GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

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Meanwhile, Councilmember Sherri Lightner began speaking out about outdated city policies and the lack of a comprehensive water plan.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:


4 Responses to “San Diego’s morphing water policy”

  1. Ann said

    Terrific and informative post George. Thank you!

  2. Burton Freeman said

    City of San Diego deserves an important debate over water policy! That there are so many interacting issues here makes fora very complicated debate; supply, demand, price, public vs private participation, etc.
    Water is not fuel by a long shot, but there are some similarities: vital to our way of life; limited supply; requires delivery infrastructure; deeply involved in our lifestyles, etc. It is interesting to contrast our approaches to them. I’m unable to do justice to this topic, but, largely, fuel operates in the private sector, while water is in the hands of the public sector. We do not prohibit trips to the gas station, or the amount of fuel we buy, or dictate the price we pay! Imperfect comparison? Absolutely, but you get my drift.

    • Emily said

      While those similarities are true, the biggest difference between water and fuel is that 100% of the people need water 100% of the time. The private industry can be more “efficient” by excluding portions of the population (i.e. people without cars, that ride the bus, or bike). From a supply and demand perspective, a company can set gas prices higher, knowing that some people will not be able to afford it and so demand can match supply. Since water suppliers do not have this luxury (everyone must be able to afford water), the inherent management of the industry has to be different. This may mean that landscaping is regulated to ensure that everyone has enough water for essential uses. As a last side note, it wasn’t that long ago that gas was regulated during the Gas Crisis in the 1970s. With such a limited supply of an essential commodity, regulation may be a valuable option to increase conservation and lower prices.

      • Burton Freeman said

        As I remarked above, the comparison is clearly imperfect. That said, there is thread to follow; too little regulation may lead to monopoly, abuse, etc.; too much leads to mal-allocation and inhibits innovation. Where does water fall in this continuum of regulation?

        Incidentally, there is a private market in water: hey Culligan man; bottled water, etc.

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