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Will City, County End Water Supply Restrictions?

A local fountain sprays water into the air during a sunny day in San Diego.
A local fountain sprays water into the air during a sunny day in San Diego.
Will City, County End Water Supply Restrictions?
The wet winter has created an abundant water supply in reservoirs throughout the state. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought to be over, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently announced that it will end the water supply restrictions it implemented in 2009. What will this news mean for ratepayers in San Diego County? And, what will the County Water Authority and the city water department do to ensure we have a sustainable, consistent water supply in the future? We'll speak to representatives from the Metropolitan Water District, the San Diego County Water Authority and the city's Public Utilities Department.

The wet winter has created an abundant water supply in reservoirs throughout the state. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought to be over, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently announced that it will end the water supply restrictions it implemented in 2009. What will this news mean for ratepayers in San Diego County? And, what will the County Water Authority and the city water department do to ensure we have a sustainable, consistent water supply in the future? We'll speak to representatives from the Metropolitan Water District, the San Diego County Water Authority and the city's Public Utilities Department.


Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California


Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority

Brent Eidson, policy and external affair representative for the City of San Diego's Public Utilities Department

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS, I'm Alyson St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Did you hear the news? The drought of the last couple of years is officially over. The metropolitan water district in Southern California which supplies most of San Diego County's water, has voted to lift water restrictions, and that rote is now trick thing down through the system. Local water agencies all over the county are in the process of deciding what to do. The tricky thing is that there are still worries over whether we will have enough water in the future, so is it wise to let people go back to using water like there's no tomorrow? Our guests this hour are first of all Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the metropolitan water district of Southern California. Jeff, tanks for joining us.


ST. JOHN: And we also have the general manager of CWA, the San Diego County water authority, Maureen Stapleton. Maureen, thank you for coming in.


STAPLETON: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And then Brett Eidson, from the San Diego City's public utilities department is also here with us. Good morning Brent.

EIDSON: Good morning. Pleasure to be here.

ST. JOHN: And we'd like to hear from you. Will start using more water if the restrictions are lifted or have you made permanent changes to your lifestyle? Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. So Jeff, let's start with you, at the top of the chain, as it were. Why has the metropolitan water district decided to end the water delivery restrictions that began a couple years ago in 2009?

KIGHTLINGER: Had, it's because the governor declared the drought over and so we followed suit. We have restored our storage supplies of so we have been able to capture a lot of water this year and rebuild our storage. Soap that's the good news. But we certainly don't want consumers to go back. We want them to remember these lessons and to continue to conserve and use wisely. But we also don't want to apply peptides of our system is a penalty system. And the last thing we want to do when we have plenty of water is start collecting cash penalties for slight over uses.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So tell us how much water is currently stored in your reservoirs?

KIGHTLINGER: Well, we measure water in acre feet. And an acre foot is about -- half an acre foot supplies a family of four for an entire year. And we have over 3 million acre feet in storage, and where we're projected to end up at the end of this year. That's about a year and a half's total supply even if we got nothing from the weather.

ST. JOHN: A year and a half. So Maureen, this is the county water authority level, you are actually gonna decide on Thursday what to do in response to this restriction, but you have a recommendation out already. What is that?

STAPLETON: Right. The staff is recommending to our board, which will meet on Thursday, that we in fact also discontinue the municipal and industrial allocation PROGRAM, as well as that we rescind the agricultural cut backs as well. As Jeff said, you know, the govern declared the drought over. The snow pack and the hydrology this year has been phenomenal. It's really a wet year. So we with are encouraging the storage of water for those dry year, which we know will come in the future. And we also believe that our community has fundamentally changed. We're moving toward a fundamental change of water use efficiency in the long run. We believe the best thing to do is to go ahead and move off of the drought allocations.

ST. JOHN: And I know that the county has been building new ways of storing water. How many months objection be you store if they were full.

STAPLETON: Right. By the time we're done wither emergency storage project and the raise of the dam at San Vicente reservoir, we will have well over six months of water stored within a region that can respond to droughts, but also to earthquake which may sever our pipes between us and metropolitan.

