Cities updating drought plans

The high likelihood of reduced water allocations in early 2009 has prompted cities and water districts throughout San Diego County to gear up for tighter restrictions on water use, including the potential for rationing.

Across the county, cities and water districts are updating their water-use regulations so they can pounce on the problem - switching from voluntary to mandatory conservation - should winter storms fizzle and fail to replenish the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack or if other events further diminish water supply.

Despite the efforts of the San Diego County Water Authority, which a few years ago drafted a “model” ordinance that cities everywhere could use as a template, there is no one-size-fits-all drought management strategy.

In the near future, folks eating out in La Jolla may be forced to request a glass of water, while diners in Del Mar get their H20 without having to ask. Posh resorts such as L’Auberge Del Mar may politely persuade customers to consider changing out clean towels every other day rather than daily.

In San Diego

“Each individual city or water supply agency has the authority and responsibility to determine what restrictions and sanctions they want to put into place,” said John Liarakos, a water authority spokesman.

In July, the city of San Diego declared a Level One Drought Watch, which calls for consumers to voluntarily reduce their water use by 10 percent. It’s been only partially effective.

“We’ve asked for a 10 percent voluntary reduction, but so far we’ve only reached six percent,” said Alex Ruiz, a deputy director of the city’s water department.

Last week, the San Diego City Council approved a rewritten emergency conservation plan that sets the stage for imposing mandatory cutbacks and enforcement efforts aimed at punishing water wasters.

These could be implemented if the Drought Watch is raised to Level 2, which requires consumption to be cut up to 20 percent, Level 3 up to 40 percent, or Level 4, which mandates cuts by more than 40 percent.

Possible limits

Restrictions being contemplated include a ban on over-watering that causes water to run off into the street and punitive surcharges for customers who repeatedly use more than their allotted limit.

Public education to encourage greater conservation, especially with outdoor watering that accounts for 60 percent of water usage, is part of the city’s overall strategy, Ruiz said.

“But the shorter we fall from our goal, the harder it will be to avoid taking more drastic measures,’' he warned.

Up north

In Del Mar, the City Council has appointed a water conservation advisory committee to recommend changes to city water ordinances. They’re counting on civic and business leaders to help spread the gospel of water conservation rather than imposing a slate of mandatory restrictions that would be difficult to enforce.

The council doesn’t want its already stretched-thin staff to get into the business of being “water cops” or create a situation where neighbors inform on one another when they see wasteful water practices, said David Scherer, public works director.

“We don’t want to go down that road at this point,” he said. “Our approach is to have recommendations more than requirements.”