Water worries: City nudges, rather than pushes, consumers to conserve water supply


The next time you pour yourself a glass of water, take a moment to ponder where the liquid came from. If your water district is served by the Hetch Hetchy system, like those of most Peninsula residents, 85 percent of it was once snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada.

That simple fact should already have pinged an alarm bell or two, if you're concerned about global climate change. Several studies have projected that a warmer climate will mean less snow pack in the Sierra over the coming years, and thus less snowmelt. That means less water for an expanding population of Californians, who rely primarily on snowmelt for the water they use to take showers, keep their lawns green, irrigate their farms and feed their livestock.

While Peninsula jurisdictions such as Menlo Park are taking small steps to reduce water use, the issue of water conservation remains mostly theoretical for Bay Area residents, whose water supply is not immediately threatened. Menlo Park's residents consume water at much higher rates than the average Peninsula dweller, but conservation remains a noble goal, rather than an immediate necessity.

"The overall goal is to make the most efficient use of the resource we have available," Lisa Ekers, the city's engineering services manger, said in an interview. Ms. Ekers helps oversee the Menlo Park Municipal Water District, which serves about one-third of the city's residents, in Sharon Heights and areas east of El Camino Real.

The state has mandated a reduction of 20 percent in gross water use by 2020, but the city is more focused on ensuring its water supply starting in 2018, when its current allocation guarantee from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which controls the supply from Hetch Hetchy, expires.

The city needs to be prepared to cut back, Ms. Ekers said, but she doubts the allocation will be drastically reduced.

Accordingly, the city is taking baby steps in its efforts to reduce water use, hoping that a combination of education, law, and "tiered" water rates will nudge residents in the right direction, bringing local water users more in line with those in other Peninsula cities.

Residential customers of the city's municipal water system used 149 gallons per capita per day in fiscal year 2007-08, compared with an average of 90 gallons per day by residential users in the regional system represented by the Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency (BAWSCA). (The agency covers parts of 27 San Mateo County jurisdictions, though it does not include Portola Valley, Atherton or Woodside).

The city is in the process of revising its water-efficient landscaping ordinance, modifying a model developed by BAWSCA. But while City Council members have spent hours debating the ordinance, the outcome of those deliberations isn't likely to make much of a dent in the city's annual water consumption.

BAWSCA estimates that its ordinance would reduce water use in the city's district by 4.75 million gallons annually by 2018, only about one-third of one percent of the total water used (1.3 billion in 2007-08).

Some residents have questioned whether the law can be effectively enforced.

The city is also reviewing its five-year water rate plan, and is considering "different options for rearranging existing tiered rates," with water rates increasing rapidly in relation to water use in order to encourage conservation, Ms. Ekers said.

Thus far, education has been the city's primary tool of choice in persuading residents to conserve water. It has fashioned advertisements aimed primarily at businesses, given away water-saving devices, implemented rebate programs, and sponsored classes on water-efficient landscaping, attended largely by professionals in the field, according to Ms. Ekers. Under a 1993 ordinance, the city also notifies property owners or businesses whose irrigation systems appear to have a leak.

Total water use within the city-run district has ranged from 1.22 billion to 1.45 billion gallons per year over the past decade, sometimes varying widely year to year.

While a trend in total water use is not readily apparent, Ms. Ekers suggested a statistical analysis would reveal consumption heading slightly downward since 2003-04. She attributes that trend to conscious efforts by residents and businesses to conserve, rather than formal action by the city.

The biggest recent change has come in industrial water use, which fell by 25 percent from 2007-08 to 2008-09, likely due to the recession.

While more draconian conservation measures such as water rationing aren't under consideration, the regional water agency has been investigating ways to expand the water supply, Ms. Ekers said. These include examining possible new sources and seeking water recycling opportunities.

Some jurisdictions have even batted around the idea of employing the expensive process of desalination, converting salt water to fresh water -- a procedure that might gain traction in coming decades if snowmelt continues to decrease, and if conservation efforts fall short.

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Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Mar 31, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Water is a commodity like any other. Enormous quantities fall on us for free every year. Charge the price that encourages people to conserve according to the amount of water we have.

Stop micromanaging businesses and citizens with ridiculous regulations on lawn square footage, tiered rate nonsense, subsidies to farmers, etc. Just have a single, flat rate that goes up or down depending on the rain year. Case closed.

Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 1, 2010 at 9:02 am

Post removed due to disrespectful comment. Please stick to the subject.]

Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of another community
on Apr 1, 2010 at 1:11 pm

I agree that water is a commodity. Tiered rates are not nonsense however, they actually work if set correctly. The policy should be "some for free, pay for more". People should get an initial amount for free or very cheap that covers basic indoor needs. After that, the price should go up. People who use water in higher tiers should really feel it in their wallets. This way an effective price signal will be sent. Right now water is way too cheap overall.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of another community
on Apr 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

the first comment states "Charge the price that encourages people to conserve according to the amount of water we have."
That is wrong. We should charge based on usage. We can't possibly capture and store all the water that falls on us as rain anyway. We need to reduce demand, and the best way to do that is through effective price signals.

Like this comment
Posted by Annemarie
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 1, 2010 at 5:46 pm

There is often water running down the street in my neighborhood from people watering too much so the extra just runs down the street, or watering when it is raining or a broken sprinkler at an apartment complex creating a waterfall. What is the best method to report this when it is observed? In this day and age, it is offensive that people are so careless with our resources.

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm

It would be better to mind your own business even if you think somebody is wasting water. It is their own affair. They may think you a busybody, which causes offense in its own way.

Thankfully, we still have the freedom to "waste" water occasionally - if we are willing to pay the bill.

Like this comment
Posted by oh please
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 2, 2010 at 7:33 am

Water is everyone's business, Mr. Davis. Your "freedom" to waste a precious, limited resource is everyone else's deprivation. This is no longer the Wild Wild West. You are not free to do anything you want even if it puts your fellow human beings at risk. Grow up.

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

Will the neighborhood police be stopping by to make sure I eat all the food on my plate? To check that I turn the lights off in rooms that nobody is sitting in? To enforce that I do not drive my car for unapproved reasons, thereby wasting gasoline?

If you think those examples are ridiculous, can you tell me one logical difference between them and regulations about water use?

Like this comment
Posted by Oh, Please Also
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Mr. Davis:

Do the police stop you if you are driving an unsafe car?

Does you car have to meet emissions standards? Fuel efficiency standards?

Did you know your house and appliances are subject to energy efficiency standards?

Can you just let your poop flow down the street to save money on the sewer bill?

Can you smoke pot other than for medical purposes in California?

We are a nation of laws, in case you haven't noticed. Or are you one of those tea-party types?

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

Sometimes, yes, yes, yes, no, not legally, maybe.

Some of those laws are good ideas, and some are not. Having the government tell me what square footage lawn I can have falls into the "bad" category, in my opinion.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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