Water & Drought

Sacramento region faces new round of hefty water cuts

Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources and California Gov. Jerry Brown walk out into a snowless meadow on April 1, when the latest snowpack measurements showed a historically low total. Brown quickly issued an executive order for a statewide cut of 25 percent in water usage, compared with 2013.
Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources and California Gov. Jerry Brown walk out into a snowless meadow on April 1, when the latest snowpack measurements showed a historically low total. Brown quickly issued an executive order for a statewide cut of 25 percent in water usage, compared with 2013. rbenton@sacbee.com

Many Sacramento-area communities would be targeted for the most severe water cutbacks in California under the provisions of a drought management framework issued Tuesday by state water regulators.

Residents in Granite Bay, Carmichael, part of Elk Grove, Folsom, Fair Oaks and several other Sacramento-area suburbs would be required to cut water use by 35 percent compared with 2013, or potentially face stiff penalties, under the framework laid out by the State Water Resources Control Board. Some other area cities that already use less water per capita – including Sacramento, Roseville, Davis and Woodland – would be required to cut water use by 25 percent compared with 2013.

The framework imposes 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. Most Sacramento-area water districts used more than 165 gallons per person per day in September, above the statewide average of 124 gallons.

By comparison, San Francisco used 46 gallons per person per day in September, and is targeted for a reduction of only 10 percent. Los Angeles used 93 gallons per person per day, and faces a 20 percent mandatory cutback. San Diego, at 82 gallons per person per day, also faces a 20 percent cut.

With California’s drought stretching into a fourth year – and 2015 off to an unusually hot, dry start – Gov. Jerry Brown last week issued the first-ever order for mandatory cuts in urban water use across the state. His order called for a 25 percent reduction statewide in urban water consumption, but warned that some districts would need to cut more than others. Several Sacramento communities consume more than 250 gallons of water per person per day in summer, mostly due to irrigation for large lawns and gardens. Other parts of California, mostly along the coast, use less than 100 gallons per person per day, even during summer.

“Places with per capita use in the hundreds – they can do even more,” said Max Gomberg, senior staff scientist with the state water board.

The state board, which oversees California’s complex system of water rights, was charged with hammering out the details of the governor’s order. Board officials said the draft document issued Tuesday is meant to generate feedback from water districts, and is not a final plan.

“This is not fully baked yet,” said board chair Felicia Marcus. “We are giving it our best shot to interact with people.”

A revised draft will be released April 17 after the board hears from water districts and others affected. Final regulations are to be adopted in early May.

All Sacramento-area water districts have made progress in reducing consumption since Gov. Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January 2014. Between summer 2013 and summer 2014, area districts reported using anywhere from 14 percent to 23 percent less water, leaving a few close to the targets set Tuesday.

Still, the tiered system, and the prospect of having to achieve 35 percent savings instead of the 25 percent cited in the governor’s order, caught some suburban water agencies off guard.

“We will hit the 25 percent ... The 35 percent is new to me,” said Tom Gray, general manager of the Fair Oaks Water District. “I’m not even accepting that that’s our number.”

Gray said Fair Oaks was able to cut consumption 22 percent last year through voluntary measures. The district was among the region’s highest water consumers in September, using 243 gallons per person per day. Gray said the district may consider some mandatory restrictions in the near future.

West Sacramento, which also faces a 35 percent cutback, cut consumption by “20 percent-plus” last year, said Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. “We have to make it work,” he said of the new hurdle. “I couldn’t say how, at this point.”

At the San Juan Water District, which serves parts of Roseville, Granite Bay, Orangevale and Folsom, assistant general manager Keith Durkin said the district would work to meet the 35 percent threshold. San Juan is among the highest water users in the state; in September, the district reported using 384 gallons per person per day.

“It’s something we’re going to have to comply with,” Durkin said.

He said San Juan cut water usage 32 percent last year by educating customers. That would put the district well on the way to meeting the state requirements. But he’s worried about sustaining that level of conservation this year.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is conservation fatigue,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainties and a lot of unknowns about sustaining that.”

He said the district’s board of directors might have to raise rates, or impose some form of drought “surcharge,” in the coming weeks to bring the point home to customers. San Juan doesn’t want to impose a lot of mandatory restrictions, he said.

“We don’t want to be out there being water police,” Durkin said.

The state 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. About 890,000 people live in those districts. Five local districts used between 110 and 165 gallons per person per day in September. They are home to roughly 880,000 residents.

One local district, California American Water, used less than 110 gallons of water per person per day, and will need to cut use only 20 percent over 2013. About 200,000 people live in the district, which covers several noncontiguous suburbs including Antelope and parts of Rancho Cordova.

The framework was released the same day state officials announced that California residents cut their water consumption by just 2.8 percent in February compared with the same month in 2013. It marked the worst performance since the state began urging conservation and tracking urban water use last June.

“These disappointing conservation numbers for February are just one of the reasons for the governor’s order,” Gomberg said.

Customers in the Sacramento River region posted better conservation numbers than the state as a whole, reducing water usage by about 14 percent in February 2015 compared with 2013. The city of Sacramento cut water use by 16 percent; Roseville by 20 percent; and Davis by 17 percent.

By comparison, the South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego, increased water use by about 2 percent over February 2013.

Marcus called the February numbers “very disturbing.” But she noted that California residents generally use less water during the winter months and the biggest conservation savings will need to come during the summer.

“I’m not trying to put a happy face on this,” she said. “But if we had this number in June it would be a nightmare.”

February’s numbers are a far cry from the 22 percent savings achieved in December and even the 8 percent savings logged by state residents in January. They indicate that many people responded to hot, dry weather by watering their lawns.

Marcus said the weather is no excuse. “We’re in a drought when it’s hot,” she said. “The answer has got to be turn off the sprinklers.”

Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.

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