Council: Conserve water now or Portola Valley will miss target


New regulations and water conservation targets are expected to be adopted soon to deal with the drought. But Portola Valley officials do not want to wait. To meet the town's target, residents should begin cutting back sharply now, they say, and do it together, as a town.

The Town Council heard from Brandi de Garmeaux, the town's sustainability and special projects manager, on April 22. She gave a rundown of what she did and did not recommend as ways to meet the expected conservation targets. The overriding strategy: "We need to approach this as, 'We're all in this together,'" she said.

The need to cut consumption is clear. The state Water Resources Control Board, responding to an order from the governor, has proposed cutbacks that vary by district, between 8 percent and 36 percent, based on how much water a district, as a whole, used from July through September 2014.

The water board is proposing a 36 percent cut for residents in the Bear Gulch District, which includes Portola Valley, Atherton, much of Woodside and parts of Menlo Park and Redwood City. Usage data for 2013 showed Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton consuming water at levels four to six times the Bay Area average for that year.

If Portola Valley's mandate is a 36 percent cutback, targeting heavy users will be important, Ms. de Garmeaux said. But that will be a matter for the California Water Service Company, she said, since it can track usage at individual addresses. Town officials lack access to that data and Cal Water, which is privately held, does not provide it.

The council could enact ordinances, but like speeding tickets, code enforcement has been shown not to have long-term impacts on changing behavior, she said. The council may want to regulate the size of new lawns and pools, she said. A moratorium is another option.

Water conservation is a long-term issue, needing very thoughtful, long-term solutions, she said. This drought is the fourth in California in 15 years and by far the most severe, according to data Ms. de Garmeaux provided from the U.S. Drought Monitor project. "(The trend) doesn't seem like it's going to go away anytime soon," she said.

Council members spoke of educating residents without delay on big and obvious places to conserve, such as landscape irrigation. If residents don't see a water bill reflecting tougher regulations until the end of June, and don't see a bill showing the results of their initial conservation efforts until the end of July, it will be too late to meet the conservation target, council members said.

Councilwoman Ann Wengert suggested tips of the week. "People aren't going to like to see it, but they need to," she said. "These will be the things that will make the difference."

Click here for more on water conservation in Portola Valley.

Doing it right

Breaking through the chatter and reaching residents who are already bombarded with information will be a problem, Ms. de Garmeaux said. "We need to get them engaged."

For help, the town brought in Seattle-based social marketing firm Colehour + Cohen on April 16 for a 90-minute seminar before the Water Conservation Committee.

A key takeaway: If a person's first try at a new behavior is not a good experience, it will be 10 times more difficult to get the person to try it again, Ms. de Garmeaux said. The town will be paying attention to a behavioral change continuum that includes establishing participants' loyalty, their awareness of the issue, their understanding of its importance, and their willingness to consciously change.

Ms. de Garmeaux recommended starting with a pilot conservation program, perhaps based on an existing Cal Water program, that involves maybe five large properties, possibly including an institution such as a school.

The right program, she said, would focus on one change and one change only. It should have objectives that are measurable, methods that can be tested, and a long-term significant impact.

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8 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 28, 2015 at 11:22 am

There is one and only one thing that needs to be done to encourage conservation. Raise the price for water until the conservation target is hit.

7 people like this
Posted by David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Apr 28, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Sorry, Brandi, you lost me at "behavioral change continuum".

Everyone: just turn off your sprinklers and let your lawn die.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary Toth
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Apr 28, 2015 at 1:14 pm

I was wondering, how are the statistics taking into account the homes in Woodside and Portola Valley that have livestock. They can't cut water for them. In addition they quote the statistics - "2013 showed Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton consuming water at levels four to six times the Bay Area average for that year" are they taking into account that most homes in PV and Woodside are over 1 acre?

10 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Apr 28, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Mary Toth. You wonder how people with livestock on their property will be able to cut back. Sadly, many farmers whose livelihood depends on livestock have had to sell off their animals because of the drought. While it is nice to have an acre+ it is not necessary to water an entire acre, especially if it is lawn or a swimming pool. I used to have a large, lovely lawn, but I could not in good conscience continue to water it during the drought. Maybe one day I'll have a lawn again, but for now I have fairly attractive drought friendly ground cover. We are all fortunate to live in an area with many trees; it is the trees that I'm concerned about.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Apr 28, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Mary Toth, can you enlighten me? I understand that some homes in Woodside and Portola Valley have livestock. How many animals do these homes typically have? And how much water do cows, horses, pigs etc. use in a day, and for what purposes? Thanks.

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