The “gold star” list projected on a big screen at last week’s meeting of California’s State Water Resources Control Board heaped praise on several water agencies whose residents had made major strides in conservation and were now among the communities using the least water per capita.
Most of the 19 communities highlighted are towns near the coast that long have been conservation leaders, made easier by moderate climates and a development model centered on small yards and apartment-living. But wedged between Sunnyvale and Daly City was an outlier from Sacramento’s suburban expanse: The city of Roseville, a hot, parched suburb surrounded by communities that generally consume far more water.
That such a “gold star” list even exists is a reflection of the magnifying glass placed on communities small and large in response to California’s historic drought. With the state facing a fourth dry year – and the snowpack that feeds its reservoirs at a critical low – Gov. Jerry Brown this month ordered an unprecedented 25 percent cut in statewide urban water use. The state water board, the agency charged with overseeing water distribution in California, followed last week with a detailed framework of how those cuts would play out across the state, with communities that use the most water per person targeted for the biggest cutbacks.
Once the framework is finalized next month, cities and towns across California will have until February 2016to meet their conservation targets by reducing average monthly usage. Those that fail to meet the targets could face hefty fines.
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Under the draft framework, most water districts in the Sacramento region are required to cut consumption by 35 percent compared with 2013 – a category reserved for the state’s most profligate water users. Though water districts throughout the region have made strides in conservation over the past year, most still use more water per capita in the summer than the state average and far more than cities in more moderate coastal climates.
There are exceptions: Davis, Woodland, Sacramento and a string of noncontigious suburban neighborhoods mostly in eastern Sacramento County served by California American Water all have made significant reductions in water usage – and are starting to look more like the state average.
But in recent months Roseville, a city of 125,000, has topped the region in residential water conservation. In February, it ranked in California’s top 12 percent of communities using the lowest amount of water per capita, averaging just 56 gallons per person per day, according to state figures self-reported by water districts.
Roseville is not an intuitive water-conservation champion.
It’s farther inland than almost any other city on the state’s gold-star list, and so subject to high temperatures and long, dry summers. And its an affluent suburb in a region where suburban living traditionally has celebrated large lots planted with expanses of green grass.
But Roseville, like Davis and a few other local water conservation leaders, did not stumble into frugal water use. The city was laid out in a way that makes conservation easier. It invested relatively early in incentives for household conservation that continue to pay off. And it has aggressively tried to persuade residents to cut water use.
In many ways, Roseville offers a glimpse of a future that the rest of the region is only beginning to contemplate: A place where residents willingly tear out lawns in favor of drip irrigation and drought-tolerant succulents; where indoor water use is almost on par with coastal cities; and where the landscape overall is beginning to look a bit more like Phoenix, with its hot, dry climate, than Philadelphia, with its year-round rain showers.
“Even without the drought, we were always at the forefront,” said Roseville Mayor Carol Garcia.
Early start on conservation
A drive through Roseville’s Sun City senior community offers a window into the town’s conservation successes. In this neighborhood of 3,000 homes, every fifth or sixth house features a yard landscaped with some combination of rocks, concrete and drought-resistant shrubs instead of lush grass.
Mary Baker, 79, has lived in a couple different Sun City homes over the last several years, and each utilized a landscape style suited to dry conditions. “We don’t need lawns,” she said. “We need water.”
Lawns consume most of the water used by Sacramento-area households. A 2006 study from the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that a typically sized lawn in the Sacramento region sucks up about 100,000 gallons of water each year. The region has more large lots – defined as an acre or more – than most of the state, and larger lots tend to use more water.
After the governor declared a drought emergency in January 2014, all water districts in the region started targeting outdoor water use, with many imposing strict rules on when residents can turn on their sprinklers. Compliance with those regulations helped cut residential water use regionwide by about 18 percent from summer 2013 to summer 2014.
But Roseville started earlier than most. In 2008, it launched a “cash for grass” program that paid residents to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. The program was immediately popular and since has expanded in scope.
At launch, the city paid $1 per square foot of lawn replaced. But it found itself running out of money each year because of sharp demand. This year, it offered 50 cents per square foot up to $1,000. So far this fiscal year, it has paid out about $145,000.
“It’s pretty contagious,” said Lisa Brown, Roseville’s water efficiency administrator, a position created in 2004. “When you drive by, you see clusters.”
Kathryn and Steve Ries replaced their front lawn last year with help from a city rebate. Since then, they’ve reduced their summer water usage by about 80 percent, they said.
They know this because, unlike Sacramento and some other communities in the region, all Roseville’s customers have water meters. The city also sends about half its customers a report each month breaking down their water use and showing how they compare to other homes in the city.