ST. JOHN: And how much have county residents managed to conserve in the last couple of years?

STAPLETON: In San Diego County from 2007 to today, our water use on a per capita basis has been reduced nearly -- over 30 percent.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was that person you expected?

STAPLETON: Very much so. We have a substantial program, as you're aware of, of really changing the behavior of our community in water use, that people really need to think about using water more efficiently, as it is a finite resource. And that conservation program really has brought two I think the attention of all the people in San Diego County that water is finite and they need to use it wisely.

ST. JOHN: So Brent, trickling on down the line here, you're the city. What options is the city considering in response to met's decision and what hooks like it's likely to be CWA's decision this week?

RIH1: Well, the city -- pardon me, the mayor actually made recommendations to the City Council's committee on natural resources and culture last week to come out of the drought level response, contingent upon CWA's board taking that action this Thursday. That action was approved and is forwarded on to the full council for consideration in the next couple of weeks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. So you mentioned though, that the debate at the natural resources committee was pretty dynamic right?

EIDSON: It was. It was a pretty robust discussion about whether coming out of the drought level two was the right approach for the city. Because, as Maureen mentioned, there's been such a great campaign, both by county water authority, and frankly the city takes great pride in our waste no water campaign, to really have a cultural change in how people use their water, and some of the council members were concerned that by coming out of the drought level II, we may be sending the wrong message. But we want to continue this effort to educate, and have our consumers consuming water of the.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay am we'd love to have your take on this issue. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. How have you change yard lifestyle? Have we all changed our lifestyles to be more water conscious in and how much would we go back to how it was before if in fact the restrictions were lifted? Or would we still continue to conserve? What do you think about this policy of lifting the restrictions? 1-888-895-5727. And Brent, thought to complete the information about how San Diego City residents saved water, what -- how much did they conserve in the last couple of years?

EIDSON: Well, like Maureen, we ere very surprised, and presently surprised at the way that our consumers reacted to the message to save water. So between 2009 and 2011, at least from the months of July to March, the City of San Diego's bill of consumption went down by 14.1 percent. So just in two years during this campaign, 14.1 percent reduction from our customers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Depend, good. So Jeff, I wanted to go back to you, and sort of ask you this question. Because some folks might argue, as Brent was mentioning, that the water restrictions should continue because our water supply could change from year to year. How do you respond to that argument?

KIGHTLINGER: Well, our view is really that we want the consumer to conserve water all the time. So we all our baseline efficiency is our normal way of use. So that's what trying to encourage. Not to penalize people for use but to really encourage them to voluntarily conserve at all times. That's what we're trying to work with. We think it creates a confusing message when there's lots of water in the system, this year is a very wet year, as Maureen pointed out, it's about 170 percent of normal to be saying mandatory conservation is in effect, even when there's a lot of water available. So we're trying to encourage voluntary conservation as a way to govern.

ST. JOHN: And just looking at the other side of the issue about the political pressure to act, are you afraid that the end of the drought will remove that political pressure and we won't make as much progress as we need to?

KIGHTLINGER: Wee hopeful not. We believe that water is at the top of the political agenda, again, after a long hiatus, and you certainly see that in the Governor Brown administration. They are definitely stressing delta water policies and conservation as one of their key plot forms. So we're hopeful that people will be mindful of course even when there is plenty of water in the system.

ST. JOHN: Is there any news about a better system to protect the delta in California?

KIGHTLINGER: We're working on it, it's a big conservation plan, and it's very important because Southern California gets about 50 percent of its imported water from the delta. So it's a very important process. It's got about another 24 months to go. Upon but it's good to see the brown administration solidly behind it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. So we're talking about water this hour here on -- this half-hour here on KPBS. And Denise from Scripps Ranch is on the line with a point, I think you want to make, Denise. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. Yeah, I would love to see more education and I would love to see some restrictions stay in place. I grew up in Southern California, so I've always been very conscious that we don't have a lot of water. And so our family has always conserved water pie doing things like -- I do everybody's laundry so we don't have different people doing laundry, the kids have been trained to not take really long showers of very simple things. I don't feel like it's a burden to us at all. But a few years ago, when the mandatory cutting back came into place, I realized it would be difficult for us to cut back from what we were using. And I started talking to friends and neighbors about their water usage and found that my family at that time we were using about half of the water that our -- many of our friends and neighbors had who had families of four.

