Water district approves agricultural exemption from mandatory cuts


Commercial agricultural customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District have been granted an exemption from the severe cuts in water use facing the rest of the district’s customers.

Instead of having to cut 45 percent of their outdoor water use as residential customers must, commercial growers will have to cut back about 15 percent, after a decision Thursday, June 18, by the water district’s board of directors.

“I think this is a good-news story,” said district General Manager Michael Bardin.

Earlier this year, in an unprecedented move, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered state residents to reduce their water usage by 25 percent, as California endured the fourth year of an ongoing drought. State water regulators then ordered water districts around the state to cut their use by a range of 4 to 36 percent to meet the governor’s statewide target. Because Santa Fe has one of the highest per capita rates of water use in the state, Santa Fe was ordered to cut its usage by 36 percent.

However, regulators allowed districts to provide an exemption for agricultural growers.

Rancho Santa Fe residents Sara and Jim Buehner attended the meeting and urged the board to adopt the exemption. The couple have about 100 lemon trees on their three-acre property.

“If we don’t get the exemption … we’re definitely going to lose the trees,” Sara Buehner said.

Last month, the Santa Fe District board approved water allocations, or rationing, for the first time in the district’s 92-year history. Those who exceed their monthly allotment of water — or violate new restrictions, such as watering only two days a week — face fines and penalties.

Without the agricultural exemption, said Sara Buehner, the couple would face “scary big bills.”

The board approved the agricultural exemption on a 4-0 vote.

District spokeswoman Jessica Parks said that some 150 of the district’s approximately 7,000 customers may qualify for the agricultural exemption. Roughly 400 acres of land within the district — which covers Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch — is cultivated for commercial agriculture.

To qualify for an exemption, she said, a property owner must sell at least $1,000 worth of produce per acre, per year, and have a commercial agriculture license. She said customers must fill out an application to be considered for the agricultural exemption.

While the agricultural exemption won’t affect the district’s mandate to cut 36 percent of its water use, the action will lower the district’s per capita consumption, because water used for agriculture will no longer be counted against the district’s usage. Therefore, the amount of water used per district resident will be about 3 percent lower, officials said.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board approved a $33.7 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget includes a cash infusion of $3.174 million from the district’s rate stabilization reserve fund, but no rate increase.

That could change later this year, however, when a “cost of service study,” which looks at the district’s financial requirements and expenses, is completed.

“There’s going to be a rate increase, we just don’t know when or how much,” said director Augie Daddi.

In rainy years, the district obtains as much as 50 percent of its drinking water from Lake Hodges. This year, that figure is closer to 10 percent, meaning the district must buy more expensive imported water from the San Diego County Water Authority to serve its customers. Rate and fee increases imposed by the county water agency will raise the Santa Fe district’s imported water costs by about 10 percent starting on Jan. 1, according to a district staff report.

At Thursday’s meeting, director Alan Smerican said many of his constituents don’t understand that the mandated cuts were triggered by the governor’s order.

He suggested an outreach effort to let the public know who is behind the drastic water cutbacks.

“Let them know it’s the governor forcing this unfair mandate on them and not the district,” he said.

Bardin said the district would seek to make that point clear in future written communications with customers.