Crowd questions Cal Water on drought restrictions


A meeting to present customers of the California Water Service Company (Cal Water) with information on the drought-related water-use restrictions scheduled to be imposed on the Bear Gulch District beginning June 1 drew a crowd of nearly 250 people on Tuesday, May 19.

The Bear Gulch District covers Atherton, Portola Valley, most of Woodside, and parts of Redwood City and Menlo Park.

A long line of questioners addressed district officials after the presentation, but the officials said they may not have many of the answers until June 1. That's partially because it was only on April 1, when California Governor Jerry Brown imposed water-use cuts with an executive order, that the company began to develop its programs.

Online tools with water history, budgets

Ross Moilan, Cal Water's customer service director, said by June 1 the district plans to have information online about each customer's water budget, which will be based on a 36 percent cut from their usage in 2013, as well as the process for appealing the water budget. Customers will not be asked to reduce below 600 cubic feet of water per month, the officials said, no matter how low their water use was in 2013.

The same rules apply to all customers -- residential, commercial, government or institutional.

"We're going to be providing more details very soon and before June 1," Mr. Moilan said.

By June 1, the company also hopes to have an online tool allowing customers to check their previous water use and to view their future water budgets. The water budget for the current month and the coming month will also be on customers' bills. Water use will be given in gallons as well as in the hundreds of cubic feet measures (CCF) that the district has used in the past.

When water budget starts

When the water budget goes into effect depends on the day of the month the meter is read. If a meter is read on June 10, for example, the bill will arrive soon after and contain the water budget for the period covering June 10 until the water meter is read in July; it will also include the budget for the month after that, Cal Water's Bear Gulch District director Dawn Smithson said.

Water not used goes into "bank"

When customers get their July water bill, if they have gone over their budget, they will have to pay a surcharge of $10 per 100 cubic feet of water (1 CCF, about 748 gallons of water). If they have used less, that will reflected on the bill as a "water bank" savings. "You'll be able to bank that unused amount to carry over into the future," said Mr. Moilan.

To a customer worried that using a few gallons more than a 100 cubic-foot unit could trigger a surcharge, Cal Water officials said they bill only in units of 100 cubic feet, so the use of less than a full unit will not appear on the water bill.

Those banked units of water could come in handy this winter, when outdoor watering is usually unnecessary, but customers will still be expected to reduce use by 36 percent and will have to find ways to do it inside their homes.

"If you were really able to reduce your outdoor use you might have something in the bank" to help in the winter months, said Stan Ferraro, Cal Water's vice president of corporate development. Mr. Ferraro said he is the senior executive on Cal Water's drought team.

The drought rules are now set to last through February 2016, but could be extended. If Cal Water does not make progress toward meeting the 36 percent goal, it could be forced to put more stringent restrictions into place. The company will have to report its progress monthly to the state PUC.

Appeals process

Customers who think their water budget is unfair can appeal for an increase. The rules for allowing an increase have not yet been finalized, but if the appeal is granted after the July bill is sent out, the higher water budget will be applied retroactively, district director Smithson said.

Mr. Ferraro said the district is "working aggressively" to finalize the appeals process.

He said appeal forms will be available online or in the office, and should be able to be submitted online or by mail. "There will be specific guidelines," he said, so customers can know in advance if they are likely to meet them.

Garden watering only two days a week

One change in the previously announced water use restrictions announced at the meeting is the number of days a week outdoor watering will be allowed. The district had previously said it would allow watering three days a week, but because cities and towns it covers, or are adjacent to, are allowing watering only two days a week, that is all the district will allow.

Addresses that end in odd numbers, and properties with no address, will be allowed to water only on Mondays and Thursdays; addresses ending in even numbers on Tuesdays and Fridays. No one will be allowed to water between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Those who use only drip irrigation and micro-sprayers or hand water will be able to water at any time on any day of the week, however.

Fairness questions

Many of the questions raised had to do with the fairness of requiring the whole district to make the same percentage cutbacks.

A resident of North Fair Oaks said her neighborhood could not be more different from Atherton or Woodside, yet they are expected to come up with the same percentage of water-use reduction, while their more similar neighbors in the Menlo Park or Redwood City water districts are expected to cut much less. Menlo Park has to make 16 percent cuts while Redwood City has to cut only 8 percent.

