San Diegans across the region will face new local drought restrictions under a state mandate that goes into effect Friday.
The rules vary based on a customer’s water retailer but generally include checks on outdoor watering and prohibitions on at-home car washing. In the city of San Diego, for example, irrigation of nonagricultural landscapes will be limited to three days a week before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. If hand-watering with a hose, it must be equipped with a shutoff nozzle or be hooked up to a sprinkler system on a timer.
The Helix Water District — which serves 56,500 customers in the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon, as well as the communities of Spring Valley and Lakeside — will also be required to restrict outdoor irrigation to three days a week and turn off all ornamental fountains not using recirculated water.
The state has also issued a blanket prohibition on watering “non-functional” turf by governments, as well as commercial and industrial users, such as along highway medians and in business parks. The rule doesn’t apply to golf courses, sports fields or lawns used for civic activities. It also doesn’t impact the use of recycled water.
The goal is to encourage a 20-percent reduction in water use within each service territory.
“We are asking San Diegans to take these steps now, so we can help avoid a more dire situation in the near future,” Juan Guerreiro, director of the San Diego Public Utilities Department, said in a statement. “Water is a precious resource, and we must use our water wisely.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom spearheaded the new rules after calling earlier this year for a voluntary cut of 15 percent. Instead, water use crept up across the state amid ongoing dry conditions.
The directives, approved by the State Water Resources Control Board last month, specifically require water agencies to implement what’s known as “Drought Level 2,” a series of prohibitions outlined in local contingency plans required by the state.
The city of San Diego has already had a suite of permanent restrictions in place, such as washing down sidewalks, driveways and other paved surfaces unless it’s to “alleviate immediate safety or sanitation hazards.”
The San Diego County Water Authority has repeatedly said that the region is not currently in a drought because of its high-priority rights on the Colorado River and access to desalinated water from a plant in Carlsbad. In fact, the wholesaler is currently using very little, if any, water from the State Water Project, which is fed by the imperiled Sacramento River Delta.
Officials in Sacramento have rejected the idea that San Diego should get a pass on mandated drought restriction, despite the region having reduced its water use by an eye-popping 40 percent since a peak in 2007.
While the region has been a poster child for drought conservation, water agencies have seen their revenue plummet as residents ripped out lawns and installed water-efficient appliances. In response, agencies raised rates to cover fixed costs such as routine maintenance and debt payments.
As San Diego water managers are now forced to promote ever-more conservation, many fear it could further decimate their annual budgets, requiring even more severe rate increases.
The water authority, for example, hiked its wholesale rates for treated water from $920 an acre foot in 2010 to $1,736 an acre foot last year. This year, the agency raised its prices by another 3.6 percent, with another 5.2 percent increase planned for 2023.
The situation has taken many San Diegans by surprise. Residents have installed drought-tolerant landscaping only to see their bills remain the same or in some cases increase. Low-income communities, already using the bare minimum, have been hit the hardest.
Some water managers have pleaded with the state for rate relief. So far, officials in Sacramento have yet to act on those urgings.
The governor has signaled that if water savings don’t materialize this summer, even stricter water cuts could be on the horizon. It’s still unclear whether Newsom will try anything as bold as then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015 mandatory water cut of 25 percent.