Water & Drought

Sacramento beats L.A. in water conservation

Elizabeth McAllister, right, a water conservation specialist with the city of Sacramento, gives educational information to East Sacramento resident Larry Reagan.
Elizabeth McAllister, right, a water conservation specialist with the city of Sacramento, gives educational information to East Sacramento resident Larry Reagan. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento residents recently achieved something significant in dealing with the drought gripping California: In November, they used less water per person than residents of Los Angeles.

According to data gathered by the State Water Resources Control Board, residents of Sacramento on average consumed 73 gallons of water per person each day in November, the most recent month for which data are available. The same month in Los Angeles, residents consumed 77 gallons per day.

To even get close to Los Angeles indicates remarkable conservation progress in Sacramento, which has been criticized in the past for heavy water usage and because city leaders for years fought state mandates to install water meters.

More significant is that Los Angeles has long been considered a leader in water conservation, with aggressive incentives available to residents for many years. Sacramento, in comparison, only recently began offering residents a similar variety of incentives.

“It was a huge drop (in water use) from where Sacramento had been,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the state water board. “It’s really set a model for the rest of the state.”

Sacramento’s water consumption in November marks a 20 percent drop from the same month in 2013. Back then, at 93 gallons per person per day, city consumption exceeded Los Angeles, which was at 83 gallons.

The progress is not limited to Sacramento. The Sacramento River hydrologic region, which encompasses the Sacramento River watershed, has consistently led all other regions of the state in water conservation throughout 2014, with monthly decreases often exceeding 20 percent. The South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles, has had water-use reductions in the single digits.

For example, in November, the Sacramento River hydrologic region cut its water use collectively by 25.6 percent compared with 2013. The next closest was the Central Coast at 20.6 percent. In that month, these were the only regions – out of 10 – that met or exceeded the 20 percent conservation directive handed down by Gov. Jerry Brown in January 2014. The South Coast region saved only 3.2 percent in November.

Other water providers in the Sacramento area also made major reductions in water use. In November, the city of Davis reduced its daily water use to 68 gallons per person; the Sacramento County Water Agency was 93 gallons per person; Roseville was 88 gallons per person; and California-American Water Company’s Sacramento District was just 55 gallons per person, one of the lowest levels in the state.

The data are now available for easy public review at a new state website, called the Drinking Water Information Clearinghouse.

“I think we’ve shown we’re committed to conservation in response to this drought,” said Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager at the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, a coalition of about two-dozen water providers in the capital metro area. “I’m cautiously optimistic we can keep getting the same reductions.”

Let the message flow

Water consumption varies greatly by season. Although Sacramento out-conserved Los Angeles in November, no water experts in the capital region expect the same come springtime, when temperatures warm up. Residents will want to resume irrigating their lawns and other landscapes, which are large and thirsty compared with Los Angeles and many other urban areas in the state.

Also, the climate in Los Angeles is cooler and wetter in summer, with coastal overcast and fog relatively common on summer mornings, as in the Bay Area. As a result, water consumption is more consistent throughout the year along the coast. For instance, L.A. residents in July consumed 89 gallons of water per person in August. Sacramentans consumed 150 gallons.

Sacramento also got into the drought battle earlier than other parts of California. That’s because Folsom Lake, the primary water supply for the region, plunged to historic lows in January 2014 due to an unprecedented rainless stretch. This prompted most water suppliers in the area to swiftly adopt emergency conservation measures. Many other California water agencies did not follow suit until summer arrived.

“We were very excited to see our customers responding,” said William Granger, water conservation administrator for Sacramento. “They saw our one reservoir dropping and it really hit home. A lot of folks got the message right away.”

Among the measures Sacramento adopted was a humorous advertising campaign, with signs on Regional Transit buses urging people to wear their boxer shorts inside out and “brush every other tooth” to save water.

The city already had one of the toughest landscape watering rules in the region, allowing watering only on specific days and times based on address. During winter, watering is allowed only one day a week, on Saturday or Sunday.

In March, when the rules would have allowed a return to watering three times a week, Sacramento went further by eliminating one of those days as a drought conservation measure.

Like many area water agencies, Sacramento also beefed up enforcement by adding staff to water-waste patrols. Violations called into the city by concerned residents skyrocketed, and the city issued thousands of warnings.

“Back in August, it was hard to keep up, frankly, with all the calls that came in,” Granger said.

Savings efforts to come

In February, the state board plans to consider adopting new watering restrictions to bring about more conservation. Marcus, the board’s chairwoman, said Sacramento’s clearly defined watering days – backed up with real enforcement – are one example of the new measures being considered.

She said stricter measures are warranted in case the drought extends into a fourth year. Despite heavy December rain in some areas, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is only 38 percent of normal as of Monday.

Sacramento also beefed up its conservation rebate programs. In January 2014, it boosted its rebate for water-saving toilets from $100 to $125.

And in May, for the first time in Sacramento, it began offering rebates for lawn removal. Property owners can receive 50 cents per square foot, up to a maximum of $1,000, for converting thirsty lawn area to drought-friendly landscaping. The city committed $100,000 to the program in May and added another $100,000 later in the year.

Customers have responded to these programs. In 2013, for example, 249 Sacramento water customers took advantage of toilet rebates. In 2014, participation jumped to 1,034 customers.

The city has so far approved 88 applications for lawn rebates, Granger said, and has money left to do more.

Some area water agencies have fewer resources for such programs, but found other ways to achieve big water savings. The Fair Oaks Water District, for example, created a “Blue Man Campaign,” featuring an employee dressed in a blue body-stocking. The Blue Man made surprise appearances at public events and stood on street corners twirling a sign with water conservation messages.

The district also hung banners throughout the community urging people to stop irrigating lawns and save water for their trees and gardens instead.

The Fair Oaks Water District has some of the greatest water consumption in the region, because many customers have large semi-rural lots with big lawns and gardens. Its water use was relatively high in November at 155 gallons per person, but even that marks a 35 percent reduction from the year before. And the district has achieved double-digit percentage savings in water use every month since June.

The capital region’s water conservation experts are already working on new campaigns for springtime, when water use is expected to increase again with warmer weather. The new campaigns will focus on outdoor water use, and will launch in March, said Talbot, who is keeping the details under wraps for now.

“We’re going to use humor again, like we did last year,” she said. “But I think these are a little bit more pointed.”

The latest conservation campaign urges men to grow a beard to save water. Called “Show Us Your Drought Face,” the campaign was developed jointly by conservation staff at various area water agencies and is being led by the Regional Water Authority. It encourages men to submit a photo of their new beard by Jan. 18 for a contest. Women can participate, too, by wearing a fake beard or submitting a photo of another indoor water-conservation action they have taken.

Prizewinners will get their photo splashed across a digital billboard alongside the Business 80 Freeway near Cal Expo.

Talbot estimates growing a beard could save 5 gallons per shave, based on the presumption that each man leaves the bathroom faucet running for five minutes while he shaves. Talbot acknowledges that savings may not apply to every man, many of whom already turn off the faucet or shave with an electric razor. But that isn’t the point, she said.

“It’s to draw people’s attention and let them know these little actions can add up over time,” Talbot said.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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