"We're not the ones that question should be going to," Mr. Ferraro said. The district was assigned the percentage cuts by the state Public Utilities Commission. "I'm not saying it's fair, but we're stuck with the 36 percent," he said.

Another speaker asked, however, why Cal Water chose to make the cuts across the board, instead of using a tiered method with a "target sustainable" amount of water allowed per person and tiered-increasing surcharges for use beyond that, instead of "penalizing people who use the least amount of water" and expecting them to reduce 36 percent.

"We chose not to take a one-size-fits-all (approach) and to treat every customer as an individual," Mr. Ferraro. "It's a customer-first approach; it's not everyone being treated the same."

Atherton mayor wants more incentives

Rick DeGolia, the mayor of Atherton, which has the highest per capita water use in the district, asked the water company to do more to help its customers save water. "There are a couple of things I feel really strongly about," he said. "Many of our people have lawns and our problems are about irrigation," he said. "We need help."

"We don't want to lose our gardens," Mr. DeGolia said. He asked the water district to publicize the fact that replacing sprinkler heads with lower-water-use models, which the district offers free to customers, "dramatically decreases your water use."

He also asked Cal Water to increase the rebates offered to customers who replace lawns with landscaping that uses less water. The district now takes part in a program that caps rebates at $1,000 per customer, Mr. DeGolia said, while the Santa Clara Valley Water District gives rebates of up to $50,000.

Mr. Ferraro said the district already offers many rebate programs, and that in June it will expand its lawn replacement program.

More questions

Some other questions:

If you own more than one property in the district, can you transfer your water bank savings from one property to another? The answer: no.

If you use less than the minimum of six units, can the difference be "banked"? The answer: Yes.

What if you live in a new home or one that was empty in 2013? The answer: The district will probably make your budget the average for the district.

What if you own a multi-family building and think your budget is unfair? Answer: You can appeal.

What if you own a business with 60 rooms, 80 toilets and 1,200 guests a year? Answer: The water district will work with you directly to help you reduce your water use.

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2 people like this
Posted by Wstside Trucker
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm

You might show us a visual on how to read a meter. That would give us weekly view of our water budget

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 21, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here are your water meter visuals:

Web Link

Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Water
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm

The Atherton mayor is worried about lawns. He should be ashamed.

1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 22, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I find it ironic that our wealthiest community wants "help" to save our gardens when the state is faced with a true water crisis.

We took out our entire lawn and replaced it with a much better looking (and expensive) artificial surface and reduced our water usage by 60%. No rebates, no incentives - we just did it. Why aren't our community leaders both doing the same and encouraging others to do likewise?

Leadership means leading.

1 person likes this
Posted by tom wong
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on May 22, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Is the budget figured at 36% of the monthly usage or annual usage? If it's annual I assume the budget is averaged monthly or all months have the same allocation.
If you go over your budget one month and are fined, what happens next month if you are under by the same amount? Do you get a refund?
It looks like even if you use less than 36% of your annual budget you can still get hit with a surcharge on those months during high watering even if you are under budget during low watering.

7 people like this
Posted by Truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 24, 2015 at 8:11 pm

As long as 80% of state water use goes to big ag, these restrictions are a farce, a smoke screen, to get you to criticize your neighbors instead of the govt. Brown has catered to the rice, almond and alfalfa farmers and others with lobbyists. Cutting you water use by 36%!will no NOTHING in the grand scheme of things. Write to congress for true change.

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 27, 2015 at 1:45 pm

What happens to those of us on small fixed incomes who have conserved and cannot conserve another 36%? Will our water service be shut off when we cannot pay the fine?

4 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 27, 2015 at 2:55 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Anonymous -

What do you think? Isn't it always the little guy who tries the hardest who gets the shaft?

I'm betting that those who won't lift a finger won't feel the slightest bit of pain.

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on May 27, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

Here's a sneak preview of the next story we'll be writing about the drought. On Thursday Cal Water will send a letter to all of its customers telling how to look up their "water budgets" for the rest of the year on the company website. It's up and running now, and you might want to try it before everyone does so at the same time. You'll need your account number.
Web Link

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