The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Voluntary water conservation not effective, data show

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Voluntary conservation measures are not reliably saving water during the worst drought to hit California in a generation, according to data from water agencies across the state. Only mandatory conservation rules, backed by a threat of fines, seem to prompt consumers to save.

California water agencies with mandatory rules alone used 5 percent less water from January through May this year, compared to an average over the three previous years, according to a Bee analysis of the data. Agencies with only voluntary conservation measures saw water demand rise 4 percent over the same period.

The difference is even more significant when examining only the month of May. That is the most recent month for which data is available. It also was an unusually hot month in many areas and marks a point when it was obvious that drought was gripping the state.

During May, water agencies with mandatory conservation rules alone reduced water use 14 percent. Other agencies saw water use increase slightly.

“I was disappointed,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “That’s why we chose to go with what I would call modest statewide regulations to send the message we are in a crisis. You should be doing a lot more, and you can be doing more without too much discomfort.”

The data also revealed that Northern California is winning the conservation battle. About 75 percent of water districts north of the Grapevine, the Interstate 5 highway pass in Kern County, reduced their water use in May compared to previous years. Just 30 percent of districts south of The Grapevine could say the same.

The data on water use was collected by the state water board in a survey of 276 local water agencies. Statewide, it showed a 1 percent increase in total water use in May, compared with the same month in 2013.

As a result of that poor showing, the board on July 15 ordered larger water suppliers to impose mandatory restrictions on outdoor landscape irrigation, which accounts for more than 50 percent of urban water consumption in most communities. Water agencies that do not already have such rules on their books will be required to limit outdoor watering to two days per week. The state also banned washing driveways and sidewalks.

The action was backed up by a statewide opinion poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California. It found that 75 percent of those surveyed favor some form of mandatory water-use restrictions, and only 23 percent oppose such a move.

Before the state issued its new rules, 70 percent of water districts relied on voluntary restrictions, data showed. Just 10 percent had put mandatory restrictions in place. Another 20 percent of districts said they had a mixture of voluntary and mandatory rules.

Water agencies that restricted outdoor watering to two days a week produced some of the state’s most impressive conservation results, with 90 percent cutting water use in May.

The East Bay city of Pleasanton is among those that have imposed such restrictions, with significant results. The city imposed its restrictions after water use in January soared more than 50 percent from 2013, about the same time it became clear that the city’s water supply from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would be sharply curtailed.

City leaders in March declared a mandatory 20 percent reduction in water use. In May, they upped it to 25 percent. Residents could water their lawns only twice a week.

They also told residents that if they did not reach the target, their water rates – low by Bay Area standards – would roughly double. Pleasanton advertised the changes heavily. They sent city workers to residents’ homes to help set sprinklers to discharge the right amount of water.

After a two-month grace period, more than 95 percent of residents hit the 25 percent target, said Daniel Smith, director of the city’s operation services, and water use has continued to decline in June and July. He said the mandatory restrictions were a key part of the strategy.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Smith said. “It’s difficult to change habits.”

Mixed messages

Pleasanton was one of several cities that put Northern California far ahead of its southern counterparts in the conservation battle. To a large extent, that effort was led by the Sacramento region, where water providers were among the first in the state to enact mandatory conservation rules.

“Compared to what we are seeing in Southern California, you’ve got to say, ‘Wow,’ ” said Robert Roscoe, general manager of the Sacramento Suburban Water District, which serves about 45,000 water connections northeast of Sacramento and cut its water use 20 percent in May.

The drought unfolded differently in the two regions. In many areas of Northern California, communities have become accustomed to reliable winter storms to refill reservoirs, even in dry years. That didn’t happen this year.

Southern California, by comparison, depends largely on water imported from other areas, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As a result, it has spent billions building storage systems to bank water in wet years so it can survive without imported water in dry times.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler that delivers imported water to many cities in the region, announced in January it had enough water in storage to meet demands in 2014 and that no extra conservation measures were needed. Within weeks, after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, that message changed and the district proposed a voluntary 20 percent conservation target across its service area.

“The message here in Southern California has been very mixed,” acknowledged Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, which gets 60 percent of its water from local groundwater wells and the rest from Metropolitan. As a result, he said, “There has been an increase in water consumption in some cities.”

Heat also played a role, with temperatures breaking records in many areas of the state during the first five months of the year.

Long Beach residents increased their water consumption 4 percent in May compared to an average of the three prior years. However, Wattier pointed out, when compared only to May 2013, water consumption was unchanged. He called this a “huge accomplishment,” because May delivered record-breaking heat in the region. By June, he said, water consumption was down 4 percent in Long Beach compared to last year.

