Water-saving mandate from Gov. Brown is all wet, says Solana Beach activist at Rancho Santa Fe meeting

Solana Beach resident Don Billings wants to change the message being sent to consumers regarding California’s drought.

At a community water talk held at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club on Aug. 7, Billings said residents have been asked to cut water use, lose their lawns and choose between taking a shower or saving a tree — all because of a mandate from Gov. Jerry Brown that he believes to be “arbitrary and capricious” and not based on evidence or fact.

“There is a drought in California, but there is no water supply shortage in San Diego,” Billings said.

He said residents are being hurt now by these restrictions and they should act, contacting the Santa Fe Irrigation District (SFID) board and asking them to consider suing the state as the city of Riverside did over water-saving drought rules. Riverside has argued that it has been unfairly ordered to cut water use by 28 percent, even though it has adequate supplies and does not rely on imported water.

Billings said SFID could make the same argument, that San Diego is actually a model city for preparedness, distribution and developing an independent supply.

And for the short-term, Billings said he wants residents to voice their opposition to the electronic signs posted around Rancho Santa Fe spreading what he contends is a false message about the shortage and ruining the community’s reputation.

“Take those signs out, those signs have got to go,” Billings said.

Rancho Santa Fe resident Rick Nicholas organized the community water talk, which was attended by about 25 people.

Billings, a financial analyst and consultant for Promontory Financial Group, shared his insight from having served two four-year terms on the city of San Diego’s Independent Rates Oversight Committee.

Billings referred back to April, when Gov. Brown delivered his mandatory order to cut water use by 25 percent in front of a dry Sierra slope to build a public case for his emergency declaration.

Billings said the cuts were based on 2013 consumption and were “one size fits all,” not based on region-by-region findings of shortage or surplus.

“If Brown came to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant or the city of San Diego’s water reclamation facilities, he wouldn’t have been able to tell that story,” Billings said. “This community is not the origin of the drought in California, and it can’t be the solution to the drought. Even if we tear out every blade of grass in Rancho Santa Fe, it would not add a gallon of supply to Northern California.”

Billings said the perception is that there’s a single tub of water in California in which every region sticks its straw. But in San Diego, there are different pots of water.

After the last major drought, Billings said the county invested $3.5 billion to diversify water sources and become water secure.

When the desalination plant is running, expected in the next 60 to 90 days, the largest plant in the Western hemisphere will produce 50 million to 60 million gallons a day, Billings said.

The city is reconfiguring reclaimed-water plants to produce potable reusable water, starting at 30 million gallons a day and ramping up to 90 million a day, representing 40 percent of the city’s water supply, according to Billings.

Water transfers from the Colorado River will provide 180,000 acre-feet to the San Diego region this year, and the El Nino weather system has passed the point of weakening, Billings said. He added that weather forecasters are predicting above-average precipitation throughout the Southwest, the states that feed the river.

Also, San Vicente Dam is up 50,000 acre-feet of water when typically in the summer months the water is drawing down, according to Billings.

“There are a lot of investments in place and in progress that are putting us in the position to be truly water secure and independent,” he said.

Despite these efforts to gain reliable water supplies, residents are still being forced to cut water use, Billing said.

“Why are water agencies hiring water police to tell us what days we can use water and how we can use our water?” he asked. “And even if we do cut back, they are going to raise our rates by 40 percent.”

He said the water agencies say they have to do this because the governor says so, but there is a question of legality with the government’s actions. They say if they don’t cut back, they could be fined $10,000 a day, which would amount to $3.6 million a year when SFID sells $20 million a year.

Billings said they need to “break the psychology,” and he encouraged residents to talk to the board members, ask them to file a lawsuit and get rid of those signs.

The next SFID meeting will be held at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 20.

When some of these issues were raised by Billings in a previous story by reporter Joe Tash for this newspaper, Michael Hogan, president of the Santa Fe Irrigation District board and a member of the San Diego County Water Authority board, said San Diego County water agencies have invested in many different projects to enhance the local water supply.

As a result, San Diego County can now provide for 30 percent of its annual water needs, compared with 5 percent in the past. The percentage will continue to increase, he said, but the county still imports most of its water.

“The truth of the matter is that, looking out beyond one year, with regard to available supplies, they’re greatly threatened in the following years,” Hogan said. “We have to manage this from a multi-year approach. Conserving now under the governor’s mandate allows us the opportunity to manage our water supplies more effectively; that will reduce more severe cutbacks in the following years … and have the least impact on residents and businesses and ultimately on the economy.”

Water agencies have embraced technology, either adopting or studying a number of options, from water-efficient devices for homes, to recycling wastewater, which can be treated, blended with water in reservoirs, and then purified for household use, he said.

“That’s what the (county) water authority and member agencies have been doing already, and there’s been a lot of progress,” Hogan said. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”

He rejected calls for the district to ignore the state mandates.

“That’s not an acceptable approach with the current board of directors, and I know of no agency that’s taking that approach,” Hogan said. “It would be contrary to my duties as a sworn public official to not make every effort possible to comply with the directives from the state.

“It’s a crisis, and I think people need to realize that,” he said