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SAN DIEGO — After the driest first three months of a year in state history, California’s governor sounded the alarm last month, urging residents to use less water.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order asked Californians to tighten their belts and called on local water agencies to aggressively conserve water. But the order came with a caveat: “locally-appropriate actions” — as in, each part of the state can make decisions based on the unique conditions in their region.

If you glance at a map of California from the U.S. Drought Monitor, you’ll notice something unique at the southern border. In a sea of dark orange and red, indicating “severe” or “extreme” conditions, there’s a lighter patch of “moderate drought” encompassing most of San Diego County.

San Diego is not immune to the dry conditions, and the Drought Monitor’s ratings provide only a broad snapshot — a combination of everything from rainfall totals to vegetation health and water supplies. But officials on the ground confirm that the county is uniquely well-positioned for dry times.

In this April 12, 2022 drought map, San Diego is one of the state’s only areas labeled “moderate” among counties in “severe” or “extreme” droughts. (Courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor)

The phrase “locally-appropriate actions” is music to the ears of Jeff Stephenson, a water resources manager at San Diego County Water Authority. He says the region deserves the freedom to chart its own path, thanks to a major effort by residents to conserve and the county wholesaler to aggressively attain water.

The push started 30 years ago, when a drought in the 1990s forced San Diego to face facts about its water supply, Stephenson told FOX 5 in a phone interview last week.

Subjected to strict, statewide conservation measures — and gradually educated about basic ways to save water — residents did their part. San Diegans reduced their water use per person about 43% since 1990, according to Stephenson.

For its part, the Water Authority set about diversifying its sources. The agency is a regional wholesaler, supplying 24 water districts and cities with some or all of their water. Expanding beyond its reliance on the Metropolitan Water District, or “the Met,” in Los Angeles, the Water Authority and its member agencies made a range of major investments in their water supply.

Stephenson credited raising the height of the San Vicente Dam, a desalination plant in Carlsbad, and joint programs that reward farming efficiency and capture excess water in the Imperial Valley among the supplier’s most successful ventures.

While the wholesaler stockpiled water, residents used less and less, leaving San Diego in (relatively) better shape during another period of severe drought in the 2010s. But Stephenson says then-Governor Jerry Brown’s drought restrictions “didn’t really consider different parts of the state.”

“One-size-fits-all wasn’t necessarily the best way,” he told FOX 5. “We had all the water we needed … but we weren’t allowed to use it.”

Instead, San Diego was expected to meet the state’s uniform mark — a 25% reduction in water use. “That doesn’t let us enjoy the benefits that we’ve developed for the past 30 years,” Stephenson said.

The Water Authority was happy to see local control infused in Newsom’s new orders. Now, Stephenson says residents can keep doing what has become a “way of life” in San Diego: Using water efficiently and conserving on a daily basis, but not stressing about stricter water-use measures at this time.

The region’s remarkable drought resilience comes with a cost. Even as San Diego residents have used less water over the years, many have paid more on their monthly water bill. That was the subject of a recent Voice of San Diego report titled, “Why Your Water Bill is Rising.”

The San Vicente Dam in East County San Diego, north of Lakeside. The San Diego County Water Authority raised the dam 117 feet in the early 2010s, giving the region better water storage capacity. (Photo: SDCWA)

It’s also caused some consternation among the Water Authority’s member agencies. The presidents of the Fallbrook Public Utility District and the Rainbow Municipal Water Districts’ boards of directors recently used a Times of San Diego editorial to call on the wholesaler to curb rising prices.

“Ballooning costs,” they argued, “are largely the result of decisions made years ago by the Water Authority to spend billions of dollars on water storage and recycling projects and on long-term contracts to purchase water.”

Therefore, the writers argued, the wholesaler has a responsibility to bring prices down at the retail level.

But as MacKenzie Elmer put it in her piece for VOSD, “it’s notoriously difficult to fairly compare how the cost of that supply affects parts of San Diego.”

Rates are set by individual member agencies, and they vary based on how those retailers get their water. Some rely more on the wholesaler than others, and some have their own initiatives that raise or lower their customers’ bills. There are also significant costs to the Water Authority, like the rates set by the Met in L.A., that are outside the local wholesaler’s control.

Officials with the Water Authority generally acknowledge that the cost of their projects and contracts is passed on to consumers in monthly bills.

But the supplier says residents statewide will inevitably face rising prices as the drought deepens. San Diego acted early and is reaping the benefits of greater water supply, while other areas still need to make costly investments of their own to put their region in a better position, representatives say.

While wholesale rates are currently higher in San Diego than they are for the Met, for example, the Water Authority projects the price of water will rise far more rapidly there than in San Diego over the next 16 years.

While the agency continues exploring ways to lower water bills for customers, Stephenson says there’s a new frontier for residents.

Side-by-side images show the “before” and “after” of a San Diego County yard makeover to be more water-efficient. (Photo: San Diego County Water Authority)

San Diegans have largely adopted the “easy, low-hanging fruit” practices, especially in adopting appliances that waste less water, he told FOX 5.

Landscaping alternatives offer homeowners and businesses the next step, especially ripping out grass yards and replacing them with more water-friendly plant life. Tastes in California have evolved, Stephenson says, and drought-proofing your yard has become more attractive and attainable.

Ready to start? You can check out FOX 5’s guide to making your yard more water-efficient and watch the Water Authority’s free video series on the process, “Water Smart Landscape Makeover.”