Wet winter means end of drought for Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach water district customers


The drought is over, at least in the Santa Fe Irrigation District (SFID).

At its meeting on Thursday, March 16, the district’s board voted unanimously to lift all restrictions on water use by its customers, essentially declaring that for the agency, which serves some 20,000 customers in Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, the drought that has plagued California for the past five years is a thing of the past.

The decision comes during one of the wettest California winters in years, as many parts of the state have switched from worrying about a lack of water to concern over flooding.

“We’re pretty excited to bring this before you today,” SFID General Manager Michael Bardin told the board, as he explained his recommendation to rescind the “Level 1” drought response, which called on district customers to voluntarily cut back on water use to achieve a district-wide water savings of 10 percent.

The decision removes the last of a series of both mandatory and voluntary conservation measures imposed in 2015, in the wake of a declaration of emergency by Gov. Jerry Brown which required state residents to cut their water use by a collective 25 percent.

SFID responded by imposing strict rules on its customers, backed by fines and penalties, such as allowing outdoor watering only at certain days and times. The district also imposed allocations, a form of water rationing, on its customers for the first time in its history of more than 90 years.

Last summer, as local water shortages eased, the district moved from mandatory to voluntary conservation goals, and Thursday’s action removes the last of the voluntary restrictions.

The district has certified to the state that it has adequate water supplies to meet its customers’ needs for the next three years.

In January, the San Diego County Water Authority, a wholesale water agency, declared an end to the drought in the region. Other neighboring water agencies have done the same or are considering such action, said a district staff report.

Members of SFID’s board expressed satisfaction with the development, noting that the district still encourages conservation.

“People realize they can reduce their water cost by being more efficient,” said director David Petree. But he said the district must be careful not to “cry wolf” by calling for unwarranted water-use cutbacks.

“(Customers) respond better if we back off,” he said.

But director Marlene King said she found it “troubling” that the district is lifting all voluntary conservation measures without putting out a strong statement in favor of ongoing water conservation.

“What is this saying to our customers about the district’s values? Part of it is saying we’re not selling enough water,” King said.

Directors agreed that the district does want to continue to urge its customers to use water wisely, and such language was included in a news release about the board’s decision to move out of the Level 1 drought response.

The district also thanked its customers for cutting back on water use by 26 percent over the past two years, when compared with the baseline year of 2013.

In spite of voluminous precipitation this winter, state water regulators extended emergency water use rules in February for 270 days, over the objections of local water officials from around California.

Those state rules include making sure that outdoor sprinklers don’t cause runoff, that people washing cars must use a hose with a shutoff nozzle, and that restaurants will only serve water on request.

In a presentation to the SFID board on Thursday, County Water Authority Deputy General Manager Sandy Kerl noted the irony that, at the same time emergency drought restrictions remain in place for all 58 California counties, 50 counties are under flood emergencies.

As of March 9, Northern California’s mountain snowpack was at 179 percent of average. Locally, the region has already received more than 10 inches of rain, the average for the entire season, but with two months of the rainy season remaining.

Wet conditions brought the Lake Hodges reservoir on the verge of spilling over in early March for the first time in years. Bardin told the board that local water officials reacted by moving water from Lake Hodges to other reservoirs, thus creating room for more water to fill the lake in case of additional rains.

Bardin said the maneuver was a first for the region since pipelines were attached to Lake Hodges as part of an emergency water storage project.

“Pulling that off is operational gymnastics,” said Bardin, but the lake now has room to collect more water. SFID owns a share of the water in the lake along with other local water districts, including the city of San Diego. Local water is cheaper than imported water and saves the district money, savings that it can pass on to its customers.