San Diego’s morphing water policy
Posted by George J Janczyn on August 28, 2012
The San Diego City Council has been working on a comprehensive water policy for several years. While incremental developments have been sporadically reported in the news media, it’s easy to lose the thread, so here’s a backgrounder.
In late 2010, anticipating an eventual announcement that the drought was officially over, then San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye proposed that the city’s temporary Drought Response Level 2 restrictions on water use be made permanent, rather than be discontinued. The Level 2 rules limited landscape watering to three days per week/10 minutes per session and only during early morning or evening hours (see the Emergency Water Regulations for complete details on water use restrictions).
Frye’s idea was to send residents a lifestyle message about the ongoing need to conserve water, drought or no drought, in accord with living in a semi-arid region where water storage is limited and supplies from hundreds of miles away are subject to curtailment, price increases, and/or cutoff due to disaster.
Although the proposal was endorsed by the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC), the main feature of Frye’s proposal — the permanent limit on outdoor landscape watering to three days per week/10 minutes per session — was eliminated after some residents and groups such as the American Society of Landscape Architects and the California Landscape Contractors Association lobbied against the proposal.
Ultimately a weaker version of the proposal was passed by the city council. The scaled-back version barred landscape sprinkler irrigation during the hottest hours of the day, with summer and winter schedules specified, but imposed no limit as to how many days or how much one could water.
Meanwhile, Councilmember Sherri Lightner began speaking out about outdated city policies and the lack of a comprehensive water plan.
In October 2011 Lightner was able to get city council approval for a Comprehensive Water Policy for a Sustainable Water Supply in San Diego.
Next, in order to give the new policy momentum, Lightner asked for a Water Policy Implementation Task Force to recommend priorities, goals, timelines, and performance measures for actions that should be taken by the City Council. As a result the task force was formed by a city council resolution (item 106) in May 2012. Its members were appointed with a one-year term to expire June 21, 2013.
As of this writing the task force has no website for agendas, minutes, or accompanying materials (the city’s website management is well known for bureaucratic delay that impedes departments like Public Utilities from getting documentation posted in a timely manner) but in summary, the meetings in May, June, and July dealt mainly with organizational matters and with members hearing informational reports by the Public Utilities Department, County Water Authority staff, and others. [Sep 4, 2012: the WPITF website is now up]
Most recently, the Aug 21 meeting looked at a proposal for four water conservation policy priorities that may evolve into the first formal recommendations of the group.
The first priority listed would make the City’s Drought Response Level 1 provisions permanent. This would go only half-way towards the proposal Donna Frye originally wanted to implement, in that a restricted three-day-per-week watering regime would only be voluntary, not mandatory. While this was basically noncontroversial, member Bruce Rainey suggested that we shouldn’t imply that we live in a permanent drought…and that some other word or phrase should be used to label the need for permanent ongoing conservation.
New economic incentives for water efficiency retrofitting was thought by some to be unrealistic given the current budget climate, and/or unnecessary since there have already been many such programs in the past.
The proposed recommendation to reduce landscape irrigation by requiring greater use of native and drought-tolerant landscaping and more efficient irrigation control systems drew criticism because of its proposed prohibition on landscape irrigation during daylight hours. Member Glen Schmidt is one who took issue with this idea, and also with any move to limit watering to three days per week. He argued that any limits on watering should at least take the city’s different climate zones into account (Mr. Schmidt lobbied on behalf of American Society of Landscape Architects against Donna Frye’s 2010 proposal to permanently restrict outdoor watering).
The proposed directive for Public Utilities to research cost-effective conservation alternatives was dropped after it was learned the city already is doing that.
On the proposed recommendation for funding gray water for irrigation, Tim Barnett wanted to know if enough can be meaningfully generated. Nobody seemed to know if research has been done on that. On the other hand Bruce Rainey wondered if too many people set up graywater systems might that have a negative effect on wastewater infrastructure that needs a certain flow to perform properly or for potable reuse. Cathy Pieroni (sitting in as Public Utilities consultant) said other cities have had issues in that regard.
Also on the agenda was a presentation by Brandon J. Goshi, Manager of Water Policy and Strategy at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
Mr. Goshi’s presentation entitled “San Diego’s Future Water Options From a Regional Perspective” (here’s a PDF of the PowerPoint slides) made the point that despite our differences on pricing issues, MWD’s considerable infrastructure delivering water from Northern California and the Colorado River means that MWD is and will continue to be integral to water reliability for San Diego.
He also pointed out that for the immediate future imported water from MWD will continue to be significantly less expensive than new local sources in development:
Task Force members had some questions, but not so much about the presentation, other than to point out that MWD’s water prices are certain to increase at a faster rate than the expensive local projects that will eventually be competitive.
The atmosphere was sort of like a soccer friendly where both sides want to win but they know full well they need each other to exist.
Tim Barnett wanted to know about the sustainability of MWD’s groundwater projects and how they manage to extract it so cheaply. Answer: economies of scale bring significant savings (but the remainder of the reply didn’t make clear whether more water is being pumped from aquifers than is naturally recharging).
Gordon Hess asked how much of the projected $20B cost of a California Delta fix would MWD pay? Answer: probably about 25%. And how much of that share will MWD’s Los Angeles area member agencies pay? Answer: good question, hard to say.
The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for 2pm on Sep 24 at the Metropolitan Operations Center II (MOC) auditorium.
Here’s a selection of water policy-related documentation:
- Comprehensive Policy for a Sustainable Water Supply in San Diego:
- Council policy 400-05: Storage of water:
- Council sustainable building policy:
- 2010 San Diego Urban Water Management Plan:
- 2011 San Diego Recycled Water Master Plan:
- 2012 San Diego Recycled Water Study Final Report:
- San Diego Emergency Water Regulations:
- Independent Rates Oversight Committee charter:
- Sherri Lightner’s water policy web page:
- Sherri Lightner’s announcement naming the Implementation Task Force:
- Bio/Resumes for task force appointees: