Conservation conundrum: Water use varies greatly across California

Drive across city limits in virtually any part of California, and you will also cross another kind of frontier, one gaining more attention during the worst drought in a generation: The borders between cities also define different ideas about water. One city may have gutters coursing with wasted water, while its neighbor lives by the highest conservation standards.

The differences can be glaring, according to a Bee review of data submitted by water agencies, and they highlight some of the challenges in achieving broad conservation goals during the ongoing drought. In a hypothetical tour of the state, according to the data, the well-informed traveler would encounter the following disparities:

• In the tony hillside mansions of Los Altos, residents in 2012 consumed an average of 197 gallons of water per person each day. Step across the city limits into Mountain View, and consumption drops to 139 gallons per day.

• In Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, per capita consumption is 163 gallons per day. Next door in Garden Grove, the average is only 128 gallons each per day.

• In the state capital’s metro region, Folsom residents consume 329 gallons each per day. Their neighbors in adjacent Orangevale consume significantly less, 225 gallons per day.

Water consumption varies enormously across California, and the reasons are not easy to pin down. But it is an issue of growing importance as the state struggles to contain water demand.

In the most recent report to the State Water Resources Control Board, a survey of water agencies showed that Californians in May failed to achieve the 20 percent conservation goal sought by Gov. Jerry Brown in his emergency drought proclamation. They failed to get even close: Consumption actually increased by 1 percent compared with the prior year.

“Most people haven’t been cutting back,” said Dale Creasey, 81, a resident of Orangevale. He reduced his most recent water bill by 43 percent, despite growing more than 1,300 pounds of zucchini that he donated to charity. His personal goal is 50 percent. “I believe in God, I attend church, and I feel that you’re supposed to help take care of your fellow man. When there’s a water shortage, you cut back so everybody can have some.”

Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in California water issues, said residents can save more. “We live in a state that’s susceptible to epic drought,” Quinn said. “It’s up to all of us to do our part to save in good times and in bad.”

Where water runs high

Expecting every resident of the state to use the same amount of water, or even adopt the same conservation measures, seems like a reasonable expectation on the surface. But California’s geographic and socio-economic diversity make this difficult, if not unreasonable, said Gregory Weber, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council. The council collects consumption data from many water agencies as part of an agreement with the state.

“It’s hard to tell a single story about why people across the state have such differences,” said Weber. “Every water agency out there is going to claim they have unique circumstances, and to a large extent it’s true.”

Weber and other water experts say California’s many unique microclimates are one explanation for the wide differences in water consumption. For example, residential properties in Sacramento and Berkeley, all else being equal, will consume very different amounts of water simply because the former experiences hotter temperatures much of the year.

“Everything we do in Sacramento to try and survive the hot summers uses more water than some parts of the state,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.

But beyond climate, other factors come into play, especially when comparing neighboring communities that experience similar weather. Household size, property size and income level also have a role.

For example, Los Altos consists of 84 percent owner-occupied homes, vs. 64 percent in neighboring Mountain View, according to U.S. census data. Also, median household income in Los Altos, at $140,000 per year, is 53 percent greater than in Mountain View.

“If you don’t mind paying a large water bill – if that’s a small proportion of your income – there really is less of an incentive to save,” said Quinn.

That would seem to be the case in places like Rancho Santa Fe. The community near San Diego is considered one of the wealthiest in America, with a median household income of $173,000 annually. It also has one of the highest rates of water consumption in the state: Within the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves Rancho Santa Fe and several nearby communities, per capita water consumption in 2012 was 485 gallons per day.

In comparison, consumption in neighboring San Diego was just 128 gallons per person per day.

Rancho Santa Fe was also one of the communities that caused California as a whole to miss the 20 percent water conservation target in May: Water use in Rancho Santa Fe actually increased 23 percent in May compared with the prior three years. The area gets about 65 percent of its water from imported supplies, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Jessica Parks, a spokeswoman for the district, said most residential properties in the area are large – 1 to 3 acres in size – and have small orchards of lemon, orange or avocado trees that demand water.

“We are an irrigation district,” Parks said. “However, it’s pretty much transformed over time to being an urban water provider now. We have large lots that need irrigation. So when one person is living on a 3-acre lot, it does look like they’re using a lot of water.”

The district has had conservation programs in place for many years, including rebates on some water-saving technologies that are not offered in the Sacramento area, such as weather-sensitive irrigation timers, soil-moisture sensors and rain-collection barrels.

But until recently, it had only voluntary watering restrictions in place, despite the governor’s emergency drought proclamation in January. On Aug. 21, the district’s board of directors adopted mandatory watering restrictions that limit outdoor irrigation to certain days of the week based on address, and only in the morning and evening hours.

Unlike many other areas of the state, there will be no “water cops” roaming the avenues of Rancho Santa Fe to look for violations.

“We don’t have the staff resources for that,” said Parks. “We can’t be everywhere, so we’re hoping our customers can also help us in finding that water waste.”

Where water runs low

Far to the north in Sonoma County, the culture of conservation is very different. In Santa Rosa, the region’s largest city and the county seat, residents consume an average of just 106 gallons per person each day, one of the lowest rates in the state.

Santa Rosa depends on the Russian River for more than 90 percent of its water supply. It’s a a tempestuous source: The river can cause floods in winter, then dry up the following year. It is also home to imperiled salmon and steelhead runs, a reality that many residents connect with their own water consumption.

“We have a lot of really concerned and active and engaged citizens in Santa Rosa,” said Kimberly Zunino, the city’s water resources sustainability manager. “We find, in Santa Rosa, it’s not always about money. They want to do their part.”

The city is rolling out a new program to replace older water-saving toilets with even more miserly ultra-high efficiency toilets that use only 0.8 gallons per flush. It is not a rebate program, but rather a package deal in which customers pay $375 for a toilet and the services of a contractor to install it. The package also includes a water-saving showerhead and faucet aerators for kitchen and bathroom.

Customers can pay for the toilet-replacement package with a $7 monthly charge on their water bills. In the long run, Zunino estimates, many customers will end up saving money on their water bills because the new toilets are so efficient.

The city has also hired consultants to find water savings in the commercial sector, a conservation opportunity that is largely untapped in many communities. For example, it paid a consultant $14,000 to help city staffers understand the food industry to work more effectively with Amy’s Kitchen. The organic food processor has a packaging plant in Santa Rosa and is one of the city’s largest water users.

The resulting water savings will save the company money, and Zunino said the city also expects to recover the consultant’s cost through savings in city operations.

She said other communities should make a similar effort.

“There are things, I think, that every agency and municipality can do,” Zunino said. “If we can teach all of our residents and customers to actually change their behavior, we can reduce water use everywhere. It’s getting out there and talking to those customers and trying to get people to realize that water is not an endless supply.”

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