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June/July 2015

Reckoning with Responsibility in Dry Times: A Personal Water Story

By Robin Meadows

Ten years ago, I received a letter from the City of Fairfield notifying me of an unwelcome distinction: my household was one of the biggest water users in town — a “Top Ten Percenter,” the letter said — at 1,291 gallons a day. The letter included a bar graph that shouted my extravagance, but came with a handwritten note that was unexpectedly kind. After stating that a family of four like mine typically uses 400 gallons a day indoors, the writer nonetheless tried to make me feel better by saying our use was “fairly normal, especially considering the summer’s unusually high temperatures and the fact that grass requires a lot of water.” The letter ended with an invitation to call or drop by for water saving tips.

I was mortified.

I was also surprised. As I explained when I called, the lawn was one of the first things to go when we moved in. The city said the real culprit was probably an underground leak, and sent a technician out to check. He showed me that the needle on my water meter whirled even when I wasn’t using any water, confirming the leak. And the meter still spun after he turned off the water supply to my house, showing the leak was on the city’s side of the pipes.

The city repaired the pipe, my water use dropped, and I stopped thinking about it. I was sure I had no reason to worry: while Californians generally consume half of their water outside, I don’t have a lawn, don’t wash my car in the driveway, and don’t have a pool. I was so confident my water use was low that I still wasn’t paying attention to it three years into California’s extreme drought, and nearly a year into my water reporting fellowship with the Bay Area Monitor.

I’m paying attention now. After a fourth dry winter in a row, the hills edging the valley where I live are already brown, buckeye trees already have yellow leaves even though they’re still blooming, and local farmers have already baled their first crop of hay. Worse, the Sierra Nevada snowpack that provides two-thirds of California’s water is down to almost nothing.

Every year on April 1, the California Department of Water Resources measures the snowpack here at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. This year, for the first time since the state began the practice in 1941, there was no snow to measure. (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources)

Every year on April 1, the California Department of Water Resources measures the snowpack here at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. This year, for the first time since the state began the practice in 1941, there was no snow to measure. (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources)

Last year, the state asked people in cities to use 20 percent less water. But we didn’t listen. So for the first time ever, California has mandated urban water restrictions. The state says cities must collectively use 25 percent less water in 2015 than they did in 2013, and each city has a customized target ranging from 8 to 36 percent less. The target depends solely on how much water the city used last year, which varied enormously from 41 gallons per person per day in South San Francisco to 614 gallons per person per day in the Palm Desert region of Southern California. It doesn’t matter how much water a city has or how much they have already conserved, and some object to this approach.

Scrambling for Water

Suburban cities in hot parts of the state will struggle most to meet their conservation targets. Take San Jose, where people used an average of 96 gallons of water a day last year. The state says they must conserve water by 20 percent this year, and one of their water suppliers, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD), wants its customers to go even further and conserve 30 percent. SCVWD gets most of its supply from state and federal projects that deliver water from the Sierras via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Dana Jacobson, who works on water deals for SCVWD, said this year’s allocations are so low that the district has only 18 billion gallons, just a third of its normal supply.

Now SCVWD is scrambling for water to get it through the dry summer. “People who typically have water to sell don’t this year,” Jacobson said. As of late spring, a handful of deals were in the works but SCVWD was only sure of getting an additional 1.6 billion gallons. That won’t last long — Jacobson estimated it’s only enough drinking water for a couple of weeks in the summer.

Conservation Superstars

The Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) also serves a hot suburban area. But people there saved even more water than necessary last year. “The bad news was that we had to — the state gave us zero percent of our water allocation until September, and then we only got 5 percent,” said district spokesperson Sue Stephenson. Most of the district’s supply comes from the State Water Project, which cut deliveries to almost nothing in 2014. “The good news is that people stepped up and did what we asked,” she added. DSRSD imposed a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use in 2014 and its customers did even better, conserving 29 percent.

Under the new state mandate, the district has to save only 16 percent in 2015. “We might not have to be as tough on people as last year,” said DSRSD operations manager Dan Gallagher. How tough were they? Restrictions included bans on washing cars and hosing off driveways, and on watering yards during the winter and between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. the rest of the year. Violators faced fines up to $1,000. And the heaviest water users paid nearly eight times the baseline rate.

DSRSD also helped its customers conserve by retrofitting water meters with radio transmitters that let people track their water use in real time. “They’re aware how much it takes for the shower, washing machine, and lawn,” Stephenson said. Lawns in the DSRSD service area were brown last summer, and early this year, per-person use was down to 44 gallons a day.

Learning how much people in Dublin and San Ramon have conserved made me question my own habits. I haven’t been using much water outside, but inside is a totally different story — I love baths. And I never really considered how much water it takes to fill a bathtub, even though you can tell it’s a lot just from their size and the time it takes to fill them. So I checked with the Environmental Protection Agency and learned an inconvenient (to me) truth: the average tub holds 36 gallons. That’s uncomfortably close to a whole day’s use in Dublin and San Ramon.

Water Surplus

Even so, I thought, do I really have to use less water? I’d heard that Fairfield was water rich when we moved here, and a few years ago I read in my local newspaper, the Daily Republic, that the city had secured even more water rights.

