Historic drought forces steep local water cuts, proposed rate hikes

Most customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District will be required to dramatically cut their water use as the district struggles to comply with a state mandate to reduce its overall water consumption by 36 percent.

A standing-room-only crowd showed up Thursday evening, May 7, for a special workshop meeting, as the district’s staff and board of directors discussed two key elements of the agency’s plan to respond to the state drought, now in its fourth year.

The district is moving toward imposing “allocations,” or a set amount of water for each household, for the first time in its 92-year history. Customers who use more than their allotment of water will be penalized.

At the same time, the district is also considering drought rates, which are surcharges on district water rates to help the district maintain its operational revenues as water sales decline.

Both proposals, as well as new water use restrictions, will come before the Santa Fe board for action at its May 21 meeting. If approved by the board, the allocations could take effect as soon as June 1, while the drought rates could be implemented after the board’s July meeting, said district spokeswoman Jessica Parks.

The district serves some 6,000 households in Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch.

Under the proposed allocation plan, each household would get a base allowance of 15 units of water each two-month period. A unit is 748 gallons, and the district has calculated that 15 units will meet basic household needs.

The district is asking customers to cut their use above the 15-unit base allowance by 45 percent. Currently, said Parks, about 550 households use 15 units or less every two months. Some 5,400 customers use more than the 15-unit allowance. Most of the water used above the baseline allowance is for outdoor landscape watering. The top 11 percent of the district’s water users consume 45 percent of the district’s water, Parks said.

“We’re asking our customers to make sacrifices,” said Parks. “We’re asking for them to cut back their irrigation on their landscaping. We would like it if people would stop irrigating their lawns.”

The district wants people to continue watering their trees, though, because dead or dying trees could become a fire hazard, she said.

Along with its customers, the district will also face penalties if it doesn’t reach the state-mandated cut of 36 percent, said Parks. The rules approved by state water officials call for penalties of up to $10,000 per day for water agencies that don’t meet their targeted cutbacks. Statewide, the goal is a 25 percent cut in water use by June 1.

“If we don’t comply, they’ll just fine us. It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Parks said.

In setting their reduction targets, state water officials are demanding that water agencies cut their use by a range of 4 to 36 percent. Santa Fe is in the highest tier of cuts because its per capita water use is among the highest in the state.

However, district general manager Michael Bardin said the cuts mandated by the state don’t take into account a 20 percent reduction in water use already achieved by the Santa Fe district. Because the cuts are pegged to the calendar year 2013, after the district cut its water use, the district is essentially not getting credit for the work it has already done to conserve, Bardin said in an interview in April.

He said a better way to calculate new cuts would be to base them on a 10-year average of water use.

The district is asking agricultural customers to cut back even more than residential customers. Grove owners, the Rancho Santa Fe golf course and the Rancho Santa Fe Association, which maintains road medians, will be asked to cut their water use by 50 percent, Parks said.

The district is also considering a move to a Level 3 drought response, which will include more restrictions on water use, including a cut in the number of allowed watering days from three to two.

Some in the water industry have said it is unrealistic for the state to require such steep cuts in such a short period of time, said Parks. But Santa Fe is working fast to meet its obligation of a 36 percent drop in water use.

“As a district, that’s what we’ve been told, that’s our goal, that’s what we are going to shoot for,” Parks said.

The uncharacteristically large turnout at Thursday’s workshop session was encouraging, she said.

“It shows the people in our district are there to do what they can to meet the state mandate,” she said.