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CITY HALL — One of these days, City Hall is going to implement some strict water cuts.

In August, City Council approved a plan to cap water usage in Santa Monica. It was scheduled to go into effect right about now. Those restrictions turned out to be difficult to implement, according to city officials.

On Tuesday, city officials will come back to council with restrictions that will be easier to track and tougher on businesses. They plan to implement penalties by March of 2015.

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. Back in July, statewide water restrictions went into effect.

Under Santa Monica’s new plan, all residents will be given a bi-monthly threshold. If they go over that threshold, they’ll be measured against their 2013 waster usage baseline. If they go over the threshold and fail to reduce usage by 20 percent against their 2013 baseline, they’ll be charged a drought fee.

In a Stage 2 water shortage (that’s where we’re at right now) all single-family customers will get a threshold of at least 22 hundred-cubic-feet (HCF) of water every two months. One HCF equals 748 gallons. If a family used 44 HCF of water in April and May of 2013, they’ll have to use 35 HCF or less in 2015 to avoid penalties. If they use 22 HCF or less during any bimonthly billing period, they avoid the penalties, regardless of their 2013 usage.

Multi-family homes will be allowed at least a 11 HCF per unit every two months in a Stage 2 water shortage. They too will be asked to reduce by 20 percent over their 2013 baseline, if they exceed the threshold.

Commercial water users – who were asked under council’s August guidelines to reduce water by 10 percent – will not get a threshold and will be expected to cut 20 percent from their 2013 usage.

“Frankly, I think we’re going to have a lot of businesses who have done a lot to conserve water and they’re not going to be able to do an additional 20 percent,” said Dean Kubani, director of City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE). “They are either going to have to pay the surcharges or they are going to have to apply for a variance that demonstrates to us that … they’ve done everything they possibly can and they can only get 10 percent more.”

City officials recommend that a variance policy be written, allowing certain approved residents to use more water. This variance, they say, should be handed out sparingly to, for instance, prevent a financial hardship.

Penalty charges would be calculated through a somewhat complex tiered system. Most of the examples given by city officials involved charges ranging from $3 to $6 per HCF of water used beyond the allotted bimonthly total.

On Monday, city officials presented their recommendations to the Taskforce on the Environment.

“One of their recommendations, which will sent to council, is that they think this drought surcharge is too low,” Kubani said.

If council gives the nod, city officials would present the new water usage caps to the public in December. Council could then finalize the allowances by January. For the first two months of the year, usage would be tracked but not be penalized. That bill would show what drought surcharges they would have incurred. Starting around March, City Hall would start playing for keeps, charging residents and businesses that surpass the limits.

City officials say it would cost about $862,000 this fiscal year and $592,000 next fiscal year to implement the water reduction measures. This would be funded, they say, through the drought penalties.

Much of that money would go toward the creation of a six-person Water Conservation Unit. Four new short-term positions would be added in order to fill out the unit.

In their report, city officials address the impacts of new development on water use.

“Between 2003 and 2013 the number of total water accounts in Santa Monica increased from 14,979 to 17,709 but total water use decreased by 1 percent,” city officials said.

The biggest increase in water use, they say, came from landscape accounts, mostly for public parks and open spaces. Usage in the single-family residential sector has gone up by more than 7 percent during the past four years, city officials said.

“All new or major remodel projects in the city, including residential and commercial, are required to meet very strict state and local water efficiency requirements,” city officials said.

OSE and Kubani will be presenting a second item to council on Tuesday that would raise water rates across the board over the next five years. It’s been years since there’s been a substantial hike in the cost of water in the city, Kubani said. The Daily Press will write a detailed article on the rate increases later this week.

dave@www.smdp.com

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