Time To Dig In For ... A 220-Year Drought? 

Union Valley Reservoir, Calif. August, 2015.  Photo: Sarah Lai Stirland

Union Valley Reservoir, Calif. August, 2015. Photo: Sarah Lai Stirland

By Sarah Lai Stirland

This article first appeared in the July/August edition of San Francisco's GGMG magazine

When GGMG member Connie Chan takes her two-year-old son Edo out to the park in San Francisco, she’s resigned to the fact that the water features in the city’s playgrounds are off for the foreseeable future, and that some of the lawns are turning a shade of brown.

Twenty miles away in Hillsborough, retired businessman Jim Felker frets over the impact that the state’s mandatory drought cutbacks will have on the value of his property. A thousand plants and shrubs live on just over half an acre of his garden. He says that they need more than five hours of watering per week, and fears a “wholesale slaughter” were he to cut back his water use by 36 percent from his 2013 (and current) level. The cost of replacing all those plants, he estimates, would range from $30,000 to $40,000.

At the same time, farmers and agricultural companies, long criticized for guzzling between 40 and 62 percent of the state’s usable water supply, have faced dramatic cutbacks of their own in the past two years. Last January, the agricultural industry’s prime source of water, the California State Water Project, a 701-mile long water transportation system which travels from the Sierra Nevada down to San Diego, stopped delivering water for the first time in its history (later in the year, it started to deliver a trickle). Similarly, the Central Valley Project, another large water delivery system run by the federal government, also stopped delivering water to its agricultural customers, and still does not have water. The farming industry has been forced to pump water from the ground. Additionally, it fallowed half a million acres (out of a total of nine million), cut 3.8 percent, or 17,100, jobs, and lost an estimated $2 billion, according to the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California at Davis. For a sense of context, in 2012, it sold a total of $48 billion of produce. In late May, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) approved a plan for further cutbacks: Farmers with first dibs on water rights that voluntarily cut back their water use by a further 25 percent would not be asked to cut back again in the future.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long the groundwater pumping can go on. Excessive groundwater pumping, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, degrades the environment because it eventually sucks water away from streams, lakes, and the surrounding wildlife habitat. In time, it also causes the remaining water to become salty. In other words, left unchecked, using groundwater is unsustainable. To mitigate these effects, the California State Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which forces the agricultural industry to prove that their activities are sustainable.

As California’s four-year drought drags on—as many expect it to—it’s clear that more of the state’s 39 million residents and communities will have to start making increasingly dramatic changes to become more efficient consumers of water. Policymakers and water utilities will have to continue to calibrate the balance of hardships suffered by different kinds of communities as we conserve for an uncertain future.

Already, in response to an outcry from its customers, for example, the San Jose Water Company amended its new drought rules this May to allow heads of households of more than four residents to apply for two extra units of water for each additional permanent resident.

Families in the Bay Area will also notice the cutbacks at waterparks, many of which have closed. And if they hadn’t been paying attention to the news, and washed their driveway with water straight from their supply from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), an enforcement officer might have dropped by with a friendly reminder that it is now illegal to do so. Instead, water users are expected to use recycled or “gray” water for such tasks, or not do it at all (according to April statistics compiled by the SWRCB, the SFPUC received 113 complaints about water wastage for the month. The commission followed up on all of those complaints, and issued 83 warnings).

Cutting back—it’s an order

California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order this April, mandating that urban areas reduce their water usage by 25 percent between June 2015 and February 2016, from the comparable period in 2013. The order came after households continued to fail to significantly cut back on their usage this February, despite the fact that at least 56 cities, counties, and special districts declared drought emergencies and water shortages. The state’s drought rules aim squarely at families and businesses that use large amounts of drinkable water to keep their properties lush during the hot summer months. About half of urban water usage is dedicated to outside irrigation, according to California’s Department of Water Resources, the agency that’s in charge of running the state’s water infrastructure. To achieve the goal, the Water Resources Control Board has assigned nine different water reduction targets to various communities based on their past water conservation efforts. The reduction tiers range from 8 percent to 36 percent. It has, however, left it up to local water agencies to decide how they would implement the cutbacks, and what will work for their communities.

For its part, the SFPUC was still mulling over new rules as we went to press, but the commission said in a mid-May public notice that it planned to update its mandatory “excess use” charges for “excessive use of water on ornamental landscaping and turf.”

Tyron Jue, a SFPUC spokesman, did not respond to GGMG’s request for more detailed information about its conservation efforts, other than engaging in an initial phone conversation about the SFPUC’s general school education efforts.

The good news for San Franciscans is that we’re already doing a pretty good job at water conservation compared to our peers across the state. The SFPUC has spent the past 13 years and $4.6 billion upgrading its water infrastructure. Additionally, the SFPUC is diversifying its sources of water, investing in conservation, and providing free home water use assessment and public education programs. It has gone further than many other water agencies by installing modern smart meters for San Francisco’s 178,000 water accounts. These meters wirelessly transmit water usage to the agency’s databanks every hour, which means that residents can examine their usage online, and compare their use to their peers. (In a day and age when everything is quantified, other water agencies around the state in general are surprisingly behind the ball.) The SFPUC has also worked with city departments like the Parks and Recreation Department to use recycled water to irrigate its parks and golf courses. Over the years, it has also implemented a two-tiered water structure to incentivize people to use as little water as possible. All this, combined with San Francisco’s cooler coastal location and relatively small outdoor lot sizes, has helped its residents hold down water consumption.

