How much water a community gulps varies across the Sacramento region

The ongoing drought has cities across the Sacramento region urgently trying to cut water use.

Some have a lot further to go than others.

Though they share the same climate, Granite Bay residents use almost twice as much water per person as Sacramento residents, state data show. Woodland residents consume more per person than nearby Davis residents. Citrus Heights residents use less water than their neighbors in Orangevale.

The patterns were taken from water use management plans recently submitted to the state that reflect 10-year consumption averages, mostly between 1995 and 2005. They show that water consumption doesn’t just break down along familiar lines: coast vs. inland, north vs. south, water-rich vs. desert. Instead, travel a few miles within the Sacramento region and witness very different approaches to water use.

The patterns also reflect clear correlations: Cities with smaller home lots and smaller yards tend to consume less water per person than those with estates. Cities that long ago installed water meters and invested in programs encouraging water conservation tend to use less water than those that have taken a more passive approach.

Davis, in Yolo County, put its residents on water meters 20 years ago and stuck to a high-density development model that means smaller lots, and thus, less water for lawns. Its residents consumed about 200 gallons of water per person each day during the 10-year snapshot, according to the city’s water management plan.

Roseville has developed homes on moderately sized lots, but has countered the impact on water use by offering water-saving incentives, such as paying residents to replace their grassy lawns with drought-resistant plants. Its residents used about 300 gallons of water per person each day over the 10 years, according to its plan.

Folsom has some of the largest residential lots among cities in the region. The section of its website devoted to water conservation incentives simply reads, in red type, “No rebates at this time.” Its plan shows residents used about 400 gallons of water per person each day.

With California experiencing a historic drought and a third straight year of unusually dry weather, the focus on water conservation – and water hogs – has taken on a grave and sometimes blameful tone. Sacramento residents are tattling on each other, dialing 311 to report on neighbors running sprinklers at the wrong time. Folsom city officials have prohibited builders from using water for construction purposes without prior approval. The Placer County Water Agency has banned pool construction for new homes.

Those are short-term, temporary fixes. In the long run, cities using more water per household can look to less-thirsty communities here and elsewhere in the state for lessons, several experts said.

“Especially in the Central Valley, there’s still not enough water conservation and metering,” said Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an environmental policy group that focuses on water issues. “There is still low-hanging fruit there.”

‘A huge water sink’

Lawns drink most of the water consumed by Sacramento homes. Areas with large home lots tend to have large lawns. Those areas consistently use more water per household than densely populated neighborhoods with small lots.

Granite Bay is a good case in point.

Satellite imagery taken during the height of summer last August, amid the driest year in Sacramento’s recorded history, shows a sea of fairway-sized, thriving green lawns surrounding large homes in the upscale Wedgewood and Shelborne Estates portions of Granite Bay. One real estate ad for a $2.7 million home in one of Granite Bay’s gated neighborhoods shows pictures of a working waterfall and a massive pool fed by fountains. The ad boasts that it comes with “2.3 acres fully landscaped.”

“The type of grass he’s using doesn’t require a lot of water,” said Nick Sadek, the real estate agent listing the home. “We’ll see how it goes.”

The San Juan Water District that serves much of Granite Bay reported in its 2010 water management plan that its residents used about 510 gallons of water per person each day, a usage rate higher than all but a handful of districts across California.

San Juan relies heavily on Folsom Reservoir for its water supply. As of Friday, water levels at the lake were lower at this point of the year than during any other year since 1991, when storms from the “March Miracle” ended a severe drought, state data show.

Not counting on another miracle, San Juan has instituted the toughest mandatory water restrictions in the region: a 25 percent mandatory cut in water usage.

District General Manager Shauna Lorance said simply looking at water use per resident is unfair when evaluating conservation efforts. She noted that her district’s residents use less water per acre than most large cities. Put another way, if Granite Bay built several apartment complexes, its water use per capita would go down, even as its overall water use went up.

“(San Juan) has relatively low-density housing, with fewer houses per acre than most regions,” Lorance said. “This is the main reason for the higher water use per person when comparing to others. Gallons of water per capita is a number that is useful as a big-picture general statewide discussion.”

Water conservation experts counter that land use patterns matter – larger lots tend to gulp more water. People have to live somewhere, they argue, and spreading them out over huge parcels with big lawns wastes water on landscaping. And creates sprawl. If the city of Sacramento had the same population density as Granite Bay, it would cover an area larger than Los Angeles.

Big lawns “are a huge water sink,” said Robert Glennon, author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.”

