount to forced exile for future generations.
“The fact is, what you’re saying is saying, ‘Let’s not build anything more so our kids can’t be able to live here,’” she said.
Laing is among those who cite projections from the San Diego Association of Governments that say most of the region’s population growth will come from families who live here today. That, they argue, lends itself to new mixed-use development.
Compared to urban sprawl, major developments in the city are likely going to be more water efficient.
Joseph Cosgrove is a sustainability research consultant who helped prepare a forthcoming report on water use and urban development for Circulate San Diego, a public transportation and pedestrian advocacy group. Circulate San Diego argues, with evidence from Environmental Protection Agency figures, that denser developments use less water per person than lower density properties.
“Generally when you’re building closer in and the infrastructure is closer, it’s going to be using much less water than if all these people who are going to be living in One Paseo moved to the urban fringe and are going to have a McMansion,” Cosgrove said.