Sacramento area scrambles to adopt water conservation measures

Sacramento water agencies are racing to impose the toughest conservation orders ever seen in the region amid a dry winter that may soon shatter records.

If downtown Sacramento goes until Tuesday without measurable precipitation, it will break a 1976 record as the driest winter stretch – 45 days – in the city’s history, according to the National Weather Service. Setting that new record appears likely: There is no rain in the forecast at least through Thursday, and long-term forecasts suggest the balance of winter will be dry.

Virtually all of the two dozen water agencies that serve the capital region have adopted water conservation orders that, at a minimum, urge customers to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. Two – the cities of Sacramento and Folsom – have made that number a mandatory target. Still others have called for specific actions, including the San Juan Water District, which is asking customers in portions of Roseville, Granite Bay, Folsom and Orangevale to halt all outdoor watering.

Although water agencies are moving fast to reduce water demand, some may be ill-prepared to step up their enforcement of new conservation orders.

Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of area water agencies and environmental groups, said the region has never seen dry conditions take hold so rapidly. Many area residents and water leaders may have been caught waiting for relief from that first big storm of winter, he said, which has been the typical pattern historically. But it still has not come.

“I think our optimism was our enemy,” said Gohring. “It’s like every day we wake and up it’s worse than we thought it could be, and worse than it was yesterday. I think we’re scrambling.”

Roseville, the second-largest city in the metro area, is among the cities in the region facing a water crisis. It gets much of its water from Folsom Reservoir, which has been drawn to historic lows. The city has two full-time water waste inspectors on staff – but those inspectors only work on weekdays. The City Council may be asked in February to hire a third inspector if dry conditions continue, said Lisa Brown, the city’s water conservation administrator.

Roseville has asked residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. If conditions remain dry, the city may make that a mandatory order and impose other watering limits. Currently, it is legal to water lawns any day of the week in Roseville. That flexibility could end unless the season starts to look a lot more like winter.

Even without additional restrictions, many Roseville residents are getting the message, said Brown. Water waste complaints – generally reports about neighbors flooding sidewalks and gutters and hosing down driveways – have increased 70 percent since mid-December, she said.

“A lot of people really get upset,” she said. “They’ve heeded the warning for a 20 percent reduction, and they see a neighbor or business not doing their part and they report them. We investigate every single one of the reports we get. People are really paying attention.”

The dry winter has affected the entire state, and cities and water agencies across California are struggling to stretch the water supplies they have. Some farms in the San Joaquin Valley are already fallowing land, and the city of Willits in Mendocino County recently estimated it has only 100 days of water left for its citizens. Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday formally declared a statewide drought emergency, directing state officials to take a number of actions including arranging water and food relief for stricken communities.

A new long-range forecast released Thursday by the Climate Prediction Center, a unit of the National Weather Service, indicated that dry weather is likely to persist in California through April.

“There is no corner of California that is not being influenced by drought,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, whose members serve 90 percent of the urban and farm water demand in the state. “What everybody needs to be worried about is if we are in year three of a seven-year episode.”

Spike in neighbor complaints

Water waste complaints are also on the rise in the city of Sacramento. In the first 15 days of January, residents flooded the city with 462 reports of illegal water use. Last year during the same period, the city had received only 18 reports.

Patrolling the streets of east Sacramento last week, city water conservation specialist Elizabeth McAllister didn’t have to look far for proof that many homeowners are violating watering restrictions, which limit outdoor irrigation to either weekend day.

Standing water filled some gutters. Lush, green lawns glistened in the midmorning sun. Nearly every block had at least one home with a wet sidewalk – the telltale sign that sprinklers had been operating that morning.

One of the homes belonged to Larry Reagan. He was unloading packages from his car when McAllister noticed his sidewalk was wet. Reagan wasn’t fined or cited. Instead, like most other homeowners confronted with illegal watering, he was given informational pamphlets outlining the city’s irrigation schedule. The rules allow watering only once a week in winter, and only on weekends.

“It was just a matter of time before we changed the cycle, so I’m glad she stopped by,” Reagan said.

McAllister said most homeowners she encounters are like Reagan: apologetic and appearing to be genuinely unaware of the rules. A small percentage of defiant homeowners use the argument: “I pay for the water, I’ll use all I want,” she said.

City utilities officials said homeowners who are discovered watering during the week or violating other regulations will likely get a notice of violation but no fine. However, repeat offenders – those caught flouting the rules more than twice – could face fines. The worst offenders could be slapped with penalties reaching $1,000.

Sacramento utilities director Dave Brent said the city will be lenient – to a point.

“I don’t want a draconian, Gestapo-type of thing,” he said. “But if you’re a repeat offender and it’s some sort of egregious violation, we’re going to issue fines.”

