Above, the exterior of Aquatera, an upscale apartment complex in San Diego where all units have individual water meters located in outdoor storage closets adjacent to each apartment's patio, is seen. At right, a meter is shown. (Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle - Staff photographer)
SAN DIEGO ---- Apartments and condos are the next frontier in the struggle to reduce water consumption in drought-plagued California.
New and substantially remodeled apartments, condos and other "multifamily" projects in San Diego would be required to have individual water meters, under an ordinance to be introduced early next year.
Most occupants of apartments and condos aren't billed directly for the amount of water they use. Instead, the cost is divided among the occupants and essentially included in the rent for apartments and association fees for condos.
So if occupants see how much water they use, and are billed for it, they'll have an incentive to save water, said Marti Emerald, a San Diego councilmember. Emerald is backing the effort to require "submetering," as it's called, to encourage conservation.
If the ordinance passes, it could encourage other cities in the region to adopt similar measures, Emerald said. Officials of other cities in the region express interest when she brings up the subject, but they haven't gone further.
"I think there's a tendency to sit back and watch and see what happens, before other government entities jump in," she said.
The ordinance has the support of the San Diego County Apartment Association, a local trade group.
Apartment owners want to save water, and an ordinance will supply a uniform standard for them to follow, said spokesman Alan Pentico.
There's also a financial motivation for the apartment owners to conserve: Water rates are increasingly sharply, with double-digit increases the norm over the last few years, and no end in sight.
The potential for saving water is substantial, Emerald said.
"Nearly half of the housing in the city of San Diego is multifamily housing, apartments or condos," Emerald said.
Where it's been tried, submetering has reduced water consumption in the units by about 15 to 30 percent, she said.
"San Diego would become the largest city in California to have a submetering ordinance," Emerald said. "Ours would be the only one that has a trigger for pre-existing buildings. It would be the toughest in the state."
The trigger requirement is still being worked on. Emerald said it could be based on a percentage of pipes replaced, so that a major renovation project would be configured to include individual meters.
Apartment builders have recently begun to consider submetering and other water conservation measures. One new apartment complex in San Diego, Aquatera, already has submetered units. The 254-unit project by H.G. Fenton Co. also has a waterfall, pool and extensive green lawns.
However, the lawn is artificial turf, the pool is salt water and the waterfall is fed by an underground aquifer. The area is landscaped with low water-use plants. All told, Aquatera uses half the water of similarly sized projects, said Mike Neal, H.G. Fenton's president and CEO.
"The washing machines are front-loading, very low water use machines, and the toilets are ultra, ultra low-flow," about 2.8 gallons per flush, Neal said.
Neal said the water-efficient features are part of Fenton's desire to be a "good and responsible developer."
Emerald said the ordinance is expected to go before the Planning Commission in early January, and be ready for the San Diego City Council's consideration by the end of January.
In addition, Emerald said she's also interested in seeing incentives offered to encourage more recently constructed apartment and condo projects to install individual meters.
"California's plumbing codes changed in 1998 to require individual shutoff valves in apartments and condo units," Emerald said. "There's a whole stock of housing built after the plumbing code change that realistically could be retrofitted. It would be expensive, but it's a possibility."
State law authorizes cities to make low-interest loans to fund solar power installation in residences, Emerald said, and legislators are already talking about approving a similar program for water conservation.
"We'll be working on that through the next year, to pull together a funding bank to help people make these retrofits and start saving water," Emerald said.