Can the region shift its long-standing thinking about how to handle water?
California’s struggle to better manage its water is about as old as the state itself (there are California water acts dating to the 1860s). California, with its large population and agricultural economy, has also consistently been the top state in overall water use since 1950, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In recent decades the state has attempted to get a better handle on this open faucet of use, and its efforts have recently included the 2004 requirement that water districts use meters and the 2009 state plan for cities to reduce their water use by 20 percent by 2020.
In the Sacramento area, the larger cities and municipal water districts say they are on board with these efforts, though many of them have also had to shift long-standing thinking about how they handle water.
The city of Sacramento, for instance, has had to significantly change its approach to water in the face of the new state requirements.
“A lot of [Sacramento’s] infrastructure was set up at a time when water was abundant and the consumer simply paid a flat fee,” Ellen Hanak, a natural resources economist for the Public Policy Institute of California, said. “The flat-fee system wasn’t a crazy idea at one time.”
With this in mind, and the high cost of installing meters and other retrofits, Sacramento pushed back unsuccessfully against the water-meter requirement. The city, which draws 85 percent of its water supply from the Sacramento and American rivers, is now phasing in new water meters and taking a more cautious approach to its long-term water use.
“It’s been the case in the Sacramento area that there has been less pressure to implement conservation compared to Southern California or even the Bay Area, because people in Sacramento live so close to abundant sources of water,” Hanak said.
Now, however, Sacramento, despite its previous reluctance, is moving toward conservation programs similar to those used by communities in drier areas.
“The city is implementing a number of conservation measures to help us meet our goals,” Jessica Hess, a spokeswoman for Sacramento’s Department of Utilities, explained to SN&R. “In 2009, for example, we passed a revitalized water-conservation ordinance that sets watering days and times to limit evaporation and other overwatering.”
Hess also listed Sacramento’s public education programs, building and plumbing retrofits, and water-education volunteers as other ways the city is aiming to conserve.
“We are concerned with water availability and water quality … and we are focused on addressing these concerns providing a safe water supply,” she said.
Sacramento County and other large cities in the area also share Sacramento’s more conservative approach and focus on shifting old approaches to water use.
“Roseville maintains a robust water efficiency division that is about changing water demands … through green building codes and water efficient landscape ordinances,” Ed Kriz, Roseville’s water utility manager, said in an email. “The primary focus is on customer education and information and changing behaviors over time.”
Some of these districts are also working cooperatively, through such groups as the California Urban Water Conservation Council.
That group, a coalition of water utilities and environmental organizations, has committed to an 18 percent reduction in water use by 2018.
“We are trending toward [these goals],” said Don Smith, Folsom’s water management coordinator. Folsom is a part of the CUWCC. “We are doing a couple of things, such as installing meters at all of our connections, and expect to finish that by January 2013. Outdoor water use [through landscaping] is also typically the biggest use and we’re basically attacking that.”
With studies showing about 12 percent of indoor use comes from leaks, Smith also said Folsom is offering rebates for customers who cut consumption and a popular program that sends a technician out to assess the water efficiency of homeowners. In addition, Folsom is installing a daily water-meter-reading system rather than monthly readings. This allows the city to better troubleshoot water problems and respond more proactively. It also helps consumers better understand how they are using water.
“People are surprised when we show them how much water they are using and are responsive,” Smith said.
In Davis, however, residents have been ahead of the curve when it comes to awareness.
“One reason we have had low per-capita consumption rates compared to other cities is we have had water meters in place for quite some time, and that provides a good basis for water management,” Jacques DeBra, the city’s utilities manager, said. DeBra added that as part of Davis’ 20 by 2020 goals, the city aims to average 167 gallons per capita. The city’s use has ranged from 157 to 180 gallons in recent years. The city, which will consider raising rates in September, also aims to improve its water quality by switching from ground water to surface water from the Sacramento River by 2016.
