Thursday, October 22, 2009
San Diego County residents have responded to the call to conserve water, and local water district now say they'll ease back on water-use restrictions for the winter. How will the water-use restrictions change because of local conservation efforts? And, could local efforts to conserve lead to higher water rates in the future?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. You could chalk it up either to success or to unintended consequences but water districts around San Diego County are beginning to ease their water conservation regulations. For instance, the City of San Diego was supposed to restrict watering to one day a week starting in November but now that plan is being revised. Water agency officials say the summertime water restrictions were a big success so the need for conservation has eased. But there’s another reason and that one revolves about – around lower water usage resulting in lower water agency revenue. For more on the complexities of water conservation in San Diego, I’d like to welcome my guest, Mike Lee, environment reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Mike, welcome to These Days.
MIKE LEE (Environment Reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: So how much water have we conserved over the last few months? What are the numbers looking like across the county?
LEE: Yeah, it’s really been quite amazing. Going into the summer, the water managers around the county said they needed to save about 8% and that varies by district depending on the amount of local supplies and other sources they have, but 8% was kind of the number that most people were using. And what happened was that customers cut back by in the neighborhood of 15 to up to maybe 20, 22% in some districts, so they really went far beyond what water managers were expecting and it’s probably due to a couple of things. One is that the message of conservation has finally kind of sunk in and reached kind of into the public psyche here in San Diego and across Southern California but I think the effect was really compounded by a renewed emphasis on conservation of all kinds with regards to the economy, and people realized that with rates going up by double digit percentages each year that, you know, they could actually save a few dollars a month in their household budget if they could trim back more on the water. And so, you know, the combined effect was really a much bigger than anticipated reduction.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I have heard that anecdotally from people that I know, that it just sort of dovetailed, wanting to save money and getting on the bandwagon of water conservation at the same time. So this really was much more, a much bigger savings, that the water agencies had anticipated.
LEE: I think in almost all cases you could say that. San Diego has a really kind of complex system of water agencies that are around the county and they each have their different needs, their different customers, different types of customers, either heavily residential or heavily commercial or heavily ag but, by and large, yeah, that’s the bottom line. People did what they were told to do and, you know, it bodes well for the region in the sense that it’s very unlikely that conservation measures will end anytime soon.
LEE: In fact, the long term picture is really for water pressure to continue into the foreseeable future.
CAVANAUGH: Well, as a consequence though of people responding so well to the water restrictions over the summer, most local water districts are actually changing their winter restriction plans, is that correct?
LEE: Yes, it’s a change from their plans. In many cases it’s not much of a change from what is currently going on. So to set this up, a few years ago all the districts got together under the County Water Authority and said, hey, what are we going to do next time there’s a drought and we have to go into conservation mode, heavy duty conservation mode. Well, and they agreed on these certain steps. And one of the steps was that come November first, that the watering days, outdoor watering days for most homes and businesses would go from three days a week, the summertime norm, to one day a week, figuring that, you know, that it’s not as hot, there’s usually, you know, some sporadic rain through the winter, and so we can get by with less and maintain, you know, savings. Well, what they realized in the last several weeks is that they’ve actually saved so much water that they don’t really need to save more than kind of the 8% level and so there’s no compelling reason to force people down to one day a week. So in most cases, they’re saying that they’re going to stay with the three day a week watering schedule and there are some other ways that they’re kind of easing up on the rules here and there, maybe allowing, in some areas, allowing potted plants to be watered anytime or gardens to be watered anytime, that kind of thing. But, by and large, people want to focus on maintaining their three day a week watering schedule.
CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s non-commercial vegetable gardens being able to be watered anytime and potted plants, so that really is a big bonus to a lot of people who want to grow their own stuff. Now let me ask you, though, even though it’s going to be still three days a week water restrictions in the City of San Diego, the amount of time actually will be reduced.
LEE: Yes, and that was kind of the compromise that city staff and apparently the council are – were comfortable with that, you know, keep people on the schedule that they’ve gotten used to, dial back the amount of time from 10 minutes to 7 minutes per sprinkler or per station, as people who have irrigation systems call it, so that actually the overall amount of water is still going to be cut back but it’s not going to be quite as dramatic as going – you know, cutting it by two-thirds, which would have been the effect of the one day a week plan.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly, and these new restrictions go into effect in November?
LEE: Well, the – it’s a little technical…
LEE: …because the City of San Diego needs to give final approval to these – to the changes in the ordinance and, as I understand it, it actually takes 30 days for that to become law so there’s this – Even though they intend it to be starting on November first, I guess technically it will be 30 days after they give final approval, so there’s kind of this strange window for much of November. But what I’ve heard from City staff is that, you know, the idea is follow the intent of the rule changes and, you know, if people are acting in good faith they’re not going to kind of go out and bust folks for being responsible.
CAVANAUGH: And even though we’re concentrating here on the City of San Diego, you’re saying that a lot of the other water agencies are also basically easing up their water restrictions for the wintertime.
