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Water-use restrictions repealed for Santa Fe Irrigation District customers

One year after imposing mandatory water-use restrictions on its customers enforced by fines and penalties, the Santa Fe Irrigation District has changed course, lifting the enforced cutbacks in favor of voluntary conservation measures.

The 5-0 vote by the agency’s board of directors on Thursday, June 16, means that its customers in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch are once again free to water their lawns and groves as often and whenever they want.

“The public is going to get relief,” said district general manager Michael Bardin. “We’re pleased to bring this to you today.”

“That’s great news,” said board president Michael Hogan after Thursday’s vote.

The decision came after state water regulators decided to allow individual water agencies to decide which conservation methods are needed, based on the their own determination of available water supplies.

“For San Diego, we have enough water for the next three years,” Bardin said.

Last year, in the face of a California drought that was in its fourth year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a statewide 25 percent cut in water use. State regulators responded by requiring water districts to cut back by a range of 4 to 36 percent. Because Santa Fe’s per capita usage was among the highest in the state, it was ordered to cut back by 36 percent.

In order to achieve those mandated cuts, Santa Fe instituted a series of measures, such as a two-day per week watering schedule for customers, a ban on washing cars, and other restrictions. The district also instituted allocations, or a set amount of water allowed for each customer, for the first time in its 93-year history.

Districts faced fines of $10,000 per day for failing to meet their reduction targets.

Water officials in San Diego County and their customers objected to what they called a “one size fits all” approach taken by the state, arguing that regions such as San Diego County should not face Draconian cuts because their water supplies were ample due to measures such as increased water storage, conservation efforts and new sources of supply including a new seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad.

While some urged Santa Fe and other local districts to fight the state and even mount a legal challenge to the mandatory cutbacks, local officials instead attempted to comply with the orders while continuing to press their case that individual water agencies should determine what cutbacks are needed.

“We were in a crisis mode created by the state,” said Bardin in an interview after Thursday’s board meeting. Ultimately, he said, state officials heeded the arguments of local water agencies and agreed to let them set their own conservation targets. For Santa Fe, that means water-use restrictions, for now, are over.

“Our conservation goal is zero now,” he said.

Bardin said the district’s decision to move to “Level 1” voluntary conservation measures does not mean the state’s water woes are over. The drought is now in its fifth year, he said, and supplies from the Colorado River are down.

“We want people to focus on a long-term commitment to water-use efficiency,” he said, and recommended that residents water no more than three days per week.

State restrictions also still apply, such as no washing driveways with potable, or drinking, water; runoff from sprinklers is prohibited; shut-off nozzles must be used when washing cars; and irrigating outdoors during and within 48 hours of measurable rainfall is prohibited.

The full list of recommended conservation measures and state restrictions can be found on the district’s web site at https://www.sfidwater.org/index.aspx?page=230.

Since the mandatory restrictions were imposed last summer, district customers have cut their use by an average of 31 percent, said district officials. Bardin said demand may go up by about 12 percent now that the restrictions have been lifted, but he doesn’t expect usage to go back to where it was before the restrictions were imposed. For one thing, he said, some customers have removed turf and other thirsty plants in favor of drought-tolerant landscaping.

At Thursday’s meeting, the board also approved the district’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The fiscal plan includes total expenses of $35.7 million, a 5.6 percent increase from this year’s budget. The budget includes operating cost and capital improvements, as well as other expenses.

Revenue is projected at $28.4 million, and the gap will be made up from reserves.

The board approved the budget on a 3-2 vote, with directors Greg Gruzdowich and Marlene King opposed.

“We’re spending more money as we’re projecting our reserves to go down,” Gruzdowich said. “We’re spending money we don’t have.”