Editorial: Get serious about conserving water


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When Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared in January that California was in a state of drought, those who had been paying attention to the alarming lack of rainfall during the prior two years couldn't help but ask: What took him so long?

And when he announced that he expected the state's residents to curtail their water consumption by 20 percent, with no personal consequences to them if they failed to oblige, another question sprang to mind: Isn't it unrealistically optimistic to expect people to voluntarily cut their usage back by one-fifth?

The first question remains unanswered, but with another dry season behind us, state regulators appear to have figured out that voluntary conservation won't do the trick. The State Water Resources Control Board meets this week to consider emergency -- and mandatory -- regulations aimed at curtailing wasteful outdoor water use. The proposed regulations would give more authority to law enforcement agencies to impose the restrictions, although "it will be up to local governments on how and when to act," according to an Associated Press news report.

(Update: The state board on July 15 approved measures that will compel local water agencies to impose restrictions on outdoor water use.)

Locally, two towns are wrestling with the issue in light of the recent revelations that their water consumption grew significantly in 2013 -- the driest year in recorded history for many parts of the state, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Those towns are Portola Valley and Woodside, whose town councils heard reports last week on the rise in water use. Woodside's per-capita use increased last year by 44 gallons per person per day (from 377 in 2012 to 421). That was double Portola Valley's consumption increase: In that town, per-capita daily water use was 283 gallons in 2012 and 305 in 2013.

Although council members from both towns expressed concern about the rise in usage, Portola Valley has gotten serious about addressing the troubling development. The town appointed a task force earlier this year focused on engaging the community in a water conservation effort, and last week, the council approved a $3,400 budget for the group. The task force's report to the council on last year's water usage left members "very troubled," in the words of Mayor Ann Wengert, and determined to bump up the town's conservation efforts.

In Woodside, Councilman Ron Romines responded to the bad news on water usage, delivered by resident and Sustainability and Conservation Committee member Debbie Mendelson, by saying, "I think we, as residents, should be embarrassed and ashamed as water users." He's right, but the council appears to be much more timid than their neighbors in Portola Valley; members indicated that a study session or two might be arranged, but there was no direction on specific action.

It's hard to understand why increased water usage during a time that California faces a devastating and worsening drought wouldn't create a state of urgency among those elected to lead the way in public policy and governance. Some cities, including Livermore, have already enacted mandatory restrictions to curtail water use on landscaping, car-washing, hosing down of paved surfaces, and automatic delivery of water to restaurant customers.

Individuals must take responsibility in curtailing their water usage, but it's just not reasonable to expect voluntary measures alone to work.

Meanwhile, local water agencies are offering tips on how to conserve. You can review those strategies at the Cal Water website, and at the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency website.

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Like this comment
Posted by Realist
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jul 18, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Unfortunately PV and especially Woodside residents don't live in the real world. Increasing water bills probably materially impact less than half the households, and higher cost will not deter the wealthy folks who choose to increase water use 44% year/year! Perhaps the best approach is to only allow a certain amount of water use per month - by limiting watering to one day/week for example, and to publish the list of abusers and their usage for all to see. don't just charge those who go over, fine them as well..

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The most effective way of dealing with this is tiered pricing with a low price for life line/essential levels of use and then greatly increased cost for all increments above that life line level.

This tiered pricing is already used for both gas and electricity - the only difference with water tiered pricing would be to charge a lot more for excessive water use.

Like this comment
Posted by Woodside other
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 20, 2014 at 1:22 pm

It is hard to understand the water increase. Could the Water board or other agency give more insight as to where/how?

I know many people that have decreased their water usage, so please don't pass blame on entire community. My yard is particularly brown and yellow!!

For that large an increase, it has to include significant industrial increases, or the like. Specifics please!!

Like this comment
Posted by Disappointed in Woodside
a resident of Woodside: Family Farm/Hidden Valley
on Jul 20, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to live here. The lack of support for Ms. Mendelson's report was pitiful.
Woodside council tactic of "study sessions" is where issues go to die.
Deborah Gordon is an embarrassment. She claims to be involved in BASCA and couldn't even define the acronym.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK, people. Be prepared to support your community and committees with support for their efforts.

Like this comment
Posted by William New
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Agree with tiered pricing strategy that does not increase water costs for minimalist user but escalates rapidly (e.g. exponentially) for larger users. During the last major drought in the 1970's, the Skyline County Water District (then the supplier of water to the Skywood/Skyline area of Woodside) used an exponential rate increase based on water usage measured at the property line meter every week. Small homes and frugal individuals using very little water saw no change in their rate. Large homes with extensive irrigated landscaping, swimming pools, washing of pavements, free-running water for livestock were charged substantially more -- several thousand dollars per month. These high charges motivated high users to reduce their consumption with no effect on the small consumers, many of whom were already below the minimum recommended by the American Water Works Association. The exponential rate structure was adjusted up and down to cover all the penalty charges imposed by our regional supplier, San Francisco Water Department -- again, with the small frugal user bearing no part of this penalty.

Like this comment
Posted by Matt R
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Jul 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I'd like to know the drivers for the per capita increase as well. We don't have irrigated landscape. We don't have a pool. We have a high efficiency washer, we have a high efficiency dishwasher, we have low flow faucets. When we freshened one bathroom, we upgraded the other bathroom toilet to a more efficient one. Personally, there is no way we can hit a 20% decrease because we've learned how to live "water frugal" for years.

Asking for an across the board 20 percent reduction isn't a sound way to implement water conservation or pricing. Some sort of tiered way to charge for water is really the only sound approach. Another approach would be to supply water efficient fixtures or landscaping at a subsidized price, so that people will more quickly adopt efficient tech. We've done this as a state for decades with electricity, to great success on per-capita electricity consumption. Should work with water too.

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

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