A couple of years ago, the Ries’ lawn was a blanket of uniform green grass. Today, it is covered by mulch dotted with purple lavender.
“The rebate certainly made it more attractive,” said Kathryn Ries, explaining one reason they replaced their yard. Among the others: “We are in a drought. That occurs more frequently than we’d like. It’s just a part of living in California.”
By the time Marc and Jeana Kenyon decided to rip out their lawn last year, Roseville had run out of rebates due to high demand. They decided to do it anyway.
“Our focus was really to benefit wildlife,” said Marc Kenyon, an environmental scientist who works for the state. “Also, to have more of a native landscaping look. The drought also weighed heavily on our decision.”
Kate Bowers, the landscape designer who laid out the Kenyons’ new yard, said she has seen a spike in demand from customers in and around Roseville. “I see people redo regular-size front yards for $5,000 on the low end on up to however much you want to spend,” she said.
“Really, everybody asks for a low-water yard. It’s on everyone’s mind.”
Rate hikes, night patrols
The “regular-size” lawn Bowers referenced is smaller in Roseville than in some surrounding suburbs, a fact that makes it easier for residents to consume less water per household. The median-size lot for a single-family home built in Roseville during the last 15 years is about 7,100 square feet, according to a review of housing permit data. That’s less than half as large as the median-size lot for homes built during that period in adjacent Granite Bay, which uses much more water per capita.
Roseville residents also have made significant indoor conservation gains. This past winter, when outdoor irrigation was not as much of a factor, the city posted the lowest residential water use per capita in the region.
City officials credit much of that decrease to intensive outreach, including a “Water Wise” program that sends a conservation expert to customers who request a house visit.
The gains have not been painless. Like other cities, Roseville issued restrictions on water use early last year, telling residents that they had to reduce consumption by 20 percent by limiting irrigation, fixing leaks and controlling runoff.
Roseville officials also recently started “night patrols” to catch water wasters when they think no one is watching. The city has the power to issue citations and fines, though mostly it has found that residents comply with warnings
The city has employed tiered billing since 2011, with sippers paying less than guzzlers. Last year, the city imposed a drought surcharge of 15 percent on the metered portions of bills. They are considering an 8 percent increase next year, and another 8.5 percent increase in 2016.
When Roseville introduced its conservation measures, it was a pioneer for the region. But increasingly, area cities are adopting similar programs.
California American Water serves about 200,000 people in several suburbs including Antelope and parts of Rancho Cordova. It started a “cash for grass” program about a year after Roseville began its effort. It regularly competes with Roseville for the lowest per-capita water use in the region, beating it some months. Like Roseville, its households are fully metered.
“We’ve spent about $40 million to install 47,000 water meters in the Sacramento region,” said California American spokesman Evan Jacobs. “We have been fully metered since 2013 – that really makes a difference.”
The city of Sacramento started a “cash for grass” program last year, and is in the midst of a meter installation program, with the goal of having all homes metered by 2020. Other cities have relied on public information campaigns and a mix of voluntary and mandatory conservation targets to pressure customers.
Every local community has made progress. The region’s water districts reduced residential water use by between 14 percent (Davis) and 23 percent (El Dorado Irrigation District) from summer 2013 to summer 2014, state records show.
But all will be asked to do more. The state’s draft framework would impose mandatory cutbacks ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent on cities and towns statewide, with communities that have the highest per-capita water use targeted for the deepest reductions. In meting out those cutbacks, the water board chose September 2014 water use as its point of comparison for agencies, and targets them for cutbacks based on four tiers of usage that month: 0 to 55 gallons per person per day; 55 to 110; 110 to 165; and more than 165.
Seventeen Sacramento-area districts used more than 165 gallons per person per day in September, targeting them for the largest cuts under the state’s proposal. Five local districts used between 110 and 165 gallons per person per day in September.
Only one – California American Water – used less than 110 gallons of water per person per day, and would need to cut use only 20 percent over 2013.
The cuts apply to total water use, including businesses and schools. That matters because many of the region’s largest water districts including Sacramento, Folsom, Roseville and Woodland report that nonresidential water use comprises more than a third of total consumption.
Under the framework, Roseville would need to cut its use 25 percent by next February, compared with 2013. It appears well on its way. The city reported using 18 percent less water in summer 2014 than it used in summer 2013.
Roseville officials said they believe the city can hit its target, though it may take another push. “Our council is going to come back in May with a proposal from staff on exactly what we can do to change our (drought) ordinance,” Mayor Garcia said. “I think that we are going to be able to comply.”
Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.