Mayor Maureen O’Connor, reasserting her commitment to a voluntary water conservation program in the face of derision from other Southland water districts, said Wednesday that her city is conserving more water with its voluntary restriction program than Los Angeles is saving under mandatory prohibitions.
At a morning news conference, O’Connor emphatically said she will oppose water rate increases to be considered by the City Council today, favors drawing water from the city’s emergency water reserves to mitigate the effects of an expected 50% supply cut, and let on that she believes the drought may be ending.
“I am an optimistic person, and I realize that,” she said. “But I’m beginning to think that the weather is a-changing, and you might be seeing the tail end of that drought, even though there isn’t anybody in the state that seems to want to admit that today.”
Later in the day, even as a new rainstorm raised hopes that O’Connor might be correct, the mayors of the state’s two largest cities agreed to disagree on their divergent approaches to water conservation after a half-hour summit meeting in Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s office.
O’Connor and Bradley met face-to-face to reduce tensions created by verbal sparring over whether San Diego is doing an adequate job of conserving the Southland’s dwindling water supply.
“It’s a question of having tried voluntary and seen that it didn’t work,” Bradley told reporters in a joint press conference with O’Connor after their 5 p.m. meeting.
“Mayor Bradley wants to support my enthusiasm, but with caution,” O’Connor said as she peered over the top of a lectern built for the much taller Bradley.
The two mayors did agree on one point: Bradley said he would join with O’Connor in enlisting the aid of the California congressional delegation to help find ways to cut the military’s use of water. The military is the single largest user of water in San Diego, consuming an estimated 6% of all water in the city.
The mayor’s enthusiasm for voluntary conservation measures may be moot, however, if the San Diego County Water Authority votes today to impose the county’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions. The water wholesaler could levy hefty surcharges and restrict water deliveries to San Diego or any of the 22 other member agencies that fail to comply with the restrictions.
The mayor’s comments at a morning news conference came before her departure for the fence-mending meeting with Bradley, a session devoted to demonstrating San Diego’s commitment to sharp consumption cutbacks despite its insistence on voluntary conservation.
Mike Gage, president of the board of directors of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, last week criticized San Diego’s consumption of more than its alloted share of the Metropolitan Water District’s water supply. A week ago, he kicked off an inter-city squabble by saying that, if everyone in Southern California behaved the way San Diego does, “we’d all be out of water pretty soon.”
At her morning presentation, the mayor was flanked by charts showing that San Diegans have conserved 34% during the first 11 days of March, while Angelenos have cut back 25% during the same period.
The San Diego savings statistic is based on a comparison with the city’s average use between 1986 and 1989, adjusted to reflect population growth. The Los Angeles figure is based on a comparison with actual use in 1986, said Paul Downey, the mayor’s spokesman.
Between June 1 and Jan. 31, San Diegans achieved just a 7.7% overall savings via voluntary efforts, even as the 22 other agencies in the county mandated savings. On Feb. 21, O’Connor called for the city to achieve a 30% conservation goal by April 1 or face the prospect of mandatory restrictions. The City Council has supported O’Connor’s bid to achieve conservation through appeals to city residents.
But Mark Watton, a director of the County Water Authority, said Wednesday that the daily consumption statistics touted by O’Connor may not be accurate because they are designed to calculate monthly averages.
“When you try to use those (numbers) on a daily average or a weekly average, they’re meaningless,” said Watton, who represents the Otay Water District, one of the 23 member agencies. “The numbers she may be using are not as accurate as we’d all like them to be.
“I say that not because she’s manipulating them, but because the ability of water agencies to report day by day and be very accurate is just not there. . . . At most . . . they indicate we’re going in the right direction,” he added.
O’Connor expressed deep concern that a 50% cut in water use could produce layoffs at San Diego’s largest industries and hurt the city’s economy. In light of the rainstorm of two weeks ago and the one that hit Wednesday, she suggested that the decision to mandate a 50% cutback in use could be reconsidered.
“Do we want this city to go from a recession to a depression?” the mayor asked. “Maybe we can get voluntary to 30%, but if you want 50%, you’re talking about jobs.”
But Fred Thompson, one of San Diego’s representatives on the water authority, said Wednesday that “the drought is not over. There have been droughts that have lasted over 50 years in this state.”
“It would have to rain for 40 days and nights” to end the drought, he added.
O’Connor acknowledged that the city could be required to adopt a 50% cutback but maintained that voluntary conservation has produced savings “as good, if not better than, other cities in the rest of the state” at less cost.
“If they want to be mean-spirited, they can force (us) to go to mandatory,” she said. “You’re not going to get results with mandatory, because what you’re going to have is a lot of angry people.”
O’Connor said she will urge the council to authorize use of water in the city’s emergency reserves, which City Manager Jack McGrory said total 11 to 12 months worth of water at pre-conservation consumption levels. Recent rains added 22 days of water to city reservoirs, McGrory said, adding that he opposes using the reserves now.
O’Connor also repeated her longstanding opposition to sharp water price increases, proposed by McGrory on Tuesday to encourage conservation, and price increases scheduled to be passed on by the water authority. McGrory’s plan would nearly double the price of water to average single-family homeowners who do not conserve, but reward them for 30% or 50% cutbacks.
O’Connor said price increases would punish San Diegans who have been conserving, and she asserted that the hikes are motivated by the city water bureaucracy’s need for revenue to avoid staff layoffs.
“If the city of San Diego conserves voluntarily, why should we punish them and raise the rates?” O’Connor asked.
“You notice that all of the administrators and those who work in the bureaucracy want the rates increased because they don’t want layoffs,” she said.
Times staff writer Frederick M. Muir in Los Angeles contributed to this story.