Water & Drought

Sacramento water agencies plan gentle approach on drought cutbacks

Folsom water conservation specialist Jan Famestad, left, evaluates water usage by homeowner Ina Tompkins at her home in Folsom on March 7, 2014. Drought-caused regulations have put many restrictions on how and when residents can use water.
Folsom water conservation specialist Jan Famestad, left, evaluates water usage by homeowner Ina Tompkins at her home in Folsom on March 7, 2014. Drought-caused regulations have put many restrictions on how and when residents can use water. rbenton@sacbee.com

The decision is final, the deadline is non-negotiable, and the targets for conserving water are the most stringent in California.

Just don’t expect Sacramento-area water agencies to go into a tough-cop mode as they gear up for new state-ordered drought restrictions that begin in June.

The agencies are imposing new rules on residents. There will be new restrictions on outdoor watering, and at least one agency will forbid residents from filling empty swimming pools. Several will ramp up their “water patrols” aimed at ferreting out water abuse. West Sacramento will become apparently the first jurisdiction in the region to limit outdoor watering to once a week.

Yet they plan to to enforce their rules, for the most part, by sitting down with residents, helping them adjust their sprinkler systems, and nudging them to play nice – an approach they say has worked well so far.

The rough stuff, namely fines for wasting water, will be a last resort in many jurisdictions.

“Coaching to compliance is a philosophy of the city,” said Christine Brainerd, spokeswoman for Folsom, which must cut water deliveries 32 percent compared with 2013 usage. “That’s the goal, to educate and coach the residents. We don’t view fines as a measure of success.”

Some critics say coaching residents won’t go nearly far enough without the threat of financial penalties to make people comply. They note Californians cut their water consumption, on average, a mere 3.6 percent in March compared with 2013, and argue the time has come to start levying fines to get residents to comply with the rules.

“It’s completely unrealistic” to rely largely on education, said Mark Gold, associate director at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It might get you some short-term gains, but it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t get you to the dramatic savings you need.” He said residential water wasters should get slapped with fines of as much as $200.

In response to the worst drought on record in California, the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday ordered communities across the state to sharply cut water usage over the next nine months. Most Sacramento-area communities must cut usage by 28 to 36 percent compared with 2013 consumption.

Whatever approaches water agencies take to achieve savings, they will need to work fast. Due to lawn watering, the region consumes a disproportionate share of its water in June, July and August. If communities miss the state-ordered conservation targets this summer, it would be difficult for them to recover in the winter.

Some water agencies acknowledge that persuading customers to cut back could be a tough sell as the temperature rises. The city of Lincoln, for instance, is bracing for static as it considers restricting outdoor watering to one or two days a week. The current limit is three days.

“We’re going to get some real serious pushback,” said Jennifer Hanson, interim deputy public services director in Lincoln. “You know how hot it gets. ... We’re going to be losing vegetation.”

Nonetheless, Lincoln will continue to “focus heavily on outreach,” she said, although the city is mulling a system of fines for abusers as well.

The state water board is comfortable with local agencies taking an education-first approach. The board said it, too, will work first with agencies struggling to meet their targets – and reserve the financial penalties only for the most willful violators.

“The goal ... is not to issue fines,” said Max Gomberg, the board’s senior staff scientist.

Nonetheless, some agencies plan to step up their enforcement efforts.

West Sacramento this week decided to restrict lawn watering to one day per week, banning irrigation except on weekends. The city will encourage residents to report neighbors who water their lawns during the work week and will issue fines to repeat offenders, said West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon.

“We probably are the first” to go to once-a-week watering, Cabaldon said. “I’m almost certain we won’t be the last.”

In the city of Sacramento, where residents are limited to twice-a-week watering, officials will expand water patrols to include evenings and weekends, utilities director Bill Busath said.

“We already had a pretty aggressive enforcement program,” he said. “We’re going to bump that up.” The city must cut water use 28 percent.

Sacramento is one of the few agencies that regularly hands out fines for breaking the rules: 238 so far this year, on top of 350 last year. All but a handful have been at the minimum $50 level, said the city’s sustainability manager Terrance Davis. Two repeat offenders have been fined the maximum $1,000.

