Wake up call

Sacramento has the state’s largest rate of per-capita water consumption. Where’s all that H2O going?

Home to two major rivers fed by Sierra Nevada snowmelt, several lakes, agricultural canals, the often flooded Yolo Causeway and part of the Delta, Sacramento County is seemingly flush with ample supplies of fresh water. The Valley’s rich water resources have been an important part of the region’s prosperity, but at the same time, the abundance of water has also, almost counterintuitively, led to problems and statewide political water fights.

With this in mind, and with water an increasingly valuable commodity throughout California, SN&R decided to take a look at water-use issues in the Sacramento region.

SN&R is not alone in its curiosity about local and state water.

California’s use of water has come under intense scrutiny in recent decades, particularly since severe droughts in the 1970s and 1990s. As part of this attention, the city of Sacramento has also gained notoriety in recent years for having one of the state’s largest rates of per-capita water consumption. Sacramento consumes about 280 gallons per capita per day, or the equivalent of five-and-a-half full baths (a good-sized bath holds 50 gallons). Sacramento’s thirst is similar to Fresno, also in the Central Valley, which uses 211, while the Bay Area collectively averages 67 gallons per day. Sacramento’s per-capita water use is well above the state average of 192 gallons, a level the state hopes to cut to 155 by 2020.

The focus on water in California has also made it clear that while the Sacramento Valley is nearly surrounded by fresh water, some of that liquid abundance may in fact be a mirage due to a range of factors, even with this year’s surplus from winter storms.

Potential drains on the region’s water supply include future droughts; predicted declines in the runoff from the Sierra Nevadas—a major feeder of both the Sacramento and American rivers; a rapidly urbanizing population that is expected to increase by at least 20 million statewide in the coming decades; siphoning of water by mostly arid Southern California; deteriorating water infrastructure; the drying up of other resources such as the Colorado River; and the fragile health of the critical Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is also threatened by anticipated rising sea levels and crumbling levees.

At the same time, a disjointed water-management system also makes it unclear who is using what water and how much is being used. For instance, in and around Sacramento, there are roughly 27 water districts ranging from private companies to public utilities.

The districts include the tiny, such as the Rancho Murieta Community Services District with about 2,500 customers, to the large, such as the city of Sacramento.

This fragmented oversight is part of a broader statewide problem.

Source: Statistics from water departments of the respective cities, from either 2009 or 2010.

“One serious [challenge] is that hundreds of local and regional agencies separately manage supply and quality … [and] this leads to confusion and missed opportunity,” the Public Policy Institute of California said in its 2011 report, “Managing California’s Water.”

SN&R, for instance, found that many water districts were caught off guard by requests for information about water users.

All of this makes fresh water a new kind of gold in the Golden State, one that an increasing number of players are competing over.

With these issues in mind, SN&R decided to reveal the top 20 nonresidential water users in the Sacramento area. Due to sheer number of water purveyors in Sacramento County alone, we restricted our list to major water users in the city of Sacramento, and also spoke to people from Sacramento County and larger cities in the area. We examined who was using the most and why. We also explored how water was valued by local water districts and how it was seen as a sustainable resource going forward.