Water board for Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach suspends penalties for customers, raises employee pay

Customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District will no longer face penalties for using more than their monthly allotment of water, after the district’s board of directors voted to suspend a controversial water allocation program.

The district established the allocation program — a form of water rationing — for the first time in its 93-year history in May, following a state mandate that the agency cut its water use by 36 percent, or face daily fines of up to $10,000. At the time, California was grappling with a four-year drought. The restrictions resulted in some district customers receiving penalties of hundreds of dollars, according to testimony at the board’s meeting on Thursday, Jan. 21.

Earlier this month, state water regulators announced that the mandated cutbacks would be eased in recognition of the new seawater desalination plant that came online in December. Santa Fe officials said they expect their water-use reduction target to be lowered to 28 percent in February.

“This is good news,” district general manager Mike Bardin told the board Thursday. While he said San Diego County water officials want reduction targets to be lowered even further, “it is progress and it’s going in the right direction.”

Under the water allocation program adopted by the board last year, residents were required to cut their outdoor water use by 45 percent, or face penalties. The board voted Jan. 21 to suspend that program on a 5-0 vote, noting that conditions are changing, including more rainfall this winter, brought on by warmer ocean temperatures known as an El Niño condition.

Officials praised customers for cutting back their water use by an average of more than 30 percent each month since the restrictions were imposed, and noted that further cutbacks are especially difficult during the winter months, when water use is already low.

The district left in place mandatory water-use restrictions, including a prohibition on watering more than twice a week, or for more than 10 minutes at a time. Car-washing in driveways is also banned. Violations of the rules carry fines, which escalate for repeat offenses.

During public comment on the item, some speakers urged the board to sue the state because its mandated cutbacks are unfair. Water officials in San Diego County, including those with Santa Fe, have said the state mandates fail to take into account measures taken to bolster local water supplies, such as transfers of conserved water from the Imperial Valley. The speakers noted that San Diego County does not face a water shortage, and has, in fact, increased its reservoir storage over the past year

Board president Mike Hogan said smaller water districts such as Santa Fe have limited resources to take the state to court, but that the San Diego County Water Authority, the county’s water wholesaler, will consider such legal action in a closed session at an upcoming meeting. The water authority is made up of 24 member agencies, including Santa Fe.

In other action, the board voted 3-2, with directors Greg Gruzdowich and Marlene King opposed, to give a one-time bonus of $5,000 to General Manager Bardin for his work in response to the California drought and the state’s mandated water-use cutbacks. In a recommendation to the full board, President Hogan noted that under a 2014 contract amendment, Bardin is not eligible for a raise for two years.

Bardin’s current annual salary is $213,140, according to the district.

The board also voted Jan. 21 to approve a 5 percent salary increase for management employees to be spread out over the next three years, beginning this month. The cost of the increase over the next three years will be $46,250, according to a board report.

An identical increase was approved by the board for district employees in a closed session at its December meeting. The raise will cost $372,000 over three years, according to the district. During the current fiscal year, the district’s total labor budget is $6.1 million.

Director Greg Gruzdowich cast the lone “no” vote on the raises for both managers and employees. At Thursday’s meeting, he said the district has a great work force, but that in a time when district customers face the likelihood of steep rate increases in the coming year, the district should be looking to cut costs.

“I think it’s the wrong signal to send at this particular time,” he said.