Southern California schools Sacramento region on water conservation

An Orange County wastewater treatment facility reclaims water from sewage. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District is contemplating an even larger water recycling program.
An Orange County wastewater treatment facility reclaims water from sewage. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District is contemplating an even larger water recycling program. Los Angeles Times

Southern California’s behemoth Metropolitan Water District is confronting the current drought and aggressively preparing for the next one, while the Sacramento region plays catch-up on water conservation.

It’s a bit embarrassing.

Some advocates raised alarms last week when the Metropolitan Water District and Westlands Water District acknowledged they were considering buying four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“This is a way for the Metropolitan Water District to get a foothold in the Delta for greater water supply,” Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta told The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow.

Perhaps she is right. Certainly, there could be benefits to the Southern Californians if they were to buy the islands. A purchase could be a step toward construction of the twin tunnels, although MWD, which serves 19 million Southern California customers, and Westlands, which serves a heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley district, have not made an offer to buy the properties.

But it’s not as if the islands are in the hands of old-time farming families. The owner, Delta Wetlands Properties, is controlled by a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance. Delta Wetlands has been trying for years to convert its islands into for-profit reservoirs.

The islands consist of 20,000 acres, and could store perhaps 215,000 acre-feet of water. That may sound like a lot, but it’s scarcely a drop in the 3.5 million acre-feet consumed annually by MWD customers. Meanwhile, consider some of the steps the agency and other Southern California municipalities have taken this year:

▪ Earmarked $350 million to help property owners cover the cost of removing their lawns, plus $50 million from other agencies, and another $100 million to subsidize installation of low-flow toilets, appliances and other devices. MWD ratepayers are footing the bill.

▪ Paid $250 million in ratepayer money to buy 13,000 acres of farmland near Blythe after learning that speculators were on the verge of buying the land to secure water for permanent crops in the San Joaquin Valley. MWD plans to fallow no more than a third of acreage in dry years.

▪ Took steps toward what would easily be the largest water recycling effort in the state, a long-term, multibillion-dollar plan to produce 150,000 acre-feet of potable water a year from sewage.

A demonstration project could be ready in 18 months. Funding would come from a variety of sources. Orange County already gets potable water from recycling. And San Diego is preparing to start using desalinated water, distilled from a new $1 billion plant.

In the Sacramento region, on the other hand, plans proceed to allow more housing, with or without an obvious supply of water. The city of Sacramento is spending $1 million in 2015-16 to help homeowners take out grass, and is limiting outdoor water use to hit conservation targets. But the idea of tiered pricing, a basic water-saving step in which heavier users pay more, is years away.

Sacramento is not planning to pursue tiered rates until at least 2017-18, Utilities Director Bill Busath told a citizens advisory committee Wednesday. The department is looking to hire a consultant to develop an effective and legally defensible pricing system.

One hurdle is a court ruling that restricted tiered pricing by forcing cities to show they aren’t charging more than the cost of providing the water. But in Sacramento, the bigger issue is that water meters have been installed on only about 55 percent of customers’ properties.

That makes measuring water use difficult, if not impossible. Even with accelerated installation, it will take until the end of 2018 to meter more than 90 percent of the city.

Some Delta advocates will use every tool at their disposal to battle MWD and Westlands’ effort to buy the islands, and stop the tunnels, understandably so. But before we feel too terribly superior to our fellow Californians at the southern end of the state, we really ought to take some basic steps on our own, and maybe learn a lesson or two.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated with the correct figure for the city of Sacramento’s rebate program for homeowners to replace turf.