LEE: Yeah, that’s right. There is an effort, probably more so than ever by the agencies in the county, to have a coordinated approach to this because they realize that the public can only accept so many different messages and if they’re – if people in, you know, one district are getting told it’s two days a week, in the next district it’s one day, and then it’s three days, and then in – you know, somewhere else it’s do whatever you want, it just breeds confusion. So, by and large, agencies are kind of trying to stick together on this. Again, I think in the back of everybody’s mind is this idea that at, you know, by spring even there could be a need to restrict watering even more than currently – than is currently in place and they’ll need to do that again in a coordinated fashion.
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue our conversation with Mike Lee, environment reporter for the Union-Tribune about water restrictions in San Diego County and the revenue side of the picture. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS and we’re talking about the success of water conservation efforts this summer in San Diego County, and some of the unexpected consequences of that success. My guest is Mike Lee, environment reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Now, Mike, I have heard – You told us that the program, the water restriction program, went over much better than local officials anticipated and that we’ve been conserving so much water that local water districts might have to raise rates. Now, that really doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. Can you explain why that is?
LEE: Well, yeah, you’re right. It seems – It doesn’t seem to make sense but what happens is this. As people cut back their water use, of course, water agencies are making less money and they still have a certain amount of fixed costs that don’t go away no matter how much water they sell or they don’t sell. And so to pay for that infrastructure and to meet the various clean water codes and testing and all of that, you know, they have then fewer gallons to spread that cost over and ultimately what that could mean is that they would have to raise rates to cover their costs. Now how quickly that will happen, I don’t know. It’s very difficult to parse out some of these changes because water, the cost of raw water, of just imported water coming into the county is rising so rapidly and there are other factors that influence the cost of water in different districts, say, needing to repair large sections of pipe or that kind of thing, so it all kind of gets blended together but the bottom line is customers will be seeing higher rates for a combination of factors, possibly including the fact that they’ve saved, you know, more than water managers were expecting.
CAVANAUGH: Right, so kind – what you’re saying here is some of those fixed costs include keeping up the infrastructure of being able to deliver the water and making sure that the water that is delivered, whether it’s lots of water or a little water, passes federal standards.
LEE: Absolutely. And, again, it really varies heavily by district. Some districts put more emphasis on their fixed charges so they have really a more stable kind of rate structure, other districts really emphasize making people pay the bulk of their bill based on how much water they use because they figure that encourages conservation, which it does, but the downside is that it also leaves them a little more exposed to what you might call downturns in the market like they’re seeing now.
CAVANAUGH: So the fact that most local water agencies are not putting in more excessive wintertime restrictions as they had originally planned, is that at least in part because of the revenues? The shrinking revenues?
LEE: Yeah, I think that would be fair to say that that is one of the causes. It’s a delicate balance on – for these boards and these agencies to make and, in some sense, you know, by not being more aggressive now, they’re really trying to kind of prevent further revenue reductions, which ends up helping their customers kind of keep an even keel through this storm of the, you know, the different financial aspects that are battering some of these agencies.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Mike, are water agencies thinking of how to deal with this problem of revenue flow as conservation, water conservation, becomes more of a way of life in San Diego?
LEE: Yes, and they have been for, I think, some time it’s fair to say. What – The problematic issue here was really the rapid, really unprecedented decline in water use that kind of caught folks off guard. Generally, you know, water districts are pretty conservative budgeters and they encourage and try to help conservation and when you think about it, it’s kind of a strange deal because they’re actually trying to get people to use less of the product that they sell. But they know that that is the long term way of life in Southern California and they can manage that on a year-to-year basis. They also try to account for new growth because that, you know, is part of the economic driver of the region and so, overall, yeah, they’re planning for it but when they get a 20% drop in their biggest three sales months of the year, they can’t swallow that whole.
CAVANAUGH: Right, they’re really feeling that. Now I’ve been reading in the Union-Tribune and in other places that the San Diego City Council may, indeed, change the conservation plan from outdoor watering restrictions to a rate structure, a tiered rate structure. Is that what we may see in, let’s say, spring of 2010 in the City of San Diego?
LEE: Well, San Diego has talked about a variety of different ways to induce conservation. If you go back maybe a year or so, the City was talking about allocating each household and each business a certain amount of water and then penalizing them if they used more than that. You know, and that then kind of got pushed to the side. There were too many questions about that. It’s likely that San Diego and other agencies around the county will continue to look at different pricing structures to, again, encourage conservation. These tiered pricing structures are very common. They can be, you know, increasingly steep or increasingly shallow, if you will, depending on how much you’re trying to get people to cut back and there are very detailed studies about how to do that and it doesn’t – you know, I’m sure San Diego is looking at fine-tuning or even changing its approach.
CAVANAUGH: Mike, thank you so much. A lot of good information today. Thanks.
LEE: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Mike Lee, environment reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. You can comment on this topic at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And These Days will continue here on KPBS in just a few minutes.