After three years of drought that has left the state’s biggest reservoirs well below capacity, water agencies up and down the state are using a variety of methods to cajole customers into conserving California’s most precious commodity.
The Association of California Water Agencies reports that 62 agencies statewide have implemented voluntary conservation measures and 32 have imposed mandatory water restrictions. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which accounts for a third of the state’s water supply, stands at 66 percent of normal.
The two biggest reservoirs in the state, Shasta and Oroville, are well below their average storage at 76 and 71 percent respectively. The State Water Project expects to provide just 30 percent of its normal deliveries to contractors and the federal Central Valley Project will deliver just 10 percent of its normal amount.
Water purveyors around the state are spending millions of dollars convincing their customers that they need to conserve water. Some are issuing tickets for blatant water wasting and many are imposing drought rates that discourage high usage. In most cases, consumers are getting the message.
In Los Angeles water conservation teams in clearly marked cars patrol the streets on the lookout for water wasters, the thoughtless few who are water when they aren’t supposed to or flooding the gutter by overspraying. Violators get a warning the first time – but after that could be hit with a ticket. Repeat offenders could be dinged up to $600 for ignoring previous warnings.
So far, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s 3.8 million customers have cut back by 5 percent of their water use, still short of the 15 percent goal. Starting June 1, outdoor irrigation will be limited to Mondays and Thursdays with no watering allowed between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. A tiered rate system will reward customers who conserve and penalize those who don’t. “We have no choice but to make conserving water the law,” said David Nahai, the CEO and general manager of the LADWP. “Cutting back on water use is now our civic duty.”
In the Northern California city of Novato, customers served by the North Marin Water District who are caught washing down the sidewalk, not using an automatic shutoff on their hoses or overwatering, are issued a warning. If the violation isn’t corrected in a reasonable amount of time, their service is disconnected and it will cost them $100 to have it reconnected. A second violation results in a $200 reconnection charge and a flow restrictor placed on their service.
North Marin Water District General Manager Chris DeGabriele said the district is aiming for a 25-percent voluntary conservation goal. The majority of the district’s water supply is drawn from the Russian River, which will see its flows greatly restricted this year due to low reservoir storage and the need to regulate streamflows to protect endangered Chinook salmon.
Among the areas hardest hit by a third of drought is the San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers rely on the state and federal water projects for water deliveries. The Westlands Water District, which serves 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties, will receive just 10 percent of the water it normally gets from the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Water Project.
What that means for the district’s farmers is more expensive water, fallow fields and more pressure on an already over-drawn groundwater system. Westlands spokesperson Sarah Woolf said even if the bureau increases water allocations in the coming weeks, it wouldn’t help farmers this year. “As far as this year is concerned, it will not increase our planting significantly,” she said. “It will increase acreage a small amount, but what it really allows is a slight increase in groundwater pumping.”
The drastic reduction in water deliveries from the Central Valley Project has forced farmers to greatly increase groundwater pumping, which has its own set of environmental impacts. “This year groundwater pumping is going to be beyond any previous records,” said Woolf. Normally, the district’s farmers pump about 200,000 acre-feet of water from beneath the valley. Last year, that number climbed to 500,000 and “we expect to exceed that number considerably this year,” she said. “That is in no way sustainable and is extremely detrimental to the aquifer.”
But, she said, for farmers pumping groundwater “is a matter of survival. They are very aware of the fact that every time they turn on that pump it impacts the aquifer.”
The district meters “ever drop of water from the Bureau of Reclamation,” said Woolf. Meters are read monthly and if a grower is getting close to using all of the water in his account, the meter and outlet are padlocked. If a grower were to remove the padlock, said Woolf, “we have the legal authority to take criminal action … they could be arrested.”
The district has yet to take criminal action against any of its customers.
In L.A., the DWP has issued about 3,600 citations in the past year for water wasters. A second citation results in a monetary fine, of which only 70 have been issued, according to a district spokesperson.
One district used a combination of higher rates and a vigorous public outreach campaign to coax its customers into conserving water. Customers in the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) cut their water use by 13 percent after the district declared a drought emergency last year and imposed a 10-percent rate increase and a drought surcharge.
But this year’s late winter rains boosted EBMUD’s water supply storage to the point where the drought restrictions will be lifted July 1, according to district spokesperson Charles Hardy. The conservation campaign also helped pull the district’s 1.3 million customers out of the drought emergency.
“We decided early on that we wanted to do this as a community and do it together,” said Hardy. “We didn’t want to be like big brother and be punitive.” The district used radio, TV and billboard ads with the message that “Together, we can do this” to urge conservation. “I think people really responded to it,” he said.
All those conservation efforts won’t prevent water rates from increasing for the district’s customers, however. Because of the great job of conserving water, EBMUD’s customers will face a 7.5 percent rate increase later this summer. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of water conservation that defies the marketplace logic to which consumers are accustomed. As water sales drop, so do revenues for water districts, which rely on water sales for a large part of their budgets. But the agencies have a high percentage of fixed costs for overhead and labor, and the sales deficit must be made up somewhere.
“That is a hard thing for customers,” Hardy acknowledges. “They are saying, ‘when you didn’t have enough water we had to pay more for it, now you have enough water and you are still charging us more. What difference does it make?’ We have fixed costs and rising prices. We have frozen jobs and cut to the bone. We as an agency and as a board are very sensitive to that.”
In smaller districts like North Marin Water District, rate increases are a result of reduced sales and a 25 percent increase in the cost of water they purchase from the Sonoma County Water Agency. “It’s difficult for people to understand,” said GM Chris DeGabrielle. “The reason behind a lot of the shortages over the last few years has been tied to the fisheries protection in the Russian River. All customers are obligated to pay their fair share to protect the fisheries. The value of our water is still very good compared to other areas in the Bay Area and as you use less water you assist in those areas we need to comply with and you help control your costs.”
Barry Dugan has written extensively on water issues throughout the state of California at the local and statewide level in nearly 25 years of reporting on local government.