May 13 2015 12:10 PM

Mayor's office drags its feet in state-mandated race to cut water use

In University Heights, Travis Pritchard kneels over a water meter that’s been leaking for weeks.
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

    On Monday in University Heights, Travis Pritchard stood over a row of leaking water meters. Thoroughly soaking the dirt around where the meters were dug into the ground, clean drinking water overflowed into the street.

    "This water was pumped up and over a mountain to get here so that it could go right into the storm drain," he said in disgust, referring to the region's reliance on the Colorado River and runoff from the Sierra snowpack.

    About a month ago, Pritchard, who lives a few blocks away, first noticed the leak. He didn't immediately take action, thinking city officials would quickly address something so blatant.

    However, at the beginning of the month, after watching for days as the meters continually hemorrhaged water, he used the city's "Waste No Water" app to report the situation. According to his phone, the issue was "referred to storm water."

    A man popped his head out of a window from the apartment complex connected to the meters and added in frustration that he'd also reported the now month-old leak to the building's property manager. "Glad to see you reported it," he called down. "I appreciate that, man."

    This is an example of how the city needs to significantly improve its drought-response efforts, said Pritchard, who also happens to work for the environmental advocacy group San Diego Coastkeeper.

    "There's still a lot of low-hanging fruit in the water-conservation realm that they're not getting at," he said.

    Despite a statewide campaign to conserve water during California's now unprecedented drought, over recent months, the city of San Diego has fought state-mandated reductions for water use and used a feather-light hand when enforcing its own conservation rules.

    In March, the city received 372 reports of water-use violations but issued only two warnings, according to data released last week by the State Water Resources Control Board. By comparison, San Jose received 100 complaints and issued 96 warnings. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power received 1,215 complaints and proactively issued 1,364 warnings.

    Starting in April, San Diego changed its enforcement process, said Craig Gustafson, press secretary for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in an email. In response to confirmed water-waste complaints, officials will now issue warning notices that, if unaddressed, will lead to fines of up to $1,000.

    "Previously, the city's enforcement of water use restrictions allowed for ample time for customers to learn about the restrictions and complete corrective action," he said.

    The mayor's office didn't respond by press time to questions about the leaking water meters reported by Pritchard.

    In response to the most severe drought in 1,200 years, the state water board approved an emergency plan last week to cut urban water use by 25 percent compared to 2013 levels. The rules require water supplies to meet individual reduction targets, measured monthly, ranging from 8 to 36 percent, based on residential per-capita use last year.

    As its own water agency, the city of San Diego fought to lower its assigned reduction target, arguing with the water board that recent conservation efforts, such as the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, scheduled to come on line this fall, would cut down on the city's use of drought-impacted water sources.

    However, when asked by CityBeat, the mayor's office seemed comfortable with the city's assigned, monthly target of 16 percent below its 2013 baseline.

    "San Diego has a long history of leadership in water conservation and recycling, and the Mayor will continue to encourage San Diegans to conserve to meet Governor Brown's mandate," Gustafson said. "The 16 percent reduction target is reflective of that leadership and gives San Diegans credit for their past conservation efforts."

    San Diego has a long way to go, according to data from the water board. Between June of last year and this February, the city's average water use saw a reduction of just 2 percent below 2013 levels, and in March, water use actually increased 4 percent over the baseline.

    The city's drought restrictions include watering only three times a week on assigned days, time limits for sprinkler systems and a ban on irrigation for two days after it rains. Residents are also prohibited from "excessive irrigation" and must "immediately" correct leaks in their private water systems.

    Environmentalists have argued the mayor's office can meet its reduction target by getting tough on residential outdoor irrigation, which accounts for more than a quarter of all water use in the city.

    "We're not at the point where we're running out of water to drink or not be able to take showers," said Livia Borak, an attorney with the Coast Law Group. "We're just not going to be able to have lawns. There's definitely a lot of room for savings there."

    However, politically, such water conservation is never an easy sell, she noted. Because the cost of running a water system is fixed regardless of how much water is used, rates go up when everyone uses less.

    "It's just hard messaging that I don't think the city wants to do," Borak said. "That being said, they just have to be honest with people. We're going to pay more."

    The city may eventually have little choice. The state's new plan comes with hefty penalties. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown called on municipalities to voluntarily curb water use and saw a reduction of less than 9 percent statewide. This year, starting in June, if a water supplier is not meeting its monthly reduction target, officials can issue fines up to $10,000 a day—a cost that would likely be passed on to ratepayers.

    The state isn't going to be quick to pull the trigger on issuing fines, said George Kostyrko, spokesperson for the water board. If a water provider isn't meeting its monthly reductions target, the state will discuss with the provider ways to improve its enforcement strategy.

    "It's a judgment call, but it's really talking to the water districts first because we don't want to fine," he said. "Fines don't generate water savings."

    The mayor's office declined to comment on the political implications of calling for water conservation but conceded that convincing folks to stop watering their lawns could pose a challenge.

    "Conserving water is already a way of life for many San Diegans and reducing water usage even further won't be easy," Gustafson said. "Reducing outdoor irrigation is the quickest and most reliable way to lower water usage for San Diego's businesses and homeowners."

    Still, even one of the city's biggest critics when it comes to water conservation has reserved hope that efforts can turn around.

    "We want to see San Diego stepping up to be the leader in water conservation for the whole state," Pritchard said. "We can set the example. The population's ready to conserve if they're just given the impetus." 

    Write to or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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