So far this month, the city has issued 27 notices of violation. Brent expects fines will become more likely as the drought continues. In all of 2013, when watering rules were not as strictly enforced, the city issued eight fines.

“We’re not out here to drop the hammer on people, but we do have those cases when we need to,” said city water waste inspector Steve Upton, slowly patrolling the quiet side streets of Meadowview.

‘Somewhere we’ve never been’

Outside Sacramento, Folsom is the only area city mandating water cutbacks. Most jurisdictions are urging customers to voluntarily reduce their water consumption. But few have active patrols, and in many cases, it is difficult to find watering regulations on their websites.

The Sacramento region historically has been among the state’s biggest consumers of water per capita. Some believe the region should be moving more aggressively to reduce consumption. Jim Jones, a member of the advisory council at Save the American River Association, said saving more water now would help protect salmon and steelhead in the river, especially if the drought worsens.

Water released into the river from Folsom Dam was sharply curtailed this month to preserve municipal water supplies. As a result, many salmon redds, or nests, in the gravel river bed have been exposed and dried up. An unknown number of wild-spawned salmon eggs have been killed as a result. To estimate those losses, a team of biologists was surveying the river last week.

“Absolutely they should be more aggressive,” said Jones, who lives in Fair Oaks, which gets its water from the San Juan Water District. “And frankly, in my mind, they should have been more aggressive all along. I’m just really discouraged.”

Shauna Lorance, general manager at San Juan, said the district will consider adopting “Stage 5” drought restrictions, the most severe category, in February if dry conditions persist. It has already asked customers to stop all outdoor watering. Stage 5 measures would mandate a 50 percent cut in water use by all customers and could even prevent new homes and businesses from connecting to the water system.

One reason San Juan cannot move faster on these measures, she said, is that Stage 5 restrictions come with tiered water rates, which make heavy users pay more for each unit of water they consume.

The district does not yet have tiered rates in place, so it would have to adopt them under the terms of Proposition 218, which requires a vote of district property owners. Which means that, if voters approve, the soonest those new rates would take effect is March.

“We were all just kind of hoping it wasn’t going to happen,” Lorance acknowledged. “It’s somewhere we’ve never been before, and I hope we never get there.”

The district has three full-time water conservation employees who respond to water waste calls. But for now, they are not issuing fines and they don’t actively patrol for water waste, Lorance said.

The city of Sacramento had three water waste inspectors on the payroll at the beginning of last week. On Tuesday, the City Council adopted some of the strictest conservation measures in the region so far: a 20 percent to 30 percent mandatory rationing order. It also approved hiring 15 additional water waste inspectors, who should be on the job by the end of January.

But Sacramento’s efforts will be handicapped because about half of the city’s water connections are still unmetered. These customers have no concrete way to measure their own conservation efforts. The city faces a 2025 deadline under state law to finish metering all customers, and it has boosted water rates to help pay for that work.

Other customers do have meters, and their water bills show monthly consumption volume so that changes can be measured. But the City Council directed Wednesday that officials will not use data from water meters to enforce the mandatory conservation order. The council said it does not want to treat metered customers unfairly. Which means it will seek to enforce the order primarily by looking for water waste.

Gohring, of the Water Forum, acknowledged there is some political risk in vigorously enforcing new water conservation rules.

“The level of enforcement the city of Sacramento is talking about has never been experienced in this region. It is unprecedented,” he said. “Imagine if we never enforced the speed limit before and we started issuing traffic tickets. Our citizenry would howl. They would come unglued. Our political leaders, I think, are rightfully afraid of a huge backlash.”

Yet it is also clear that the city is preparing for the worst. It recently installed temporary pumps at its Fairbairn water intake plant on the American River, near California State University, Sacramento. This is in case the river drops below the elevation of the permanent pumps. The rented pumps cost the city $22,000 per month.

The pumps are not in use yet, but are “a needed insurance policy,” Brent said. An intake facility on the Sacramento River is shut down for maintenance until March, so most of the city’s water comes from the depleted American River.

“Just in case something happens, having those (temporary pumps) helps us sleep at night,” Brent said.

The city’s water waste inspectors have been particularly busy lately because of the volume of complaints submitted by residents. Upton normally handles 15 or 20 anonymous calls a day related to unlawful watering. On Tuesday morning, he had 64 reports in his computer. Four more came in during the first hour of his shift.

One call reported that sprinklers were soaking an unkempt lawn on Tamoshanter Way, a street of working-class families just south of Florin Road where many homes are surrounded by chain-link fences. Ozzie Cortez, the homeowner, said he just moved into the home in December after relocating from Elk Grove.

Upton handed him the city’s information packet, but stopped short of issuing a violation notice. Cortez, who is renovating the home, said a contractor working on the house had set the sprinkler’s timer.

“I didn’t know the rules,” he said with a grin. “I do now.”

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