City of Sacramento strives to lead in water conservation

The city of Sacramento is positioning itself to become the capital region’s water conservation leader, a dramatic shift after decades of opposition to even basic conservation ideas like water meters.

On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously adopted a 150-page water conservation plan that will invest millions of dollars in a host of new measures, some normally associated with thirsty desert cities.

Within two years, if the plan is carried out as proposed, the city for the first time would offer homeowners cash incentives to remove lawns. It also would extend conservation programs into thirsty commercial sectors, such as restaurants and laundries, and punish heavy water users with steeper water charges.

“Anybody who wants to look to Sacramento and say we’re not doing our share is just simply not paying attention,” said Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby.

The new direction is an outgrowth of several factors, including a new generation of city leaders and a growing statewide awareness that water conservation is everybody’s business, even in cities such as Sacramento that are relatively wealthy in water. The city has its own water rights in the American and Sacramento rivers, so is not dependent on allocations or purchases from other entities.

Yet, in recent years, Sacramento also has moved more decisively to embrace its rivers for the esthetic and recreational pleasures they provide, from swimming and kayaking to habitat for a unique and robust salmon run. All those assets require water, and local recreationists and environmental groups have pressed for conservation to protect the rivers and the benefits they provide.

“There’s been a sea change, and I think they’re making a major shift in their conservation programs and the dedication of funding to it,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, which promotes collaboration on water issues in Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties. “It’s a good thing to see. They’re working against a lot of past perception, and they need to be aggressive to overcome some of that.”

Another incentive comes from the state: The city is being nudged down the road to more aggressive conservation by two different California laws.

Sacramento faces a state deadline of 2025 to install water meters on all its residential customers or it could face penalties. The city resisted metering for decades: The city charter dating to 1921 actually banned water meters, and every City Council member in 1991 opposed a new state law that required meters on new homes.

The city got a slow start complying with the 2025 deadline, partly because the City Council resisted rate increases to pay for it. It agreed last year to begin increasing rates, also needed to repair aging waterworks. But 53 percent of homes remain unmetered, and the city may now depend on state grants to get the work done in time.

The city must install about 110,000 meters by 2025, at an estimated cost of $350 million.

That’s where the other state law comes in. Unless Sacramento cuts water consumption 20 percent by 2020, it could be declared ineligible for state grants.

To meet that target, the city must cut its water use to 223 gallons per capita per day, a 20 percent drop from a previous 10-year average of 279 gallons. Sacramento already has met that goal, with per capita water use dropping to 207 gallons per day in 2010. But city leaders believe much of that reduction may be due to the economic recession, and could be short-lived. By 2012, consumption had climbed back to 217 gallons and is expected to keep climbing until it exceeds the target.

William Granger, Sacramento’s water conservation administrator, said the city’s goal is to exceed the 20 percent mandate, although a specific target has not been set.

“The main hammer is, indeed, eligibility for future grants,” said Granger, who joined the city in February after 19 years of experience at Otay Water District in San Diego County, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Marin Municipal Water District.

“But that’s not our sole reason for wanting to exceed the 2020 target,” he said. “There’s also kind of the public perception. We want to do what we can to be a leader in the region and in the state.”

The plan adopted by the City Council includes about 20 conservation measures. It includes cash incentives for homeowners to remove lawns, expanded toilets and clothes washer rebates, and rebates for “smart” irrigation controllers for large landscapes, such as in commercial areas, which can adjust watering based on the weather. The program also calls for a significant expansion of public education efforts to spread the conservation message.

Perhaps the most controversial element is so-called “conservation pricing,” which imposes a tiered rate structure to make heavy water users pay more.

Most Sacramentans still pay a flat rate for water, which allows them to use all the water they want for a single monthly charge of $30 or $40, depending on home size. Metered rates – still unknown to most Sacramento ratepayers – create a basic conservation incentive by charging customers for the actual amount of water consumed: The more they use, the more they pay.

Conservation pricing goes one step further with a structure similar to many electric utilities. Once water consumption passes an established threshold in any given billing cycle, each additional unit of water costs more and the water bill increases faster.

Altogether, the new conservation measures are expected to cost $462 per acre-foot, according to the plan. This is less than Sacramento’s cost of treated water in 2012, which was $579 per acre-foot. One acre-foot is enough to serve two average households for a year.

Many of the new programs will not be rolled out until July 2015 – assuming the City Council allocates additional money for conservation efforts. The new programs are expected to boost the annual cost of conservation efforts in the city Utilities Department from $1.5 million to $8.5 million, and the plan does not specify where the money will come from.

Still, the amount pales next to the potential cost to expand water treatment facilities. Without more conservation, officials estimate Sacramento will need to spend $150 million to expand water treatment capacity by 2030.

A cash incentive to remove lawns would be revolutionary in Sacramento, where decades of relatively cheap water created an urban oasis of lush lawns that is increasingly rare in water-scarce California.

Only two other municipalities in the region currently offer lawn-removal incentives. Roseville has done so since 2008, and Placer County Water Agency launched a program this year. Both offer residents $1 per square foot of lawn removed, up to $1,000 per homeowner.

In Roseville’s case, the incentive is not just a credit on the homeowner’s utility bill. At the completion of a lawn-removal project and inspection by the city, officials write the customer a check for the full rebate amount.

“It’s one of our most popular programs,” said Lisa Brown, the city’s water efficiency administrator, who modeled the program after one offered in Las Vegas. “I think a lot of people don’t use their lawns. What we hear most often is people don’t want to do the maintenance anymore. A lot of people are really frustrated with having to mow it weekly, and fertilize it and check their irrigation all the time.”

When Roseville started its “Cash for Grass” program in 2008, 40 people were waiting to sign up at 8 a.m. on the first day the program was offered, Brown said. The city instantly exhausted the $30,000 budgeted for the program. Now $60,000 is offered for turf rebates each year, and the city has removed at least 346,000 square feet of lawn since 2008 – equal to six football fields.

In most cases, Brown said, customers replace lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping that is easier to maintain. The city provides participants with a list of recommended plants, and also requires that they replace lawn sprinklers with drip irrigation.

So far, the program has saved enough water to serve 150 new homes in Roseville – without the need to find new water supplies.

“I need that type of sustained savings that gets me to a level that meets state law,” Brown said.