Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

Elizabeth McAllister, a water conservation specialist, hands out educational information as part of the city of Sacramento’s mandatory reduction program.

Editorial: Sacramento can save more water by focusing on big commercial users

Published: Saturday, Mar. 1, 2014 - 12:00 am

Sacramento is taking more steps to save water, but in a record drought it should be more aggressive still.

On Tuesday, the City Council is to give the go-ahead for a pilot “cash for grass” program, which offers a rebate to homeowners who replace thirsty lawns with water-efficient landscaping. The city plans to start with a modest $100,000. It’s good to finally do what Los Angeles and other cities have already done, but city officials ought to be ready to expand the program if people respond.

Also, the city is reducing irrigation at parks, reusing water for maintenance and construction and expanding its water main leak detection program – all good ideas.

But significant water savings could also be wrung out by focusing more on the largest commercial users – for instance, with tiered rates that increase with higher usage, as done in Los Angeles and some other cities.

Councilman Kevin McCarty is among those who argue that it makes no sense that a homeowner scrounging to make ends meet pays the exact same rate as a bottling plant that uses city water to make a profit. (All metered customers pay 90.6 cents per 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons.)

He’s got a point.

McCarty proposes that revenue from charging these businesses higher rates could be used to ramp up conservation programs, another promising idea.

The councilman mentioned at this week’s meeting that he has been pushing for tiered water rates since 2009, but was always told that it wouldn’t be possible, or fair, until all commercial customers were on water meters.

Now they are, but the city still isn’t acting.

The city utilities department plans to wait until next year to make any rate adjustments at all, noting that the third and final year of already approved rate hikes for all customers takes effect July 1.

Tiered rates will be an option for 2015-16 and beyond, the department says. The council could approve tiered rates for commercial customers and not for residential, since only about half of homes are metered. But the city would have to be careful that private-sector jobs aren’t jeopardized, and would have to stay within Proposition 218, which says that one classification of customer can’t subsidize another.

So for now, the city is only sending out letters to commercial customers – similar to ones already put in utility bills to homeowners – letting them know of water audits and rebates and encouraging them to conserve.

Council members are to get numbers Tuesday on the first results of the mandatory 20 percent reduction they ordered in mid-January.

The city has beefed up enforcement, increasing from seven to about 40 the number of workers looking for improper watering of lawns. Residents are tattling on their neighbors – 1,675 calls between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5, compared with 61 in the same period last year. Now, outdoor irrigation is allowed only on Saturdays or Sundays. With the start of daylight saving time on March 9, watering will be allowed two days a week.

While homes and apartments use most of the city’s water, businesses and industrial plants must pitch in to conserve. Even if the city refuses to identify the biggest users any longer, it can’t afford to wait too long to give them the strongest incentive to conserve – the bottom line.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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