ST. JOHN: Wow, that's pretty impressive, thanks for that point, Denise. So many I mean it does seem that people have managed to conserve way more than the agencies even asked for. And I guess I've gotta ask you, has that actually had a bad effect on your bottom line? Is this a sense in which the water agencies are a little trying to make up on their revenues now that the restrictions could be lifted again? Maureen?

STAPLETON: Well, absolutely it has a direct relationship to our revenues. But we actually budget to what we think our community is going to be using in the subsequent years of it's been really interesting that over the past 20 years, as San Diego County has really made an effort to raise awareness and conservation and water use efficiency by the entire community that it's really taken effect. It's the issue of changing it from a penalty system to really an ethics or a behavior system. In 1991, the average per gallon per person per day was over 200 gallons a day in San Diego County. It is well under 150 gallons now here in 2011. That is a substantial reduction by our community, year in and year out, on their water use. The San Diego County water authority is a big believer in education. We have school education programs, conservation education programs, and so forth. And we, as I believe the City of San Diego and metropolitan believe that water use efficiency is the real key to our future, not some program that penalizes you, per se, for doing something specific. The.

ST. JOHN: So Brent, what are some of the places where the city is expecting, if you do lift the restrictions, expecting people to stay with their habits? And then where do you think they might go back to their previous habits? And therefore increase water use.

EIDSON: Well, some of the actions that the city took was to recognize that the majority of the discretionary use of water is outdoors. And outdoor system where we can see a lot of the conservation. So as Denise pointed out in her call, she was a family of six, probably using water efficiently, whereas a family of four could be wasting a lot of water in their irrigation. The city is really focusing still on the education piece, as well as some of the restrictions will stay in place on how people use water outdoors on the irrigation. So some of the permanent restrictions will stay in place. They won't come -- won't be lifted because we've come out of level two, and some of those include making sure that no water runs off your property. If water's running off your property, you're obviously using too much water. You will not be allowed to irrigate during the heat of the day. So restrictions still stay in place from ten AM to 6:00 PM at night during the summer months or 4:00 PM in the winter. And we'll still continue with our robust conservation campaign which is education based like Maureen said, not penalty based. We're out trying to educate and make water use efficiency a way of life in San Diego.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So you would be able to water your garden any day of the week rather than trying to remember which are my three days.

EIDSON: That's correct. That will go away.

ST. JOHN: But you could still be fined or what would be the penalty if you --

EIDSON: Technically fines are still an option. But they're well down the list of remedies we like to see in place. We like to take education first as our conservation policy. The water conservation team is out there reminding customers of what the restrictions are, and we have an ability to actually, if customers want, they can get free water surveys of just visit our website at San And you can find a way to have city staff come out and take a look at how you're using water in your yard for free, and they'll make recommendations on how you can still maintain your yard, how you want to maintain it by using the water efficiently.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I gotta ask you, is the city perhaps gonna cut down on the budget that it spends on people going out to --

EIDSON: It is, yes, thanks for asking that. When we went into the level two emergency, we did add ten additional temporary positions, and those positions, about $776,000 will also be eliminated completely from the budget after we come out of level two, because those were tied directly to the emergency response.

ST. JOHN: Okay. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to join us. And Jim is on the line from City Heights. Jim, thanks for calling. Go right ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, hi, there's about 23 water agencies in San Diego. And that seems like a very large number even though we're a pretty good sized county. Why is the number larger than, say, one?

ST. JOHN: Okay, Jim, that's a question -- do you recognize, Jim, I notice -- no, you don't. But Maureen, do you have a response for Jim?