Sacramento is using money as a carrot as well as a stick this year. It is considering a plan to begin paying $1 a square foot to persuade residents to rip out their lawns. That’s double the current offer, Busath said.

Is it enough to make a difference? Conner Everts of the Environmental Water Caucus advocacy group said cities have to offer a lot more than $1 to get rid of turf. “They’re way behind the game,” he said, noting that Los Angeles offers $3.75 a square foot. “They need to be far more aggressive.”

One potential tool to encourage conservation is clouded by litigation. An appellate court last month struck down San Juan Capistrano’s system of tiered water rates that charge more per gallon to heavy water users. The court said prices have to correspond to the actual cost of delivering the water.

That could create complications for jurisdictions such as Sacramento, which is contemplating a tiered-rate system for the 50 percent of its customers who have meters. Busath said the city thinks it can devise a rate structure that’s legal, but “obviously the Capistrano court case is going to influence what that looks like. ... We’re committed to at least looking at it.”

One thing is clear: The Sacramento area is under the gun more than most other regions of the state.

The water board’s crackdown is designed to reduce urban water use by an average of 25 percent compared with 2013, as directed by Gov. Jerry Brown, but targets for individual agencies vary according to consumption patterns. Hot, dry Sacramento has some of the highest per-capita consumption in the state. Ten of the region’s districts will have to cut usage by 36 percent, the highest of the nine tiers.

On average, the Sacramento area will have to cut water consumption by 30 percent compared with 2013. That’s a reduction of 38 billion gallons over the next nine months, the duration of the state’s drought order.

Area water managers have grumbled that the rules penalize Sacramento for its weather while giving an unfair break to cooler coastal communities, which don’t have to reduce usage as much. But now that the system has been approved, they said they’re ready to make it work and achieve the targets they’ve been assigned.

“The law is the law,” said Tom Gray, general manager of the Fair Oaks Water District.

Already, the region’s water agencies believe they’ve made considerable progress toward the state’s mandates. They collectively cut consumption by 18 percent last year, mostly through community outreach programs.

“We are going to really continue what (was) working for us last year,” said Mary Lynn Carlton of the El Dorado Irrigation District. The district cut usage by 24 percent last year, putting it within striking distance already of meeting its state-ordered target of 28 percent.

There will be some new wrinkles this year. West Sacramento, which serves 49,000 residents, will prohibit customers from using district water to fill their empty swimming pools. The El Dorado Irrigation District is considering a similar ban on filling pools.

Folsom is closing three small water parks. Carmichael will double the number of patrols looking for water waste. The Placer County Water Agency will give away mulch at a “Mulch Madness” event next weekend. The Citrus Heights Water District is mulling a plan to increase water prices by about 10 percent, or roughly $4 a month for a typical household.

“We hope the rate change will get people’s attention,” said Bob Churchill, general manager of the Citrus Heights district.

San Juan Water District last week restricted outdoor watering to two days a week. Lincoln, which already limits watering to three days a week, will probably ratchet that down even further later this month.

How best to police it? Lincoln officials say simply talking to people seems to work best. Hanson said lots of homeowners don’t know how to dial back their sprinkling systems and are happy to become educated.

“They’re intimidated by the system itself,” she said. “Those are the real easy ones. You can go in and reset their controller.” Lincoln reduced water usage by 17 percent last year and needs to get to 36 percent this year.

Fair Oaks, another member of the 36 percent club, is also a believer in the art of persuasion. Last summer, the district had an employee go around town in a Blue Man Group suit, holding up water-conservation signs at community events and busy intersections. This spring district employees plan to go door-to-door to explain the new rules, including a limit on outdoor watering of three days a week.

Gray said Fair Oaks is resisting, for now, the possibility of raising rates. The gentle approach helped the district reduce consumption 20 percent last year, according to state figures.

“It seems to work in our community,” he said. “We’re going to try to immediately reach out to our community, see how effective it is and not immediately go to their pocketbooks.”

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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