No one expects Granite Bay to become as densely populated as Sacramento anytime soon. There is another option: Its residents can keep their large lots but conserve water by replacing grass with less thirsty landscaping.

Sadek, the real estate agent, said he’s seeing a shift in Granite Bay and other luxury home markets toward more water-efficient landscaping that doesn’t feature a sea of lush green. Buyers are requesting such changes because they want to be conscientious, and home builders are responding.

“We got kind of complacent,” he said. “Then the drought hit all of a sudden.”

Rebates proving popular

Several communities where residents use less water per home have incentive programs that pay customers to conserve.

Take California American Water, which provides water to about 50,000 customers in several locations throughout the Sacramento region, including parts of Antelope, Citrus Heights, Rosemont and Rancho Cordova. It gives its residential customers up to $125 to replace inefficient toilets and up to $200 to swap washing machines. And it pays customers up to $2,000 to rip out grass and replace it with plants that consume less water.

In just the last four years, about 2,700 of its residential and commercial customers have switched toilets for a rebate; another 900 have switched washing machines; and 160 have traded their grass for cash, according to figures provided by the district. It has spent roughly $670,000 on conservation rebates in the Sacramento area.

California American’s customers consumed about 217 gallons of water per person per day, one of the lowest rates in the region, according to its 2010 water management plan.

“We have a very robust conservation budget in Sacramento,” said district spokesman Evan Jacobs.

Sacramento’s City Council adopted a “cash for grass” program at its meeting last week. The move was so popular that customers had trouble reaching the city’s utilities department via phone the next day.

Roseville has had such a program in place for years. Demand was so high this year that the city ran out of money for incentives. Roseville has given “cash for grass” rebates worth $354,000 since July 2008.

“If you can redo your yard, you will cut your water substantially,” said Brian Jacobson, spokesman for the city of Roseville.

Cash rebates are the carrot that entices customers to conserve. Water meters are the stick. Homes with water meters pay more when they use more. Saving money thus becomes a catalyst for saving water.

Davis metered its residents more than a decade before most other water districts in the region – and has water use per capita rates lower than any other city here. Sacramento reduced its water consumption by 6 billion gallons a year, or 12 percent, as it rolled out water meters during the last decade. About half the city’s residents now have meters.

Folsom expects newly installed meters to cut its water usage substantially. The city only started charging customers a metered rate in 2013, and its water use per capita is higher than most other districts in the region.

“There wasn’t an incentive for the customers to pay for what they were using,” city environmental and water resources director Marcus Yasutake said, referring to the relatively high water use numbers reported in its 2010 management plan.

Water agencies see progress

Some responsibility for reducing water use requires direct action by water districts, not just customers, experts said. Several local districts deliver water through aging infrastructure. Some of that water leaks out, and is wasted. Fixing those leaks would save water.

In its 2010 water plan, Folsom committed to improving leaks in its system to save millions of gallons of water. It has spent about $7 million on infrastructure improvements such as water meter installation and water line repairs in the last five years, Yasutake said.

Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, said cities also can conserve water by recycling it. Reusing water for purposes such as irrigating golf courses is done consistently in Southern California, but is not a widely used practice here.

To motivate water districts to adopt conservation measures, state legislators passed a law in 2009 requiring water purveyors to create management plans showing how many gallons of water, on average, customers use each day. Most districts are required to target a 20 percent reduction in water use per person by 2020 from the amount of use reported in their plans.

The goals of the legislation include giving cities breathing room during drought, keeping water supply greater than demand even as the state adds residents and protecting water for agricultural and environmental purposes.

Most districts are making progress in getting customers to conserve. Several said they have already hit water use reduction targets for 2020 laid out in their water management plans.

As of today, Davis residents have reduced their water use to 163 gallons of water per person each day, said Dianna Jensen, a civil engineer in the city’s water division. The city hopes to get that figure down to 134 gallons by 2020.

Sacramento has dropped its water use per person each day by about 50 gallons from the amount reported in its 2010 management plan. Water use per person last year in Folsom also was down, but not below the target amount for 2020.

San Juan Water District customers used about 432 gallons per person each day last year, about 75 gallons below the level reported in its management plan but still not below its water target for 2020. San Juan customers had beaten their 2020 goals in the years leading up to the drought, but dry weather created thirsty lawns, Lorance said.

“Landscape needed more water due to rain,” Lorance said. But, she added, “We converted to 100 percent metered billing in 2005 and have been dropping in gallons per capita since then.”

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