Meanwhile, Sacramento County Water Agency’s Diane Margetts said her agency too is working toward more sustainability, but water availability is a “nonissue.”
“We use 85 percent well water and we have a water supply for decades,” she told SN&R. “But we also know it is not infinite and there is more water during wetter years. So we are encouraging conservation and also use a lot of water meters.”
Similarly in Elk Grove, which grew rapidly in the last 10 years, the city remains confident it will be able to meet its demands, even if development picks up again.
Though the Elk Grove Water District’s Mark Madison cautioned, “Water availability and quality are two issues that we expend tremendous effort to stay on top of.”
Overall, Folsom’s Smith described these municipal approaches as “economies of scale.”
“Cooperating regionally has had a lot of success, especially if you are part of regional rationing effort,” he said.
Conservation taking hold
There’s no doubt that local water consumption has gone down in the last few years. This dovetails with findings from the Public Policy Institute of California that urban water use in California (which makes up about 20 percent of the state’s consumption) has diminished somewhat.
Given the state push to make better use of its water resources, these findings are a good indication the conservation message is being heard. But overall California is still splashing in the shallow end of better managing its water, and experts say there is still much that needs to be done.
“If you compare places with similar climate and levels of development, Australia or Israel, for example, California still has a long ways to go,” Hanak explained to SN&R.
In one example, and a concern shared by others, Hanak pointed to the state’s aging infrastructure as one factor that will continue to handicap California’s conservation efforts.
“Just maintaining the system is going to be a big challenge, and in the future an increasing question is going to be how to pay for it,” Maureen Hodgins, a research manager at the Water Research Foundation, said.
Her colleague, Shonnie Cline, added that nationally as well as in California, much of the water infrastructure, such as pipes, were built roughly 60 years ago. As that system ages, it becomes more vulnerable to costly—both moneywise and waterwise—leaks and other malfunctions.
“The [Environmental Protection Agency] has estimated that $335 billion is needed [nationally] to just maintain all the drinking-water infrastructure,” Cline said. “As these systems fade, there are a lot of buried assets out there put in around World War II [and] there is going to be more and more focus in the future on simply supporting them.”
More locally, Sacramento’s Water Education Foundation points out on its website, Aquafornia, that California’s water systems haven’t seen state and federal upgrades since 1973.
At the same time, the landscape and society in place when this infrastructure was set up is now also rapidly changing.
“[California is] at the point where we have a water system in place and have spent a lot of money on developing resources for water supply and delivery, but we have started to run into limits,” Hanak said. “So we need to make adjustments for more population and increasing urbanization, especially since much high-energy water use is in the urban core.”
She also cautioned there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to water conservation, particularly in a state with wide-ranging landscapes and climates. In evaluating water use, Hanak noted it is important to distinguish between residential customers, public services and industrial users.
“And you have to look at how many jobs are in the area, which are important for economic prosperity, the climate, urban vs. rural populations, and such things as lot sizes,” Hanak said. “San Francisco, for example, has tiny yards compared to Sacramento.”
These factors also help explain Sacramento’s higher-than-average per-capita daily water consumption compared to other cities in the state.
“Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for consumers using too much,” Hanak said. “But when you have places importing a lot of water, and diverting Northern California’s water, then you need to start to think about conservation, in some cases, replacing [what is taken out], better practices, pricing incentives and storage facilities. Communities are also going to have work on improving water quality [since] there are still too many chemicals in the water, from agricultural residue, polluted runoff from urban areas and [flushed] pharmaceuticals.”
And as Hodgins and others point out, making these fixes is also going to come with a price tag.
In the meantime, the Sacramento area’s cities and water districts are making sometimes aggressive and sometimes tentative progress towards these goals. But there is clearly much work to be done.
“Most of the Sacramento Valley [historically] hasn’t had to think about how much water it uses,” Smith said. “So, culturally, just changing people’s mindset is going to have a big impact.”