San Francisco’s 836,620 household water consumers average 49 gallons a day per person between 2013 and 2014. That’s less than half of the average of the 100 gallons a day that the rest of Californians guzzled. “San Francisco probably has the lowest per capita water use of any of the large cities of California,” noted Peter Brostrom, chief of water efficiency at the California Department of Water Resources.

San Franciscans—efficient, but not efficient enough
The bad news is that all this conservation is not enough. Under the State Water Resources Control Board’s May order, San Francisco households must reduce their water consumption by an additional 8 percent between June 2015 and February 2016 over the comparable period between 2013 and 2014. For a summary of the SFPUC’s rebate programs, educational materials, and incentives to become more efficient water users, visit www.bitly.com/SFWaterRebates and www.bitly.com/SFRainWater

For many communities in California, most people fall within a similar band of water usage, and respond to incentives and pricing changes in their water rates. However, there are a small group of deep-pocketed outliers who use extraordinary amounts of water, and who do not respond to fines and penalties. In Hillsborough, the Department of Public Works has identified 800 households that need to dramatically rein in their usage.

Felker, with his thousand plants, might be one of them. During the city council meeting,  he said that he’d prefer the town to pay the state fines and levy a a fee on residents rather than letting his plants die.

In an effort to contribute to the conservation effort, many suppliers around the rest of California have started rationing their water. They are offering many carrots, such as rebates and incentives to install water-efficient appliances and fixtures, and free inspections to check for leaks. But they are also getting out the sticks. Many have updated their rules to implement punitive rates for households exceeding their allocations. For example, in May, San Jose Water Company proposed to charge its household customers an additional $3.56 per unit if they exceed their allocated 13 units a month, beginning in July. This fee would be on top of its usual rate of $3.20 to $3.91 per unit (each unit is 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons). Many other municipalities will have implemented similar rate structures.

Some of the agencies have even threatened to fine their customers up to $500 a day for repeat violations. Others have threatened to install flow-restricting devices inside repeat offenders’ homes. The Calaveras County Water District, in Northeastern California, said it would charge repeat scofflaws with a misdemeanor, meaning that they could end up in jail for a month and/or pay a $600 fine. Down in San Luis Obispo, the seaside Cambria Community Services District levies a 500 percent surcharge for first violations of its  emergency drought rules, a 1,000 percent fine for the second, and cuts off water supply for the third. Santa Cruz, which is rationing its water, has implemented a two-hour “water school” session for people who exceed their allocation and want to reduce their fines. As part of the “water school,” the offenders will, for example, learn how to read their water meters.

Water agencies are also exploring alternatives such as desalination plants and treating wastewater, among other things.

But capital-intensive options like desalination are expensive. Longtime policy experts are resolute that urban water conservation—persuading utility customers to use efficient appliances, reusing laundry water for the garden, and swapping out their thirsty plants for drought-tolerant species— is the most effective strategy.

Cynthia Koehler, executive director and co-founder of WaterNow, a non-profit that promotes sustainable water use strategies, points to the idea of raising the Shasta Dam as an example to illustrate the point. Proponents had wanted to spend $1.1 billion to raise its height of 521 feet by 18.5 feet. That would have increased its capacity to hold 14 percent more water to a total of 113,000 acre feet. In contrast, if Californians manage to cut back 25 percent of their water use between April and February, as ordered by the Governor, they would save 1.3 million acre feet—or the contents of Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir in California.

“It’s similar to voting,” observes Brostrom, the Department of Water Resources’ efficiency chief, in regards to each individual’s water-saving efforts. “Even though it’s a big group of people, each individual’s vote and action adds up and makes a cumulative difference, especially San Francisco, where often water there is not reused. Each one of us that takes a small action can result in a large amount of savings.”

To encourage conservation efforts, and to bolster the state’s water supply, voters last November approved Proposition 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014. California will borrow $7.5 billion to fortify its water supply system with more water conservation programs, and to help utilities create more sources of water through programs like recycled water. The money will also help utilities build more water storage facilities.

California’s hydrological history, however, suggests that people should start adapting their gardens and lifestyles to the reality of living in a dry climate, suggests Elizabeth Dougherty, founder and director of Wholly H20, another nonprofit that promotes sustainable water use.

Dougherty notes that California had experienced drought for 37 of the past 100 years, and that research has shown at two points in the state’s history, its droughts lasted for 220 and 140 years. October 1, 2011 through to September 30, 2014 was the driest three-year period on record. As the climate warms in the state, some climatologists wonder whether we’re at the beginning of another extended drought—in which case, homeowners like Felker won’t have the opportunity to replace their plants.

In a February blog post, Wholly H20’s Dougherty wrote: “California’s best strategy is to plan for drought as an increasing norm and turn its eye toward water conservation and reuse, not as ‘conservation,’ but as standard practice, so that, even in the years when rain is falling more steadily, we continue our normal practices of appropriate water use.” 

Sarah Lai Stirland is a writer, reporter and Mom living in Los Gatos.