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Water Authority to increase call for voluntary conservation

San Diegans can expect louder calls for voluntary water conservation, as the San Diego County Water Authority voted Thursday to implement Stage 1 of its drought response plan.

The unanimous decision was made after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January and called on Californians to cut water use by 20 percent.

The San Diego County Water Authority has said since then that the local water supply is in better shape than Northern California’s because of heavy investment and progress made in the past 20 years.

Dana Friehauf, acting water resources manager for the Water Authority, said Thursday that the voluntary calls for conservation would be directed at both households and business customers. Health care and agriculture would not be asked to do much because conservation is typically pushed to its limits in agriculture, while health care takes a safety-comes-first attitude.

Water Authority projects and Colorado River water agreements have helped San Diego’s water supply. The $1.5 billion Emergency Storage Project, for example, has brought the 24,000-acre-foot Olivenhain Reservoir online since 2000 and the San Vicente Dam has been raised 117 feet.

The agency has also said that even with a growing population, total water use has decreased significantly in the past few years.

"Even though we are certainly profoundly affected by this, we're in a better situation than we were the last time we faced a dry-year period," said Ken Weinberg, water resources director for the Water Authority. "The biggest achievement that we've really made is that our total potable water use was 726,000 acre-feet in 2007; in calendar year 2013 — 572,000 acres."

In late January, local reservoir storage was reported to be at about 220,000 acre-feet, or about 76 percent of normal. At the end of 2013, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a major supplier for the Water Authority, had water storage of 2.4 million acre-feet, 600,000 acre-feet more than at the end of 2007.

Deteriorating water conditions in the Sierra Nevada between the agency's Jan. 23 meeting and the end of January prompted staff to request a meeting before the Feb. 27 regular meeting.

Weinberg said the doubling of the Sierra Nevada snow water content since that Jan. 31 measurement, brought on by heavy snow in recent storms, improved the situation to nearly 30 percent of average.

Stage 1 of the Water Shortage and Drought Response Plan includes enhanced conservation communications strategy and a call for voluntary cutbacks.

None of the directors spoke directly against the voluntary approach, although San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts asked when later stages might be in accordance with the step-by-step approach of the plan. Mandatory cutbacks would usually be ordered only in Stage 3, if its supplies are scheduled to be cut back.

A typical precursor to Stage 1 would be MWD withdrawing significant water from its storage to meet its demand, which staff said appears to be the case this year with the Department of Water Resources announcing it will reduce its State Water Project allocations to zero.

The Water Authority's reliance on MWD water shrank between 2007 and 2013 from 79 percent of its total source water to 53 percent.

The Water Authority will decide how to coordinate its outreach effort and greater calls for voluntary conservation at its next regular meeting.

Keith Lewinger, the board member representing the Carlsbad Municipal Water District — home of the desalination plant under construction — said the messages should include explanations of the large investments and efforts made by ratepayers already, which he said would make it wrong to "punish" them at this stage with mandatory restrictions.

The purpose of their bills going up the last few years, he said, was specifically to fund completed projects, to keep them from mandatory restrictions in dry times.

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