Drought-response meeting draws hundreds in Solana Beach


A standing-room-only crowd of about 500 people turned out Tuesday, June 23, for a town hall meeting put on by the Santa Fe Irrigation District, as officials sought to answer residents’ questions about the district’s imposition of steep, mandatory cuts to water use, which carry hefty fines and penalties for violations.

The district’s territory includes large estates in Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, as well as smaller parcels in Solana Beach, and its service area includes about 19,400 residents.

The mood at Tuesday’s town hall at the Lomas Santa Fe Country Club was generally polite, although applause broke out several times after questions and comments from audience members, regarding such topics as why small-lot owners in Solana Beach are facing the same cuts as the owners of larger Rancho Santa Fe properties, and why recycled water is not available for homeowners.

Audience members also asked why San Diego County is facing draconian cuts when officials have stated repeatedly that the region is not facing a water supply shortage this year.

SFID General Manager Michael Bardin set the stage for the discussion by noting, “This is the worst drought in state history. We’re in unprecedented territory.”

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency in California and ordered a statewide reduction in water use of 25 percent. Because Santa Fe has one of the highest per-capita water-use rates in the state, regulators have ordered the district to cut its use by 36 percent, or face potential fines of $10,000 per day.

To achieve its targeted cutbacks, the district in May approved new mandatory water-use restrictions, including a two-day-per-week landscape irrigation schedule, and it began rationing water for the first time in its 92-year history. Santa Fe Irrigation District is also the only water agency in San Diego County to impose allocations.

Under the “water allocation” plan, each household and business in the district will have a base allowance of water for indoor use, and will be required to cut outdoor use by 45 percent. The district is working on guidelines that will require less stringent cuts for commercial agricultural growers.

Fines for violating the water-use rules, and penalties for using more water than the allocated amount, will be imposed.

“These are severe financial penalties. We’re not interested in penalizing people, we’re just trying to get the demand down, and these are the tools to do it,” Bardin said.

Under questioning by audience members, Bardin said San Diego County is not forecasting water shortages this year, because of such measures as expanded storage capacity and an ocean water desalination plant in Carlsbad set to begin operation this fall.

But the governor’s order leaves local water agencies no choice but to make the cuts.

“It is not fair. All of your efforts and our efforts (to conserve water) up to 2013 are being ignored. We can’t change that,” Bardin said.

Officials denied that anyone is receiving favorable treatment under the new rules because every property will have the same base allowance for indoor water use, no matter how large the parcel.

Bardin also said that water sources such as recycling and desalination — although costly — will help, but can’t completely overcome the effects of the four-year drought. Desalination, he said, “is not a silver bullet.”

However, Catherine Dickerson, a Solana Beach resident who has started a website, www.watersandiego.org, said San Diego should be held up as a model for how to deal with lower-than-normal rainfall, rather than be forced to slash its outdoor water use.

“The governor is not a dictator. Because he says ‘Jump,’ we do not have to say ‘How high?’” she said.

Bardin told the crowd that because of the drought, California will need to transform its landscaping habits, moving away from thirsty green lawns toward drought-tolerant plants.

Some in the audience agreed.

“We’ve been using water that we shouldn’t expect to have. We have to make changes to live with the current realities,” said Milt Herman of Solana Beach as he left the meeting.

Carol, another Solana Beach resident who declined to give her last name, said, “There is no choice. Rather than wringing my hands about something I can’t change, I am thinking about how I can comply,” she said. “And I’m praying for rain.”

In an interview, Dickerson disagreed with the contention that San Diego must stop watering its lawns and gardens.

“It’s like a dirty secret that San Diego has enough (water),” she said.

Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs can solve the problem with technology, whether it’s more desalination plants, expanded use of recycled water, or some other method, according to Dickerson.

“I have a beautiful garden that gives me great joy, and people tell me it soothes their soul,” Dickerson said. “The governor says, ‘No. Dirt and rocks for you.’”

Jessica Parks, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe district, said more public meetings will be held on the new water-use rules and the district’s drought response, and the district will post a FAQ page on its website based on questions asked by the public at Tuesday’s town hall meeting.