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New rules impose fines and penalties for water-use violations in Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach

Customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District must cut their outdoor water use by 45 percent or face penalties and fines under a sweeping series of new regulations enacted by the district’s board of directors at its meeting on Thursday, May 21.

The district provides water to about 19,400 residents in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch.

On Thursday, in response to a state mandate to cut its total water use by 36 percent by February 2016, the district established water “allocations” for the first time since it was founded in 1923. That means residents will be given a base allowance of water, and subjected to an escalating series of penalties if they use more than their allotment.

In addition, residents will face fines for violating water-use restrictions, which include outdoor watering only two days per week, and curtailing such activities as washing cars in their driveways.

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“There’s a target on our back,” said board President Michael Hogan, regarding the state-mandated cuts. State regulators this month adopted a tiered system of mandated cutbacks for local water suppliers, ranging from 4 to 36 percent. Santa Fe Irrigation District is in the highest tier due to its high per capita water use.

“There’s no soft landing in this process. There’s only a hard landing,” Hogan said.

The required cutbacks flow from a directive issued by Gov. Jerry Brown, calling for an overall 25 percent reduction in water use by California residents to cope with a statewide drought now in its fourth year.

Some residents asked for more time to learn about the new requirements before the fines and penalties take effect, but the board moved forward, citing a state penalty of up to $10,000 per day for water agencies that fail to meet their targeted reductions.

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“We have a very short period of time in which to react, unfortunately,” said Paula de Sousa, the district’s general counsel.

Along with the allocations, which were approved by the board on a 4-1 vote, with director Greg Gruzdowich voting no, the board also voted to move to a Level 3 drought response, which entails tighter water-use restrictions. That decision came on a 5-0 vote, as did the adoption of a series of rule changes, including the doubling of fines for water-use violations. The maximum fine for a fourth violation in a one-year period went to $1,000 from $500.

Gruzdowich said he had two objections to the allocation plan: that it was a “one-size-fits-all” approach, which failed to take into account those who have already cut back their water use; and that people are being penalized before they’ve had a chance to fully understand the new rules.

He compared the change to a cellular telephone contract: “You’re in a new plan but you don’t know what it is.”

“I think that’s fundamentally unfair,” he said.

Director Alan Smerican agreed the state-mandated cutbacks are unfair, but said the district is bound by them. After the responsibility of delivering clean drinking water to its customers, he said, the district’s highest priority is to avoid the potential fines of $10,000 per day.

The district adopted mandatory water-use restrictions under a Level 2 drought response in September, which included a three-day per week watering schedule.

Residents did comply with directives to cut water use in previous droughts, reducing consumption by 20 percent between 2007 and 2013. However, this time around, district officials said use has actually gone up in six of the eight months since the latest mandatory restrictions were put in place.

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“We’re not seeing the reduction in demand that we anticipated,” district General Manager Michael Bardin said Thursday. “Currently, we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Therefore, staff recommended the tighter restrictions of the Level 3 response, as well as the allocation plan and higher fines for violators. The new restrictions take effect June 1, while the allocations begin July 1. The first bill on which customers could see a penalty for exceeding their allocation will be in September.

Under an example prepared for the board, a household’s bimonthly water bill would increase to $660 from $541 for using 25 units of water (each unit contains 748 gallons) over its allocation.

“That’s a very strong message to send to the community and it changes the playing field for us,” Bardin said.

Smerican, though, wondered if the district should impose even tighter restrictions.

“Everything we’ve done to date has failed, regarding conservation. Is this enough?” he said.

On the other hand, district customers asked the district to take a less aggressive approach, at least until people get up to speed on the new rules.

“This should be more about education and less about punishment,” said Rancho Santa Fe resident Nick Dieterich, who urged the board not to implement the fines and penalties until after a concerted outreach effort.

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“We have to be cognizant that there are other needs than just inside the house. I can’t cut off my outdoor use entirely,” Dieterich said.

Next steps could include a moratorium on adding new water meters, and a freeze on annexations. Neither step would be justified, said Bardin, unless the district declared a “water shortage emergency,” under which water would only be available for health and safety and firefighting purposes.

“We aren’t there yet,” Bardin said.

That said, the district still faces a challenge in meeting the state-mandated reductions. A series of town hall meetings intended to educate the public about the new rules is being planned.

“It’s a drought. We’re being asked to cut a lot of water (use) and everyone is going to have to sacrifice for that,” said district spokeswoman Jessica Parks.


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