But all I really knew about my water was that most of it comes from Lake Berryessa, which is 30 miles north of me in Napa County. So I called the Solano County Water Agency, which provides Fairfield’s water, and spoke with engineer Thomas Pate. “We’re in better shape than most folks,” he told me. What a colossal understatement.

I was amazed to learn that Lake Berryessa is one of the biggest reservoirs in the state. At 500,000 billion gallons, Lake Berryessa is four times the size of San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but supplies water to only two-fifths as many people. Of course it doesn’t matter how big a reservoir is if it’s empty, and from the news coverage you’d think all the reservoirs in California were down to cracked mud. It’s true that many are worryingly low, especially in the Central Valley. One of the biggest reservoirs there, Exchequer Reservoir on the Merced River, can hold 330 billion gallons but was down to 37 billion gallons this spring. That’s just 18 percent of its historical average.

But Lake Berryessa remains mind-bogglingly full. Pate put its current supply at about 325 billion gallons — 80 percent of the historical average — and said this is enough to meet the agency’s water needs for the next five years.

Why is Lake Berryessa so full while reservoirs in the Central Valley are so low? The answer is a stubborn high-pressure ridge off the Pacific coast. For the past few years, Pate said, the ridge has deflected California’s winter storms away from the Sierra Nevada and toward the 500-square-mile watershed in the Northern Coast Ranges that drains into Lake Berryessa. The big storm that drenched Northern California last winter “was pointed right at us,” Pate said. “It’s just the luck of the draw where the rain fell.”

But no matter how much water any California city has this year, the state mandate means they still have to conserve. Fairfield must conserve 20 percent, and Vacaville, which also gets water from Lake Berryessa, must conserve 32 percent. Vacaville’s target is higher because it used almost twice as much water as Fairfield did last year: 200 versus 107 gallons per person each day.

According to my local newspaper, Vacaville utilities director Royce Cunningham wants to know why his city has to conserve so much when it has so much water. Libby Pischel, spokesperson for the Marin Municipal Water District, can tell him.

Like Lake Berryessa, Marin reservoirs are high this year — equal to the historical average in late April — and for the same reason. They also got lots of rain last winter. But people there still must conserve water by 20 percent this year. “It’s the prudent way to operate,” Pischel said. “We’re dependent on rainfall and we don’t know how much we’ll get from one year to the next.” The same goes for the cities Lake Berryessa supplies. If the drought persists and future rains no longer fall our way, we’ll be happy to have saved some of our water.

My conversation with Pischel made me wonder: was I doing my part to help my city reach its conservation goal? I hadn’t made any significant sacrifices. I don’t mind a little dust on my car, I’m not a big swimmer, and I garden with native plants for their beauty and ease of care, not just to save water. And I hadn’t even given up baths for short showers.

Worse, I’m not quite as pure about outdoor water use as I led you to believe. From the front, my yard looks like a model drought-friendly landscape, all oaks, manzanitas and sages that thrive with no summer water. But if you go around back, you’ll discover my not-so-little secret: I have a pond! I love the water tumbling down the streambed, the water lilies that are lush when everything else is parched, and the birds that come from miles around to drink and bathe.

Water lilies in the author’s backyard pond. (Photo by Robin Meadows)
Water lilies in the author’s backyard pond. (Photo by Robin Meadows)

The system is recirculating, so my pond is technically allowed even under California’s emergency water restrictions. But it’s still a big, deep body of water, it’s always full, and I top it off regularly during the summer. I don’t even want to think about how much water my pond holds — it dwarfs my bathtub — or how much it loses to evaporation.

My investigation made me question whether I could still enjoy my pond wholeheartedly. To find out, I needed to know how much water I actually use. While many cities in the Bay Area have smart water meters that track use in real time, mine doesn’t, so I called the Fairfield water department. The friendly woman who picked up couldn’t tell me how many gallons I use each day, but offered to send my water history by mail.

I could hardly stand the wait. I listened for the rumble of the mail carrier’s jeep every day, and the second it pulled away from my curb, I ran out to check for my water history. By the time it finally arrived, a decade after the one that labeled me a Top Ten Percenter, I was no longer confident that I was a responsible water user.

Do my dry habits like gardening with native plants make up for the wet ones like my pond? I opened the envelope — and phew! This time the bar graph showed that I use 89 gallons a day, below the average of 96 gallons a day it’ll take for Fairfield to reach its state mandated conservation target this year. All the same, I’m stepping up my own water conservation. Much as I enjoy baths, I don’t need one every day. Some may see California in drought as a story of water haves and have nots. But as one of the haves — at least for now — I say we’re all in this together.

Robin Meadows (www.robinmeadows.tumblr.com) is the reporting fellow for the 2014-15 Water Education Initiative. This article represents the last in a six-part series that she wrote for the reporting fellowship.

Created by the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area Education Fund to promote better understanding of regional water issues, the 2014-15 Water Education Initiative is underwritten by the Association of Bay Area Governments, Bay Area Biosolids to Energy, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the League of Women Voters of Marin County, Louise Anderson, the Marin Municipal Water District, Marion Taylor, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Sonoma County Water Agency.

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