Long Beach is one of the few agencies in Southern California that had mandatory outdoor watering restrictions in place as early as March.

“It’s our own belief about our responsibility as a utility, and our belief that you need to act sooner rather than later,” Wattier said. “If next winter is dry, we know that we’re going to be in a very, very serious situation throughout all of California next year, including here in Southern California. We know it takes a long time to get the kind of behavior change that we need to get.”

An empty lake

In the Sacramento region, it became clear as soon as Christmas that Folsom Lake was not going to refill anytime soon. The usual Pacific winter storms just weren’t coming. When the lake still stood depleted in January, many water suppliers began imposing conservation rules unlike anything seen before.

The state’s data show the results: The Sacramento region, after being one of the heaviest water users in the state for decades, transformed into a conservation leader. Among the 10 large water agencies with the best conservation results, four are in the Sacramento region.

Among them is the city of Folsom, which imposed strict water rules early in the drought. It posted a 25 percent cut in water use during May compared to previous years, among the best showings in the state.

The city is nestled on the south shore of Folsom Lake. In the past, it has been hard to convince residents to conserve water with that massive supply sitting nearby. This year, photos of a starkly-depleted Folsom Lake ran in newspapers across the nation to illustrate California’s drought.

Folsom residents noticed.

“They had a visual last November, December, January, just walking by,” said Marcus Yasutake, the city’s environmental and water resources director.

New regulations helped, too, Yasutake said. Folsom residents were told they could water their lawns only two days a week and that they had to cut water use by at least 20 percent. Many complied, including some who reported water waste in their neighborhoods to city officials.

At El Dorado Irrigation District, officials embarked on a massive campaign to encourage customers to conserve. Every week, the district posts prominent updates on its website showing progress by its customer base.

Water use in the district fell about 20 percent in May.

“We’ve done movie trailers before movies,” said district spokeswoman Mary Lynn Carlton. “We’ve done door hangers. We’ve done direct-mail letters. We’ve sent out letters to our top 10 percent of water users. We’ve done postcards. We have a Facebook page dedicated to this. We are going at it in a lot of different ways.”

The city of Sacramento did not make the top 10, but in January it became the first in the region to adopt a 20 percent mandatory conservation target for its residents. By May, it had achieved a 13 percent reduction, according to the state’s data. City officials recently reported consumption was down 17 percent for June.

Problem cities

In Southern California, many water agencies saw consumption head in the opposite direction.

The city of Santa Ana in Orange County recorded the worst performance of any water provider. According to data collected by the state, Santa Ana water use jumped 64 percent in May compared to the prior three-year average. But Santa Ana officials said that number resulted from a typographical error. In reality, water consumption increased 5.5 percent, said William Galvez, the city’s interim public works director

He said the increase resulted from economic recovery in the city.

“We have a lot more commercial activity. That’s where we’re seeing the increase,” Galvez said. “They’re probably ramping up what they do like, for example, bakers stepping up how much water they consume. It’s not coming from the residential sector, it’s coming from the industrial and business sector.”

Santa Ana gets 70 percent of its water from local groundwater wells, which Galvez said have been stable. The rest comes from water purchased from Metropolitan Water District. The city has not imposed any mandatory watering restrictions. But in September, the City Council will consider asking customers to meet a voluntary 5 to 10 percent conservation target, Galvez said.

Many Southern California water providers point out they are already far more frugal with water than other areas of the state, a result of living with more frequent shortages and reliance on expensive imported water. That makes it harder for them to cut water consumption significantly.

Santa Ana residents on average consume 108 gallons of water per person per day. Sacramentans, in comparison, consume 218 gallons each per day.

Increases in water demand were not limited to Southern California. The eco-friendly city of San Francisco stood out as one of the poor performers: Total consumption within the San Francisco Public Utility Commission service area increased 19 percent in May compared to the prior three years.

Officials at the commission object to that comparison, saying 2011 was a wet year that reduced consumption and skewed the results. A comparison with 2013 alone, they said, indicates customers cut water use 4.7 percent between February and May this year. The agency has asked customers to meet a voluntary 10 percent conservation target, and it recently stepped up public education with a catchy advertising campaign.

Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager at the utility, said some of the increase came from greater demand from wholesale customers, including the Alameda County Water District. He also said it will be tough to get more conservation from San Franciscans, who consume 49 gallons of water per person each day, one of the lowest rates in the state.

“We’re getting a little bit, but we won’t get a lot more from San Francisco,” Ritchie said. “Over the last nine weeks, demand has been regularly down, and if it continues at this rate, we’re definitely on track to make the 10 percent for the year.”

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