Cal Water answers customer questions about drought measures


Note: A Cal Water public workshop on the drought restrictions and ways customers can reduce water use will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, at Las Lomitas Elementary School's Cano Hall, 299 Alameda de las Pulgas in Atherton.


By Barbara Wood | Almanac Staff Writer

California Water Service officials recently sat down with the Almanac to answer questions about their proposed drought plan.

Cal Water's Bear Gulch district, in the area since 1936, serves approximately 57,500 people through 18,800 service connections, the company says. It covers Atherton, Portola Valley, most of Woodside, and parts of Menlo Park and Redwood City. The district has been ordered to cut overall water consumption in the district by 36 percent from 2013 levels by February 2016.

Answering the questions were Patrick Alexander, the company's new conservation manager; Justin Skarb, the corporate community affairs and public relations manager; and Dawn Smithson, the Bear Gulch district manager.

Mr. Skarb said the proposed restrictions will cover Cal Water's many diverse districts and could not have been written to consider every customer's unique situation.

Instead, he said, the district will have an appeals process, which should be in place by June 1 at the latest. "Our interest is to make sure we're taking care of our customers who don't fit the broad outline of the plan," he said. Customers can appeal to have their water budget changed before the due date on the first bill they receive to avoid surcharges on their next bill.

For example, customers whose household is larger than the 2.7 average applied locally will be eligible for an adjusted water budget, he said, as will single-metered multi-family dwellings.

The district is also contemplating ways to help customers who have been conserving for years, but still use more than the 600 cubic foot per month (6 CCF) minimum water allowance. One could be, Mr. Skarb said, that those who use far less than the average for a district might be eligible to ask for a smaller cut in their water use than other district customers.

"We also want to help those customers who started conserving before 2013," he said. If a customer's records show water use reduced between 2011 and 2013, they will also be eligible for an increased water budget, he said.

"Our goal is to have a customer-first approach," Mr. Skarb said.

He said in cases requiring only a look at customer records, it is planned that appeals could be made over the phone. The company is hiring extra employees to handle appeals and will have an 800 phone number for appeals. Other appeals would be made online or by filling out a form, he said.

The company plans an appeals board made up of management-level employees, he said.

While the major water users in each community will not be penalized if they cut their use by 36 percent, the water district needs them to cut back even more than that. The district plans to meet individually with each large water user to help them plan how to cut back, Mr. Skarb said.

"We're going to have to find the right messaging for those customers," he said.

Those who do not meet their water budget will be surcharged, he said, but will not be otherwise penalized.

"Our goal isn't to fine anybody," he said. "I think we'd be elated at the end of June if we didn't have to apply drought surcharges to anybody."

By June 1, Cal Water plans to give customers the ability to go to to see their historic water usage and water budgets for the coming month. Measurements should be in gallons as well as cubic feet to make it easier to understand how much water customers are using, he said. The upcoming month's water budget would also be in every bill.

Since Cal Water found out about the mandatory water usage cuts, the company has hired 20 people across the company in temporary positions, including customer service representatives, and drought and conservation coordinators, Mr. Skarb said.

The proposed restrictions apply to all customers, including residential and commercial users (and agricultural, in areas where the company has them). All would be eligible to use the appeals process, Mr. Skarb said.

Renters who do not have their water separately metered may want to let their landlords know, Mr. Skarb said, about Cal Water's conservation programs that offer rebates for thing such as low-flow toilets, lawn removal, sprinkler-head replacement and smart irrigation controllers.

Renters concerned their landlords are not conserving water can contact Cal Water, either online or by calling the district at (650) 561-9709 to have the company contact the property owner.

Water waste may also be reported at that number or online.

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