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Mandatory conservation not affecting SD water rules

New emergency regulations are taking effect this week limiting outdoor water use in urban areas across the state, but nothing will actually change legally in the city of San Diego.

That might sound unusual considering the State Water Resources Control Board is mandating restrictions, but the reason is pretty simple: the city of San Diego never abandoned the mandatory regulations it began enforcing in 2009 during the last drought emergency.

And because the state's emergency regulations are mainly a vehicle to require retail agencies to activate their water shortage contingency plans — which must include some mandatory measures — the city of San Diego is already in compliance.

What may change in the city are outreach efforts to heighten the importance of local restrictions, and residents' awakened awareness.

Since 2009, the city has typically started its water-use enforcement by sending warning letters, said Robyn Bullard, spokesperson for the city's Public Utilities Department,

Violators are usually given a chance to comply following the warning, she said, before punitive fines are assessed.

Following the end of a drought, Bullard said, customers tend to forget some of the restrictions even though they're still in place, such as the ongoing restriction from using a standard hose to wash down a driveway with water.

"Those are the things that tend to slip people's minds," Bullard said, adding that staff from the Public Utilities Department's Water Conservation division is trained to help remedy situations rather than "just slap a fine on them."

"However, from there, administrative citations beginning at $100 can escalate to $250, $500, $750 and $1,000 if the situation is not remedied," Bullard said.

If the matter goes beyond that, a notice of violation can result in a penalty of $2,500 per day, per violation.

Some matters could be referred to the city attorney for civil or criminal prosecution should the administrative fines not produce compliance. A violator’s water could also be shut off at that point, Bullard added.

As the drought continues, the city said it's beginning a large outreach campaign to make sure the rules aren't forgotten; those efforts will include things as small as bill inserts to others as large as billboards, Bullard said.

The city's restrictions require in part that outdoor watering can only be done between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. from June through October. Once November arrives, the allowed watering time expands to between 4 p.m. and 10 a.m. Those watering time blocks, however, don't apply to irrigation as required by a landscape permit.

The last drought showed that customers receiving fines is uncommon. To Bullard's knowledge, the city's water waste staff was expanded in 2009 to help "police" water use, yet only one fine was issued in the city while it was in the second level of its drought plan.

The city is still in its first level now, which Bullard said can't necessarily be equated to another water agency's Level 1 since another's may only include voluntary conservation.

"By and large, people will [comply]," Bullard said. "They don't want to be fined."

A number of other recommendations wouldn't become mandatory unless the city moved into its next level of response. They include recommendations to limit watering to three days per week and washing vehicles on the same seasonal schedules as for irrigation.

Also still voluntary are recommendations to use a hose with a shutoff valve or a garden hose sprinkler system on a timer, when irrigation systems are not in place, at a property and to use recycled water for construction purposes when it's available.

The city itself is also a major water user, with more than 41,000 acres of developed and undeveloped park land, joint use and open space, some of which needs to be watered.

All city departments, including the Park & Recreation Department, adhere to the mandatory water-use restrictions in place, Bullard said.

Some areas of the state don't have water shortage contingency plans; they will feel the biggest impact as they must abide by strict specifics in the regulation, such as having outdoor watering limited to two days per week.

Tom Wornham, chair of the San Diego County Water Authority, said a great thing about the last couple decades has been the region's improving "memory" of droughts, which he said was seemingly non-existent in the 1970s.

Droughts then would prompt talks of doing something, but as soon as a drought was over, so was the talk, he said.

Now, he said the Water Authority and ratepayers are more proactive, having invested $2 billion to provide more security to San Diego's water even beyond the end of recent droughts.

He said the Water Authority, which provides water for 24 member agencies but has no regulatory authority over them, has acted responsibly.

"What the governor's ordinance requires is that everybody implements their plan, and that can become a little bit vague," Wornham said. "But I doubt you're going to see anybody inside San Diego [County] not really complying because the [Water Authority] member agencies, we've been anticipating. We went to 'drought watch' in February and then we moved to 'alert' now. Because the last thing you want to do is do the Chicken Little thing.

"If I tell you, as a ratepayer who has already been historically, awesomely responsible in this, that you have to do more, and then it rains buckets, then I've lost all credibility for not only this drought, but all future droughts," Wornham said.

Some groups such as San Diego Coastkeeper have urged the Water Authority to enact mandatory conservation stages since Gov. Jerry Brown first declared a drought emergency.

In February, the group said the city of San Diego's drought response may not go far enough, announcing plans to work with the city to amend the municipal code to make landscape watering allowable for a maximum of two days per week, even during non-drought periods.

“This restriction should be the new normal in San Diego,” Coastkeeper's Matt O’Malley said.

Wornham said the idea was to act as necessary, but he added the Water Authority wasn't sitting idle, waiting for the state to act first.

While it may appear the authority only considered notifying member agencies of a drought alert after the state passed emergency regulation, Wornham said, the authority foreshadowed the possibility since February during public meetings.

He said the authority began to plan for a switch since the beginning of July, before the state took action.

Even if the state hadn't passed emergency regulation, the Water authority still would have activated its drought alert, Wornham said.

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