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City plans for mandatory water restrictions

With California in its worst drought in years, the San Diego City Council's environment committee on Wednesday told city staffers to lay the groundwork for mandatory water restrictions on local residents, including regulations on watering lawns that were last used during the drought of 2009.

The committee asked city staffers to produce a plan for mandatory water conservation by the committee's next meeting March 5.

In the meantime, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria reinstituted the "water consumption report card" that was used during the 2009 drought to give near real-time updates on the amount of water being used throughout the city as well as by specific groups of customers.

Gloria said that even though San Diegans have sharply cut back their water use over the past seven years, "further conservation is necessary to secure the long-term reliability" of the city's water supplies.

In the last fiscal year, San Diego used 15 percent less water than it did in 2007, despite the rise in the population.

But the city is now under a severe drought, with just 5.6 inches of rain last year compared to a normal average of just over 10 inches. Virtually no rain fell in January, putting it in a tie with the driest on record. And drought conditions are threatening water supplies from the Sierra.

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which covers most of Southern California, last month called for a voluntary reduction of 20 percent throughout the region.

But in Wednesday's meeting of the environmental committee, Councilmember Marti Emerald asked city staffers to instead prepare for mandatory cutbacks, such as a requirement that homeowners water their lawns on odd- or even-numbered days, depending on where they live.

"Being that San Diego has gone through what traditionally has been the rainiest month of the year [January] without much measurable rain, it's probably fair to say that locally we need to determine our destiny and ask consumers to err on the side of caution and conservation because there's really no downside to it," Emerald said. "If anything, that will leave our reservoirs with more water and have greater flexibility going forward."

Marci Steiner, director of the city's public utilities department, told Emerald that the city could be ready to launch such restrictions in March and is coordinating plans with the MWD and the San Diego Municipal Water Authority "to make sure message is consistent."

Among other things, Steiner said that she wants a better understanding of the MWD's target for a 20 percent reduction, because it is not clear what base date the agency is using. She said that a 20 percent reduction from 2007 — a common statewide baseline for water conservation efforts — means San Diego is already close to the target.

Steiner also suggested expanding the city's rebate plan, which subsidizes homes and businesses that switch to high-efficiency toilets, urinals and water sprinklers or install controllers on their watering systems.

Chris Robbins, the city's water conservation supervisor, said the city is also ramping up its water survey program — which checks for leaks, measures usage and offers water-saving tips — for businesses and residences.

Land use attorney Cary Lowe, who last year chaired a citizens task force on water policy implementation, said the city is taking appropriate steps, but urged it to speed up the introduction of stricter standards on plumbing retrofits and water purification projects.

"Even if it requires greater expenditures to accomplish, it would be well worth it because the gallons and acre-feet of water saved through conservation are far cheaper than the ones that get imported [from outside the county]," he said.

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