Foon Rhee: Sacramento finally gets serious about conserving water

Susan Sudmann admits it: Since her family signed up to track their water use, she’s become mildly obsessed with how they’re doing.

In December and January, the Sudmanns used an average of 250 gallons per day – better than the 284-gallon average for similar houses in her Sacramento neighborhood, but worse than the 173 gallons for a water-efficient one.

“I feel like we’re doing a lot of the right things,” she says. She, husband Matt and sons Chase and Brody are taking shorter showers and doing laundry and using the dishwasher only with full loads.

Her competitive side coming out, she’s thinking of other ways to reduce use – like putting buckets in the shower to collect water as it warms up and using that on her plants. But she draws the line at yanking out the grass in the front lawn and backyard – not with two active boys, two large dogs and a husband who actually likes mowing.

Still, her neighborhood is an oasis of water conservation in the Sacramento region. While fewer than half of the city’s homes are metered, about 5,000 in the Pocket have smart meters that report water use every hour. Families get email alerts on potential leaks and step-by-step tips on saving water.

Here, it’s a pilot program. In many other places in California – Los Angeles, for example – conservation has long been a part of daily life.

It’s no secret that one of the best ways to preserve our precious water supply is to better use what we already have. It doesn’t take a hydrologist to know how to save water. What it comes down to is public commitment and political will. For decades, both were in short supply in Sacramento.

Residents have been complacent due to the presence of major rivers and lakes, and resentful about saving water so it could flow to Central Valley farmers and Southern California homeowners. Until a 2004 state law overrode it, Sacramento’s City Charter specifically prohibited water meters.

“That’s pretty extreme,” City Manager John Shirey told me. Embarrassing, more like – especially since Sacramento uses nearly twice as much water per person as Los Angeles.

Now, Shirey and Utilities Director Dave Brent say they want to change Sacramento’s reputation and make the city a regional leader on conservation.

Sacramento has a lot of catching up to do.

Under state law, urban water systems must reduce per capita water use by 20 percent by 2020, or potentially lose eligibility for state grants and loans. Statewide, the goal is to reduce the average of 192 gallons per person a day to 154 by 2020. We have to remember, however, that all urban water use – residential, commercial and industrial – is only about a quarter of California’s total. Agriculture uses as much as three-fourths of fresh water available, and while more farms are using more efficient drip irrigation, they are not under similar conservation requirements.

Sacramento is starting from a 10-year average of 279 gallons per day per person – a figure that includes all water demand, including commercial and industrial – with a goal to cut use to 223 gallons per person by 2020. That’s a total reduction of about 30 million gallons a day. While citywide demand dropped to 207 gallons per person in 2010, officials say that is largely due to weather and the recession, and use is trending upward again.

While the city’s conservation efforts started ramping up in 2000, last October the City Council unanimously approved the city’s most aggressive water conservation plan ever. Next year, spending on water saving programs will increase from $1.5 million a year to $4 million.

Whether Sacramento meets its goal is up to residents; homes and apartments account for 70 percent of the city’s water demand. So City Hall is speeding up the installation of water meters on all existing homes – about 69,000 as of last month, with another 66,000 to go by a 2025 state deadline.

It’s also looking at tiered rates so heavy users would pay a premium. If residents aren’t billed based on how much they actually use, there’s little incentive to conserve. Water wasters don’t take a hit and savers don’t get rewarded. That’s unfair.

The city plans to focus even more on outdoor irrigation, responsible for more than half of single-family water use. For instance, it is accelerating “cash for grass” rebates to homeowners who replace lawns with water-efficient landscaping. The program wasn’t going to start until 2015-16, but the council will be asked, probably March 4, to reallocate $100,000 in sewer money to start this summer.

The city’s plan also calls for expanding leak detection and repair programs; enhancing public education and free “water-wise” audits of homes and businesses; and offering more rebates to homeowners who install water-saving toilets and washing machines.

All this comes at a cost.

Starting July 1, residents are facing the third year of 10 percent rate hikes to help pay off $248 million in bonds the city sold last year for water projects, including $32.7 million for water meters. The total cost of the meter installation and related water main work is about $416 million, including state and federal grants.

Yet, even if Sacramento reaches its 2020 target, per capita use would still be 60 percent higher than in Los Angeles. The contrast is startling.

There, the Department of Water and Power’s conservation program started in 1977, more measures were added during the extreme drought of 1988-92 and city councils approved local ordinances, often years ahead of state mandates. The department has a $30 million annual budget for conservation.

“It’s just always been a mindset,” Penny Falcon, the department’s water conservation policy manager, told me.

Saving water also saves money – a bigger deal in Los Angeles, where all customers have been billed based on how much they use since 1993 and where water is more expensive. The average single-family water bill in Los Angeles is roughly $75 a month, compared to about $41.50 in Sacramento.

The result: Los Angeles has already met its state goal to cut use to 138 gallons per person per day by 2020. Last year, that number was 129 gallons. While cooler summers reduce outdoor water demand, Los Angeles has proven that population growth doesn’t automatically mean more water use. Overall demand has dropped 17 percent since 2007; the city is consuming about the same amount as 30 years ago, even after adding 1.5 million people.

A little more than half of the water savings comes from reduced watering, shorter showers and other behavior changes; the rest comes from more efficient toilets, washing machines and other plumbing and efficiency measures. As of last March, the water department had issued rebates for 1.4 million toilets and 102,000 washing machines.

The department isn’t finished yet. It has its own goal to more than double the 2020 water savings by 2035, and it just launched a study, due next summer, to find the next set of conservation measures. Falcon says while most potential water savings has probably been wrung out of single-family homes, there’s much more that can be done at apartment complexes, office towers, businesses and industrial plants.

Though we may not like it, Sacramento could learn a lot from L.A. If the current drought persists, we may not have much choice. It’s likely that Sacramentans will have to live with even stricter mandatory conservation this summer.

While city officials are using the drought to drive home the message that everyone has to pitch in, conservation can’t be only during a crisis. Water shortages are not going away.

People around here like to accuse Southern California of stealing our water. We have no right to say that until we’re doing all we can to conserve what we have.