Adopting the most drastic conservation measures in its history, the Metropolitan Water District voted Monday to cut water deliveries to agencies serving 15 million people by 50%, a move that officials say will almost certainly lead to mandatory water rationing in San Diego County and throughout Southern California.
The district, which provides most of the water for six counties from San Diego to Ventura, also voted to cut water deliveries to agriculture by 90% and to raise agricultural water prices by about 30%. All the measures will be effective April 1.
“This is the furthest we’ve ever gone,” said MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay. “I don’t think we can go any further.”
In response to MWD’s action, the San Diego County Water Authority--MWD’s biggest customer--made public a list of proposed prohibitions that its board of directors will consider later this week. The Emergency Drought Response Program would impose mandatory 50% cutbacks on the authority’s 23 member agencies and would threaten to levy hefty surcharges on those that don’t comply.
The unprecedented proposals would prohibit most outdoor sprinkling systems countywide, would ban most car-washing except in commercial car washes, and would limit new development by disallowing the issuance of most new water meters. They would also ban the filling of swimming pools and ornamental fountains and would limit irrigation with a hand-held hose to certain hours--under most circumstances, no outdoor watering would be allowed between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
In recent weeks, the authority--cognizant of the county’s 90% to 95% reliance on MWD for its water--has urged that its member agencies cut back substantially. But the proposed mandatory measures released Monday had more teeth than previous recommendations.
The proposals specify that member agencies that do not adopt the restrictions will pay a $200 surcharge on each acre-foot of water purchased from the authority. (Since an acre-foot now costs $237, the fine would raise the price of water by 84%).
Furthermore, the plan specifies that, beginning in June, member agencies that are not within 5% of their monthly conservation goals will have their deliveries reduced by the authority. In other words, if the authority’s customers don’t conserve, the authority will conserve for them.
If adopted, the proposals promise to hit the County Water Authority’s biggest customer, the city of San Diego, hardest. Nevertheless, Mayor Maureen O’Connor still supports only voluntary conservation measures, and on Monday she repeated her view that that approach could cut water use by at least 30%.
At the San Diego City Council meeting, O’Connor praised San Diegans for saving an average of 34% during the first three days of March. Even though those days came on the tail end of a rainstorm, she said, “It actually didn’t rain on Friday, Saturday or Sunday--it rained at the end of February.. . . . The people are listening. They are trying to solve this problem.”
But John Lockwood, the city manager, said he is not sure a voluntary program will achieve 30% savings--let alone 50%.
“I hate to be characterized as being optimistic that we can get to 30% on the voluntary program,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of savings to reach on voluntary.”
Milon Mills, director of the city Water Utilities Department, said that, if the County Water Authority adopts the mandatory plan with the kind of financial disincentives that have been proposed, the city may have to change its strategy.
“It would be very, very difficult for us to incur those kinds of surcharges,” he said. The MWD approved the 50% conservation plan in a contentious four-hour meeting of the 51-member Board of Directors that pitted representatives of many Los Angeles County cities against those of suburban and rural water districts in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.
“I simply submit . . . that we cannot turn our back on a major industry in Southern California, the agriculture industry,” said Carl J. Kymla, a board member representing the Municipal Water District of Orange County. “They have done a yeoman’s job of conservation.”
Kymla and other board members argued that the 90% cutoff to agriculture will seriously damage Southern California’s commercial flower crop and kill thousands of fruit trees.
All five Los Angeles board members who were present voted for the measure, which will go into effect April 1. They said that, if measures are not taken to protect the water supply now, the region will face even more serious problems.
“What if the drought goes on six or seven years?” Los Angeles board representative S. Dell Scott asked. “Then the question of keeping those trees alive becomes academic. Then the entire Southern California economy will be in danger.”
The cutbacks were adopted 50.7% to 49.3%, one of the closest votes in MWD history. The weight of each board member’s vote is determined by the assessed property values in the district the board members represent.
Kymla and four other representatives of the Orange County water district voted against the proposed cutbacks, as did three representatives from San Diego County. They attempted to rally support for a motion that would have delayed further action for a week, but it was defeated.
While cutting water to agriculture by 90%, the MWD plan will require only a 30% cutback in deliveries for residential and industrial customers.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began mandatory water rationing on Friday, ordering the city’s 3.5 million residents to cut usage by 10% now and another 5% on May 1. But DWP spokeswoman Stacey Geere said the latest MWD action may force Los Angeles to cut water usage 25% by May.
Los Angeles relies on the MWD for about 70% of its water.
Other, smaller water districts have not yet adopted mandatory rationing plans, relying on their own reserves and on voluntary conservation.
Monday’s action was only the latest and most drastic in a series of water conservation measures taken by the MWD as Southern California enters the fifth year of drought.
On Thursday, the MWD announced it will assess nearly $11 million in penalties against Southern California cities and water districts that failed to significantly reduce water consumption during February.
Jay Malinowski, assistant chief of operations for the MWD, said the conservation plan adopted Monday became necessary after rain and snowfall for February were below normal levels, aggravating an already serious shortage.
“Even though this last storm was pretty good, it does not get us out of the drought,” he told the board members. “It doesn’t come close to getting us out of the drought. We are well over a million acre-feet short of meeting demand.”
An acre-foot of water contains 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a typical Los Angeles family of five for 18 months.
Before the severity of the drought became apparent, MWD officials expected demand to reach 2.6 million acre-feet in 1991. Now, if the conservation measures are successful, the officials hope demand will fall to 1.4 million acre-feet.
The MWD will attempt to enforce the new limits by charging stiff penalties. Malinowski said agencies that exceed the limits imposed Monday will pay a penalty of $394 per acre-foot. The most expensive DWP water costs $230 per acre-foot.
Under the plan approved Monday, the price of agricultural water from will rise from $153 to $197 per acre-foot.
In Orange County, the MWD is the sole provider of water to Newport Beach. Bob Dixon, Newport Beach’s utilities director, said the newest rounds of MWD cutbacks will require residents to reduce their water consumption by 10% to 30%.
Times staff writers George Frank in Orange County, John H. Lee in Los Angeles and Joanna Miller in Ventura County contributed to this story.