STAPLETON: Right, that has been asked a number of times of the water districts, some of them are irrigation districts, public utilities districts, water district, and then we have cities as well that make up our 24 retail agencies. And it really is a combination of addressing specific needs of that particular community and wanting, basically, the ability to legally govern. There are 24 retail agencies particularly selected different types of conservation programs when we went into the drought alert. City of San Diego being a prime example of the approach that they decided to take that was really customized for their community. So that's why there's so many, I believe, agencies. It's historical as well as a desire by those individual communities to retain local control.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So we should make the point that not all the water agencies, and the point Jim made is there's more than 20 of them, not all of them may decide to do what, say, the city is deciding to do. Each one will have their own favor of how to lift the restrictions.

STAPLETON: That's correct.

ST. JOHN: You have to pay attention to your local area. And they don't necessarily overlap with your city either, they're independent with different borders from the city borders. It is a complex situation. Let's go to Chris, he's got the question of the day, really. Go ahead, Chris.

NEW SPEAKER: Okay. Yeah, hey, during that water emergency, everybody responded so well at reducing water usage, that we were all rewarded with a rate increase because you guys weren't generating enough money from the water we bought. Now that we're out of the emergency, do we expect price rates to go down? And I'll take my answer off the air.

ST. JOHN: When we had to conserve, why don't they go down now that water's not a shortage? Maureen, you want to start on that one.

STAPLETON: Sure, I'm gonna do it as a comparison of when you purchase a car, and you have a monthly water payment. It doesn't matter if your car sits in the garage the entire month. Thea the end of the month, you still have your car payment. When your differential is is if you drive the car, you pay for the supply. The gas to make that car go a hundred miles in that month, or a thousand miles. Metropolitan, San Diego County water authority, and the City of San Diego have a huge physical infrastructure that must be not only maintained but rehabbed, repaired, and so forth. In addition, this community has invested nearly $2 billion now in infrastructure to improve our water reliability. All of those things need to be paid for day in and day out. And that's why the rates don't go down.

ST. JOHN: Okay, Brent, though, I need to follow up, because, you know, if people are saying this is not a punitive system, we're trying to do it with education, and encouragement and incentives. I think the average person feels like, hey, these rates are not incident vising me very well. And I feel like I should get some reward if I'm conserving. Why would you say to that?

EIDSON: Well, Maureen hit the nail on the head. There's a large infrastructure cost, and debt cost, frankly. A mortgage payment on the infrastructure that we're implementing. So you're really constrained by that issue. The other point is the City of San Diego did not raise its rates because of the drought. We had rates in place that were designed specifically to improve our infrastructure, and we have rates in place that were to buy the water, purchase the water from the county water authority and the metropolitan water district. But during this drought, the City of San Diego's rates were not raised because of the drought. Not to confuse you that the rates didn't rise, but they weren't because of the drought.

ST. JOHN: They definitely did rise, I think that's an important point to make. But they rose because of the pipes that were breaking under ground and the need to --

EIDSON: We made a conscious effort to invest in that system. Back in 2007 before this policy was implemented and that was a four-year plan, so they did see rates rise. But I want to make clear that our customers understand, that was in place before the brought, and not associated with the drought. The purchase water cost did go up, and that they did see in the last couple of years, but again the city's public utilities did not raise rates because of the drought.

ST. JOHN: Here is someone with a follow up to this question. Patrick is calling from Ramona. Thanks for joining us, Patrick, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: I still think the incentive idea is a good one. People who use less water should pay less on their bill. People who use more water should pay more on their bill. Can't we implement something like that?

ST. JOHN: Well, Maureen is nodding. So go ahead, Maureen.

STAPLETON: Many of our water agencies actually have a tiered pricing system, so that if you use more water, actually the second or third tier of water that you use is actually more expensive than the baseline tier. There is an incentive. It is not as great as some people would like. But there is an incentive in most if not all of our agencies, that the less water you use, the less you pay for that supply component of your bill.

