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SD unlikely to see water rationing despite drought declaration

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state Friday, prompting groups such as San Diego Coastkeeper to call on the San Diego County Water Authority to enact mandatory water conservation.

That's not likely to happen soon, though.

Although the Water Authority imports most of its water from other regions, including the supply-crunched State Water Project, its diversity of sources leaves San Diego more protected than many other parts of the state, the Water Authority said Friday.

Dana Friehauf, acting water resource manager for the Water Authority, said that adequate water supply to the county, even through the state's recent extended dry period, has kept the Water Authority from entering even the first phase of its Water Shortage Drought Response Plan. The response plan, she said, consists of three stages. Only in the last stage would mandatory conservation be enacted under conditions when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California cuts back on its deliveries.

The Water Authority's response plan, activated only in extended dry periods, was last in effect from May 2007 to April 2011; it was deactivated during the wet winter in 2011.

The Water Authority's board of directors will discuss the present situation and the governor's declaration at its regular meeting Jan. 23. Friehauf said it's not likely that the local situation will be considered so extreme as to skip any step of the response plan.

Of particular importance, Friehauf said, is the near-normal snowpack feeding the Colorado River Basin — a benefit Southern California has in years like this when the Sierra Nevada snowpack is roughly 20 percent of normal.

"San Diego County and Southern California are in a much better position than other parts of the state," Friehauf said. "We've invested in diversifying our supply, we've invested in storage through the Metropolitan Water District, we have their Diamond Valley Lake up in Hemet. So we do not anticipate shortages this year, unlike other parts of the state."

The governor’s declaration called for Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20 percent. The Water Authority reports local success in recent years of conservation efforts; per capita water use has decreased about 27 percent since 2007.

At the San Diego County Farm Bureau, Executive Director Eric Larson said the impacts of the dry weather this winter have already been felt by local farmers and ranchers.

"The drought declaration really doesn't affect the way we're doing business right here, right now," Larson said.

A declaration like the governor's isn't really a breaking point for farmers, he said, since its main purpose is to direct state agencies to expedite the processing of voluntary water transfers and enact a statewide water conservation campaign. A real breaking point would come, he said, if farmers' water supplies are cut back.

He noted that drought affects farmers and ranchers in two ways. Less rain means farmers have to buy more water, nullifying the offsets they expect in the winter.

"The second way we're being affected directly is in the backcountry," Larson said. "We have a lot of cattle ranching that takes place in our county, and normally that grass should be about belly-high on the cows. If you go out there, there's nothing there at all."

He said some cattle ranchers have already reported selling off their "replacement heifers," which he said essentially means they've sold off their future seasons' livestock to be able to afford feeding their producing cattle.

"If the cattle ranchers are selling off their cattle prematurely, that's pretty damaging to their business," Larson said.

He also predicted that the avocado industry will take a hit.

"I'm absolutely certain, we will lose some avocado growers over this," he said. "They have a thin margin to start with, and now they have to buy all this extra water. I think we'll have more growers just decide to turn the water off and walk away."

The stage is set for more dire things to happen if the drought persists another year, he said, especially with long-term predictions for rain. But, like Friehauf, he said San Diegans and its local growers have something to be thankful for, even if it's just an extended lifeline.

"It's a long process," Larson said of the Water Authority's progression through its drought response plan. "They haven't even discussed voluntary restrictions yet. Metropolitan Water District and the Water Authority have done a good job of diversifying their supply. We've always been blessed with the fact that we get water from Northern California and from the Colorado River. Those folks up north only have that northern water supply."

If voluntary restrictions are put in place, Larson said he expects farmers to continue doing what they can to keep their production levels. It's the prospect of mandatory conservation another year or two from now that would constitute the next damaging step for local farmers.

"With an agricultural crop, there's only so much you can do," Larson said. "There already is no waste in agricultural water because it's so expensive. If growers have to do any more cutbacks, they can only cut back their water usage by reducing the size of their crop."

He said he doesn't expect a call for mandatory conservation from the Water Authority this year, but said that if next winter is dry, "all bets are off."

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