Punished for preparedness

Chico couple xeriscaped early, are paying the price

Gail and Earl Aagaard ripped out their lawn before it was cool.

Gail and Earl Aagaard ripped out their lawn before it was cool.

Photo by ernesto rivera

Earl Aagaard and his wife, Gail, moved into their home in May 2011 and immediately started thinking of ways to make it their own.

The next year, the Aagaards began a complete overhaul of their yard. To save water, they ripped out the grass and replaced it with concrete, some granite paths, and flowers and plants that are watered using a drip system. By the summer of 2013, their xeriscaping project was complete and the Aagaards had reduced their water usage by 45 percent from when they first moved in.

“I didn’t want to pay for horrendous amounts of water, particularly not for lawn,” Earl Aagaard said. “I wanted something productive like flowers or fruit.”

Then the drought hit, and it seemed like the Aagaards were ahead of the pack. When their neighbors were suddenly being asked to limit lawn watering and take other steps to cut consumption, they’d already taken those steps. But last year, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that it would mandate a 32 percent reduction of water use for customers in the Chico area. Like all Chicoans, they were required to reduce their usage—or face a fine—based on the summer of 2013, the same summer the Aagaards achieved a 45 percent water reduction on their own.

“Some people have been careful about their water for years and years and others haven’t,” Aagaard said. “Using 2013 is ridiculous; I had already cut my water use almost in half and now they want me to go down 32 percent more. My neighbor waited until the water restrictions to take out his lawn and then … his water budget was double or triple mine because he waited.”

When the reductions were implemented, the Aagards simply couldn’t meet their goal. They received a fine of about $35 that first month. Cal Water did waive that cost, Aagaard said, along with subsequent fines, but he said it was made clear to him that come January the water service company wouldn’t be so lenient.

Aagaard said he thinks that an across-the-board cut for each home, based on the same criteria, is ignoring unique situations like his.

“I pointed out to them [Cal Water], ‘You are punishing the people who looked ahead and said “Let’s conserve” before the water restrictions came in. You’re rewarding the people who went right on using water and using water and using water until the government said you can’t.’”

Cal Water does have a way to evaluate unique situations, through an appeal process—forms are available on its website. The Aagaards have filed three appeals to try to get a different baseline for their water budget. Each time they check the “significant water savings achieved since 2011” box on the form, thinking it fits their situation perfectly. The first was rejected with no explanation given. The second appeal also was rejected but came with a small increase in their water allowance. They are currently waiting for a response to their third appeal.

“They didn’t address the issue,” Aagaard said. “I’m not asking for an increase in my water budget; I’m asking that they take a reasonable baseline to figure my water budget.”

Last summer, Cal Water began an outreach campaign to let people know about new water regulations including prohibited uses, as well as how the state would determine their reduced water budgets.

Today, Pete Bonacich, district manager for Cal Water in Chico, said he sees the vast majority of violations in prohibited uses simply due to people being unaware of, for example, turning off a sprinkler system when it rains or 48 hours after it rains. In terms of appeals, Cal Water has received numerous requests for increased water budgets.

The appeal form on the Cal Water website explains that customers can appeal based on a change in household size, medical need, significant water savings achieved or low water use in 2014.

“With the basic appeal, sometimes there are circumstances that are a little out of the ordinary in the criteria we usually use and it just doesn’t work,” Bonacich said. There’s an elevated appeal, he said, but about 70 percent to 80 percent of appeals are handled at the basic level.

Bonacich said that a lot of appeals end up being successful because of legitimate issues, but he admitted that some do get rejected. He could not comment specifically on the Aagaards’ case.

“There’s a fine line between things that are truly legitimate and a wish list,” he said.

Bonacich also praised the community, saying that between June and November, the cumulative reduction in water usage was 39.6 percent.

“So far, so good,” he said. “The community has done a fantastic job with this effort.”

While there has been some recent rain and increase in snowpack, the state isn’t in the clear yet, Bonacich said.

“It’s going to take more than one big winter to get back to what we would consider normal,” he said.

Bonacich said he expects the state to extend emergency drought regulations through October, even after the next review they’ll do, in February. If they do change any of the restrictions, those changes likely will be minimal, he said.

“There’s no guarantee that next winter we’ll have the same thing or anything close to it,” Bonacich said. “We’ll see some recovery in Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, but they’ll have to manage that water very carefully through the summer and try to hang on to it just in case next winter doesn’t pan out.”