ST. JOHN: Although I would say that, you know, we're aware that large water users do seem to get water cheaper. And so that is -- people who are like businesses and farmers, don't they get water if they're using large amounts? Brent?

EIDSON: Not in the City of San Diego. City has a three tiers system. As Maureen mentioned, some agencies do, we are one of those that has a three-tiered system. At least in the single family residential. So your first seven units, which is a measure we use, which is about 750 gallons, which is one unit, your first seven is one price. As you go into the next 7 to 14, it's yet a higher price, and from 14 and above is yet even a higher price. So there is it an exponential increase as you use more water.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And is there not a different in rates for businesses or agriculture?

EIDSON: There is. We have four different rates, and those are based on what it costs the City of San Diego to deliver that water to those types of customers. And the first rate in single family residential for the City of San Diego is the lowest rate. So it is not true that commercial or others are getting a lower rate.

ST. JOHN: Okay. You want to add to that, Maureen?

STAPLETON: I do. And I want to talk about the agricultural community. Because in reality, our agricultural community has taken a much larger hit than our municipal and industrial community. There is a discount program, and Jeff can talk to this, a special discounted agricultural rate. But for that rate, the agricultural user who is do get that discount water are the first to be cut in a drought. And they experienced, while we experienced nearly a 15 percent cut from metropolitan, the agricultural community in that discount program got a 30 percent cut. So if you do go in the North County area, you see many of the groves have been stumped, meaning their trees have been cut in order to cut down on their water use. And it has been devastating to the agricultural economy in San Diego County. It's very important for us, I think, to recognize the hit that was taken and that they gave up water so that in this discount program. So municipal and industrial did not take as big of a hit.

ST. JOHN: So in fact, lifting the restrictions might actually be particularly beneficial for the agricultural industry, which is struggling?

STAPLETON: We'll are hoping so.

ST. JOHN: I see. Ana from Encinitas is concerned about the Colorado river. Go ahead, Ana with your question.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, yeah. I just wanted to point out that, you know, even if our water reservoirs are full, we're not the end of the line, and the Colorado river supplies -- Mexico from which I understand has become a trickle, and along those lines, if we're talking about educating people about water usage, don't you think that, you know, saying that it would be confusing to tell people that you're gonna know penalized for water use when we're fine about our water supplies is maybe not giving them enough credit? I think everyone understands that it's not a static thing. And it changes with time, and we need to always be conscious of it. Upon so why go back on those habits that we've created? And let ours get away with that? Yeah.

ST. JOHN: Thanks. Good question. Maureen?

STAPLETON: Jeff can probably answer that question because he represents the agency that has one of the larger takes on the river.

ST. JOHN: Jeff, would you like to take that question?

KIGHTLINGER: Oh, happy too. We actually are governed by a treaty between the United States and Mexico on deliveries, and the United States always meets its treaty amount. It's one and a half acre feet of water a year is delivered to Mexico so much they have been getting their water. Undoubtedly, they would like to see more of it. It is a very good question on the issue of educating the public. And that's really what we in the water industry are trying to do. We don't like to be penalizers of people, but we do want to see these good habits continue. We were frankly as Maureen and Brent have said, very pleasantly surprised of we were hoping to get about a ten percent consumer reduction, and instead saw double -- closer to 20 percent thought our entire region. So we were everywhere pleased with that, and we'd like to see that trend continue.

ST. JOHN: Great. We've come to the end of our time. But I'd like to thank our guests very much. That was Jeff Kightlinger from the metropolitan water district of Southern California. Thank you Jeff.


ST. JOHN: Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County water authority.

STAPLETON: Thank you very much.

ST. JOHN: And Brent Eidson of the City of San Diego's public utilities department. Brent, thank you for the update.

EIDSON: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so over the next few days we'll probably be hearing more news about how different water agencies are relaxes those water restrictions that we've been dealing with over the past couple of years. Stay with us, coming up in the next segment, we'll talk about school menus trying to attack the obesity problem with what our children eat in schools.