Water & Drought

Sacramento-area water agencies push back against proposed water cuts

Drought resistant landscaping at the home of Marc and Jeana Kenyon in Roseville on Thursday, April 9, 2015. These families have cut their water use by more than 80 percent mostly by ripping up their large front lawn and replacing it with drought-resistant plants. Roseville has become one of the best in the region for residential water conservation.
Drought resistant landscaping at the home of Marc and Jeana Kenyon in Roseville on Thursday, April 9, 2015. These families have cut their water use by more than 80 percent mostly by ripping up their large front lawn and replacing it with drought-resistant plants. Roseville has become one of the best in the region for residential water conservation. rbenton@sacbee.com

Water agencies representing hundreds of thousands of Sacramento-area residents are pushing back against a state plan that calls for their customers to sharply reduce water use while other parts of California face smaller cuts.

In separate letters to the State Water Resources Control Board this week, water agency officials in Carmichael, Fair Oaks, West Sacramento and other suburbs argued that their customers already had made significant cuts in water use in the last decade and should not be forced to reduce consumption by 35 percent over 2013 usage. That’s the harshest conservation target the board has proposed. California has roughly 400 urban water agencies, and 135 were targeted for the 35 percent cuts, including 17 in the Sacramento region.

The agencies contend the state’s proposal is too blunt. It should take into account California’s widely varying climates, they said, as water evaporates more quickly inland than in coastal areas. It should be adjusted, they said, to give relief to areas with low population density and large lots that require more water. And, they argued, it should reward districts that made major gains in conservation before 2013, the year the board chose as the baseline for the cuts.

“It’s so doggone complicated,” Einar Maisch, general manager for the Placer County Water Agency, said in an interview. “We are in an area that has traditionally had relatively cheap land. Our densities are lower. In L.A. and San Francisco, it’s not only cooler but more dense.”

The Placer district is among those facing a 35 percent cut because of its relatively high water use. The district’s residents used 235 gallons per person per day last September, according to data collected by the state, compared with the state average of 124 gallons.

Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month issued the first-ever order for mandatory cuts in urban water use across the state. His order called for a 25 percent reduction statewide in urban water consumption, but warned that some districts would need to cut more than others.

The State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees California’s complex system of water rights, responded to Brown’s order last week with a draft framework that imposes mandatory cutbacks ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent on cities and towns statewide, with communities that have the highest per-capita water use targeted for the deepest reductions. The board’s benchmark was water use last September, when the majority of the region’s districts used far more water than the state average.

The Sacramento River hydrologic region was hit hard by the framework because of its heavier water usage, particularly compared with cities in more moderate coastal climates. About 70 percent of its water agencies face the harshest water cuts proposed by the state. By comparison, about 28 percent of South Coast water agencies and 13 percent of Central Coast water agencies were targeted with the 35 percent cuts.

In the days since it released its draft proposal, the board has received more than 200 written comments. It plans to release an updated draft Friday and is expected to approve a final plan next month.

Comments arrived from agencies throughout California. The San Diego County Water Authority, for instance, complained that it should have gotten credit for years of conservation efforts, and for investing in a $1 billion desalination plant under construction in Carlsbad. The Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide organization, said the idea of fining agencies $10,000 a day if they fail to meet their target reductions is draconian and should be used only as a “last resort.”

Some agencies praised the plan. The giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which sells water wholesale to 26 agencies serving 19 million people, endorsed the framework in a letter to the governor. On Tuesday, its board agreed to cut deliveries to member agencies by 15 percent and fine those that exceed their allocations.

The city of Sacramento, facing a mandatory 25 percent reduction, also is on board with the plan, said interim utilities director Bill Buseth. Sacramento, adjacent to two major rivers, for years was criticized as among the state’s more profligate water users. But over the past year, the city has ramped up conservation efforts. It reported cutting per-capita usage 21 percent between the summers of 2013 and 2014.

“The bottom line is, we don’t have any big issues with what the governor is proposing,” Buseth said.

Some of the most vociferous complaints came from water districts in the state’s hot, dry interior. Seventeen Sacramento-area water districts used more than 165 gallons per person per day in September, targeting them for a 35 percent cut under the state’s proposal. Five area districts, including Davis, Woodland and Roseville, face 25 percent cuts; one, California American Water, which serves several suburbs mostly in eastern Sacramento County, would need to cut use by 20 percent.

“There’s a big difference between 25 percent and 35 percent,” Maisch said of Placer County’s situation. “One of our key points that we were concerned about is fairness.”

Several Sacramento water agencies asked the board to take into consideration prior conservation gains when setting new targets.

“We’ve already had huge reductions,” said Chris Nelson, a spokesman for the Carmichael Water District, which is targeted for a 35 percent cut.

The Fair Oaks Water District, identified as one of the region’s heaviest water users, said the board’s proposal would punish an agency that has invested millions in state-approved projects to improve its storage and reliability.

The district “is being asked to disproportionately carry California’s drought burden,” General Manager Tom Gray wrote in an eight-page letter to the water board.

In an interview, Gray said the district isn’t trying to escape any pain. But he said Fair Oaks is frustrated after spending $6 million drilling wells, with the state’s blessing, in recent years. “We’ve been investing on behalf of our ratepayers in a sound water planning strategy that ... was approved by the state,” he said. “Now that we’ve implemented that plan and followed it, they’re saying we can’t use the water.”

At the San Juan Water District, another agency facing a 35 percent cut, General Manager Shauna Lorance said the board should take population density and lot size into account when setting targets. “We have a very low water use per acre,” she said. San Juan’s territory includes portions of Granite Bay, Roseville, Orangevale and Folsom. The district did not write a letter to the state.

Officials in West Sacramento, also facing a 35 percent cut, said they are worried the state will make agencies impose the same sharp cutbacks on commercial and industrial customers as they do on residents. West Sacramento food processors and other employers might need to reduce production in order to comply, said Denix Anbiah, the city’s public works director.

“It’s one thing to say ‘water your lawn once a week or twice a week.’ When you go to commercial and industrial customers and tell them you need to cut down by 35 percent, how do they do that?” said Public Works Director Denix Anbiah. “There’s an implication for jobs and the economy.”

One district, Elk Grove, told the state it ended up in the wrong category because the water usage data it turned in was flawed.

The Elk Grove Water Service District initially told the state that its residents used about 210 gallons per person per day in September. After the framework was released, district officials reviewed those numbers and found mistakes. General Manager Mark Madison said new calculations put Elk Grove’s usage at 135 gallons. That would place the city in the category for a 25 percent cut in consumption, not 35 percent.

Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137. The Bee’s Tony Bizjak contributed to this report.

Proposed water usage cuts

The state’s proposed water cutbacks would require greater reductions for communities with higher rates of water use. Districts and agencies in the Sacramento region fall into one of three tiers of proposed reductions:

35 percent reduction

▪ San Juan

▪ Orange Vale

▪ Golden State – Cordova

▪ Fair Oaks

▪ Fruitridge Vista

▪ West Sacramento

▪ Placer County

▪ Rio Linda-Elverta Community

▪ Carmichael

▪ Sacramento Suburban

▪ Lincoln

▪ Elk Grove

▪ Georgetown Divide

▪ Citrus Heights

▪ El Dorado Irrigation

▪ Galt

▪ Folsom

25 percent reduction

▪ Roseville

▪ Sacramento County

▪ Woodland

▪ City of Sacramento

▪ Davis

20 percent reduction

▪ California American – Sacramento

Source: State Water Resources Control Board

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