Water Cutbacks Deeper Than Expected

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Water districts that keep the taps running in Laguna Beach face a state-mandated 25 percent reduction in water use from last September’s levels, which means even tighter restrictions for residents than anticipated, district officials informed the City Council Tuesday.

Earlier, the two districts’ primary supplier, the Metropolitan Water District, voted to cut their deliveries by 15 percent beginning July 1.

When Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1 mandated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water usage, it was still unclear how much each water district would be required to cut back and whether they would be given credit for recent reductions. After all, Laguna Beach County Water District began conservation measures early in 2014, said Renae Hinchey, the district’s general manager. So when the state Water Resources Control Board issued draft rules last Friday, mandating cutbacks between 10 and 35 percent, Hinchey expressed surprise that LBCWD was told to curb usage by 25 percent. “That’s difficult when you’ve been conserving already,” she said.

Hinchey also questioned the water board’s decision to use September 2014, the hottest month of the year, as their baseline to determine each district’s average use, which in turn dictated how much they would be ordered to cut back. Water use in September was over 125 gallons per person per day, but dropped in February to 89 gallons a day per person, district data shows.

Hinchey said they scrambled to send their letter of appeal within a three-day window, asking that the cut backs already achieved be taken into consideration. They’ll find out about any potential reprieve soon, as the state board is expected to finalize the regulations early next month.

To comply, the district plans to impose stricter conservation measures, such as restricting landscape watering to two instead of three days a week and assigning specific days. That way it is easier for neighbors to spot scofflaws and call them in, said Hinchey. They plan to make previously “encouraged” restrictions mandatory, she said.

South Coast Water District was also told to cut back 25 percent from September’s usage, which may be easier since its customers had conserved less to start. South Coast restricted landscape watering to one day a week in December and imposed other measures last week. Even so, they will be stepping up their game, General Manager Andy Brunhart told the Council.

The City Council took action as well. Besides previous conservation measures, such as the installation of waterless urinals in public restrooms and removing the turf from the Laguna Canyon Road median, they halted two water-guzzling park projects Tuesday, among other measures. They decided to postpone the planned July renovation of playing turf in Alta Laguna Park and to redesign renovations for Old Top of the World Park without grass. The current plan leaves in 25,000 square feet of turf that soaks up 600,000 gallons of water a year.

But conservation measures won’t be enough to offset the dwindling water supply, said Brunhart. Pipes siphoning water from the Colorado River lack the capacity to draw more, an anemic snowpack is not replenishing water from northern California, and now local reservoirs are drying up, too, he said.

Indeed, the MWD imposed a 15 percent cutback in its deliveries to local water districts because it is drawing on and depleting its backup reservoirs.

“For the last year or two we’ve been surviving off those reservoirs,” said Brunhart, adding that the MWD predicts they’ll run out in the next couple of years if cuts aren’t made and the drought persists.

“There isn’t water to be had,” and it’s time to look at new local sources, he said, voicing a sentiment shared by officials and public alike at Tuesday’s Council meeting.

“If we don’t address the supply issue” it’s not going to matter how much we conserve, agreed resident Court Shannon. “I think we need a battle plan or a contingency plan for what to do when we can’t wait anymore,” he said, calling for leadership from the Council.

They obliged.

Mayor Bob Whalen called for city staff to prepare local conservation projects to ensure Laguna can get in line for a portion of the $1 billion in spending on water projects authorized by the governor last month. The city needs to become more aggressive in proposing local projects, he said, such as getting El Morro Elementary tapped into the recycled water piped to nearby Newport Coast.

Whalen also pushed to step up lobbying state legislators to smooth the path for direct water reuse programs, since the technology exists. “We can talk about cutting here and cutting there, but we need bigger impact…we need to look at supply issues… and look at extending reclaimed water with other people’s money,” he said.

In the same vein, Council member Kelly Boyd asked for an update on pending desalination projects. Currently it takes eight to 10 years to build a plant, Hinchey said. “That needs to change.”

“We need to look at what we can do at the state level to address expediting the process” for desalination and other water reuse projects, said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow.

“It’s the people who ask and the people who dream and the people who come up with ideas that get the money,” said Whalen.

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