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San Diego City Council Calls For Voluntary Water Conservation

The county grand jury today took the city of San Diego to task for not moving fast enough to enhance the local water supply.

The grand jury report, which said the City Council needs to "assume the mantle of leadership and provide funding for future water projects,'' called planning by the city's Public Utilities Department and the water authority is meaningless if city officials won't "pull the trigger'' to implement their suggestions.

Among the recommendations are to junk a City Council-approved water recycling project demonstration project and get on with building actual plants; establish realistic funding timelines for water projects; support capital improvement projects that enhance water management; require dual plumbing systems in new construction for recycled water use; and creating a policy in which water rates are to go up when wholesale prices are increased by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Several hours after the report was released, the City Council approved a $1 million expenditure to hire a consultant and stage a public relations campaign to build support for recycled water. The council also called for voluntary conservation measures by residents in face of the drought.

The grand jury alleged "political posturing'' on the part of City Council members for not passing along a wholesale rate hike to customers a couple of years ago, only to turn around recently and approve an increase of more than 7 percent for local residents and businesses over the next two years.

The grand jury contends the council is trying to recover its past losses with the new increase.

"Historically, requests for rate hikes were routinely voted down by the City Council in order to look better to the voters,'' the report says. "What have resulted are the postponement of water infrastructure projects, Band-Aid repair jobs and an ever-increasing list of problems with water delivery and wastewater management. The city's water decisions are guided more by political considerations than sound public policy that is in the best interest of the citizens of San Diego County.''

The grand jury said the only feasible ways to drastically increase the local water supply is through desalination and recycling.

The report also recommends that the water authority consider economic rewards for ratepayers who cut their usage, and be more transparent about how and why projects are prioritized and funded.

Maureen Stapleton, the water authority's general manager, agreed that ratepayers deserve credit for their "farsighted efforts,'' and said a recently updated master plan was the result of roughly two dozen public workshops, meetings and hearings.

"It's encouraging that the grand jury continues to support a diversified approach to maintaining a reliable water supply for the San Diego region, including seawater desalination, water recycling and conservation,'' Stapleton said. "The region's investments in a diversified water supply portfolio and conservation measures over the past 20 years have helped San Diego County avoid the worst effects of the current statewide drought.''

The grand jury said it reached its conclusions after interviewing water policy officials and reviewing reports from the City Council, city Engineering and Public Utilities departments, Metropolitan Water District and others.

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