Every drop counts

Local water experts and advocates sound off on the importance of conservation

Christina Buck, a water resources scientist with Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation.

Christina Buck, a water resources scientist with Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Tools for conservation:
Cal Water offers customers free water-conservation kits, including two high-efficiency showerheads, one hose nozzle, two bathroom faucet aerators, toilet leak tablets and one kitchen faucet aerator. Go to www.calwater.com/conservation-kits to order a kit.

Drought? What drought?

The recent rainstorms and lush springtime greenery popping up all over Butte County make concerns about California’s ongoing drought—called the worst in 500 years by some—seem like a not-so-distant memory.

But after more than a decade of unusually dry conditions capped by 2013, the driest year on record for many parts of California, many monitoring wells throughout Butte County remain at or near historic recorded lows, said Christina Buck, a water scientist with Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation.

“People get excited when it rains,” said Nani Teves, watershed program coordinator for Butte Environmental Council. “I do too—it greens up the landscape for the short-term, but we need to realize that we aren’t drinking today’s rainwater, we aren’t irrigating our fields with today’s rainwater, and deep-rooted oaks are not surviving throughout the summer on today’s rainwater. Our community is dependent on groundwater that is hundreds of years old.”

In other words, it will take much more than a short-term wet weather pattern for Butte County’s groundwater basin to rebound. As such, conservation remains an important means of preserving the county’s groundwater resources.

“Given groundwater conditions going into this third [consecutive] dry year,” Buck said, “using water wisely and conserving use of groundwater will benefit the basin and everyone who relies on it.”

In Chico, that means all of us. “We’re 100 percent groundwater here,” said Mike Pembroke, a district manager with the California Water Service Co. “We rely on 72 wells in the district to provide that water. It’s the only water source we have, so it’s really important that people do conserve and preserve that groundwater for future generations.”

Recent rains may have raised the water level in Big Chico Creek, but it will take more than short-term wet weather patterns for Butte County’s groundwater basin to rebound.

Howard Hardee

So, what can a community do to conserve water?

One doesn’t have to look far for an example. In January, the Sacramento City Council voted to enact water rationing in homes and businesses, requiring those who live and work in Sacramento to reduce water use by 20 percent to 30 percent. The mandate also increased regulation of winter watering restrictions on outside irrigation, prohibits the use of water on sidewalks and driveways, requires parks and cemeteries to reduce watering, and calls for people washing their cars at home to use buckets rather than hoses.

Mandatory water conservation has been implemented in other areas of the state through city water providers, Teves said. In Chico, such a mandate would have to come from the City Council, and there hasn’t been any talk of water rationing from the panel to date, said City Manager Brian Nakamura.

But that’s not the only means of implementing community-wide water conservation. Over the last few years, Cal Water has been working toward eliminating flat-rate services, where a customer pays a flat fee each month and uses as much water as they want, Pembroke said. State law requires that water purveyors throughout the state must eliminate all flat-fee services by 2025 in favor of a metered system in which a customer’s bill directly reflects their water usage.

“If you use more water, you pay more, if you use less and do a good job of conserving, you pay less,” Pembroke said.

Cal Water is far ahead of schedule for meeting the 2025 deadline in Butte County. In 2008, there were about 11,000 flat-rate services left in Chico; now, only 952 require conversion. Pembroke estimated the remaining flat-fee services would be converted by summer or fall at the latest.

The public also will find an incentive to conserve should Cal Water’s rate-increase plan go into effect. The water provider has applied for an increase of 19 percent based on costs of maintaining and operating the water system, Pembroke said. If it’s approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, the increase would be retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.

Buck and Teves also framed their arguments for water conservation in financial terms. Pumping water from greater depths, deepening a well or digging an entirely new one are all expensive propositions, Buck said. To a much greater degree, so are grandiose solutions such as raising Shasta Dam or Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial plan to build two massive tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, Teves said.

“If we are determined not to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past made during the big dam-building era,” Teves said, “we need to go in a new direction and put our energy and resources behind local water conservation, reuse and responsible management.”