Solana Beach water district customers face tougher use rules, higher rates

Residents across California are looking at the prospect of higher water rates and tighter restrictions on water use as the state grapples with an ongoing drought now in its fourth year.

The Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves residents of Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, will be required, along with water agencies around the state, to tighten its water-use policies and strengthen enforcement of violations. On top of the anticipated new restrictions, customers are likely to see higher water rates.

“From where we sit right now, there’s no silver lining,” said Santa Fe general manager Michael Bardin. “People in the future will use less water and pay more for it. That’s where the state is headed.”

At its meeting on April 16, the Santa Fe board of directors authorized Bardin and his staff to begin working on a series of measures to comply with state-mandated water cuts, and “drought rates,” which are intended to help maintain the district’s operating revenues in the face of anticipated declines in water sales.

The board will discuss specific recommendations put forward by Bardin at a special workshop session at 6 p.m. May 7, and the panel could vote on the measures at its regular meeting on May 21.

On April 1, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order, calling for a statewide 25 percent cut in water use. This past Saturday, the State Water Resources Control Board issued draft emergency regulations intended to carry out the governor’s mandate. Under the proposal, the state’s 411 water agencies would be required to cut their water use by varying amounts, from 8 percent to 36 percent, depending on their per capita water usage.

The Santa Fe district would be required to cut its water use by 36 percent because it is at the higher end of per capita use in the state.

State regulators will make a final decision on the required cuts in May.

In the meantime, the Santa Fe district will work on its own drought response plan, which will probably include new water-use restrictions, higher fines for violations, more staff time dedicated to enforcement, and higher water rates.

While Bardin said Santa Fe customers will have to cut water use, particularly for outdoor watering, he said the severe cuts proposed by the state water board do not take into account the 20 percent reduction in water use already achieved by the district’s residents since 2007.

The problem, he said, is that the cuts will be required from a baseline of the average use in 2013, after Santa Fe customers had already made big strides in conservation. A better method, he said, would be to base the cuts on a 10-year average of water use.

“Basing it on 2013 does not take into account the effort and good work our district and all of San Diego County has done … that 20 percent doesn’t count now. We’re saying that needs to be taken into account,” Bardin said.

Although district customers have cut back on water use over the past eight years, since mandatory water-use restrictions were re-introduced in 2014, the district has not seen increased conservation.

“We’re not seeing the response from the community to take that next step of really sacrificing,” said Bardin. “What we need folks to do is to stop watering their lawns.”

Residents are allowed to water their landscaping three days a week, for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time, unless they have water-efficient devices such as drip irrigation systems. The district may tighten its restrictions to fewer watering days per week, Bardin said, and also increase fines for violations.

The district also will reassign staff and hire temporary workers and interns “to get more boots on the ground out there carrying the message” of conservation, and to enforce the tighter rules, Bardin said.

On the revenue side, the district will consider imposing higher “drought rates,” designed to maintain revenue in the face of reduced sales. The district’s finance staff has estimated that Santa Fe revenue could drop by as much as $4.5 million. Because many of the district’s costs are fixed, the district may need to raise rates to compensate to maintain its operations, Bardin said. The district would have to hold a public hearing before the drought rates could be imposed.

At Thursday’s meeting, one Rancho Santa Fe resident challenged the idea that customers need to stop watering their landscaping. Instead, said Vahe Guzel, smart meters and smart water controllers can help people conserve and avoid water waste by catching leaks quickly.

“I think you’re approaching it the wrong way. You’re trying to get people to let their citrus die and their turf die, when all you have to do is conserve water, and it’s easy to do,” Guzel said.

Bardin said the district is earmarking $500,000 in next year’s proposed budget on a pilot project to install smart meters at some locations, which will provide customers and the district with additional data on water use, which can in turn be used to increase conservation.

But technology such as smart meters is only one tool of many needed to deal with the state’s water shortage, which Bardin said is the worst he’s seen during his 35-year career.

“We’re facing the challenge of a generation when it comes to water in California,” Bardin said. “The state is plowing new ground. At the end of the day, we’ve got a problem with water in the state, and we all have to use less water.”

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