Oil on water

As Californians are asked to further cut back on their water use, Santa Monicans must simply keep up the good work — at least for now.

With citywide water use down around 18-20 percent from 2013 baseline levels, new water restrictions recommended by Governor Gavin Newsom last Monday, March 28, will not result in belt-tightening locally, but local water experts say there’s always more to be done.

Newsom’s executive order directs the State Water Resources Control Board to consider requiring local suppliers to move to the second step of their conservation plans, which assumes water scarcity of 20 percent. About 140 cities and retailers are already operating at that level — including Santa Monica.

“If you look at the executive order Governor Newsom put out, they’re asking all the [water] agencies to be at a level two response, which is 20 percent reduction in water use — or water demand — from each agency,” Santa Monica Water Resources Manager Sunny Wang said, later adding, “We’ve been at that level since 2014 already … The executive order wants everybody to be on that page now, but Santa Monica has been there for quite some time.”

If the Governor’s water cutbacks come to be, those come from cities and local water districts, not the state, with members of Newsom’s administration saying allowing local retailers to set conservation needs is the best approach in a state of nearly 40 million people where water needs vary.

“We live in a state that has many different hydrological zones, many different water usage scenarios and that one size fits all doesn’t really work in California,” Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said.

Blumenfeld spoke to reporters after Newsom, a Democrat, issued an executive order outlining new actions aimed at reducing water use on the heels of a historically dry January through March. The governor has previously called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 15 percent compared to 2020, but it’s not a mandate and so far total savings sit at 6 percent.

Like much of the U.S. West, California is experiencing severe or extreme drought across most of its land. Though it rained last Monday on both ends of the state, state officials offered a sobering assessment of the state’s water picture.

“How we protect this precious resource has to be baked into everything we do,” Blumenfeld said. “Our lives here in California are really going to be shaped by water scarcity going forward.”

Roughly 385 cities and other local water districts have to submit drought response plans to the state detailing six levels of conservation actions based on water scarcity. As less water becomes available, the local water districts adopt more aggressive controls that establish how and when people can use water. Those suppliers, which include Santa Monica, serve more than 36 million people, or more than 90 percent of the state’s residents.

Additional restrictions are not currently in the pipeline for Santa Monica, which already provides a whole slate of incentives and programs to encourage water conservation.

“We offer free low-flow showerheads. We offer high efficiency, low-flow faucet aerators for hand sinks and also for kitchen sinks,” Santa Monica Sustainability Analyst Thomas Fleming said. “We also offer toilet dye strips to check for leaks in your toilets.” Fleming said the city also offers rebates on appliances like toilets ($100) and washing machines ($300), plus the popular cash for grass rebate, offering $3.50 per square foot of turf grass replacement, up to $6,000.

Wang said Santa Monica’s Water Resources Department focuses more on education of current ordinances (such as not washing sidewalks with water and not using overhead spray irrigation between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) than further restrictions or penalties.

“We try to educate — we don’t want to punish,” Wang said. “I don’t remember the last time we issued a fine for anybody exceeding their water use allowance. We use those opportunities to educate and start that dialogue.”

One key tool for the City is consultations, where residents can request staff come to their properties and suggest ways to be more water wise. Sometimes consultations come during high usage calls, when residents get a nasty surprise in their water bill, only to discover they’ve had an undetected leak for weeks.

Fortunately, those may soon be a thing of the past, with Wang and Fleming sharing a new city program that could alert residents to leaks within days, instead of months: AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) smart meters, which track water use in real time.

“The real advantage of AMI is automatic leak detection and alerting,” Fleming said. “That’s huge. That’s a huge conservation tool.”
Wang agreed.

“Just an example: Right now, the meters are read manually; every two months, we’re able to read one meter, it’s because that’s just how long it takes us to make that route back again,” Wang described. “So, if you have a leak, you may not detect it for two months until you get that bill … with this, you will know within a day if you have a leak or not.”

While Santa Monica will see a smooth transition from level one to level two restrictions, level three (a cut of 30 percent of the City’s overall water use) could be the one that really affects residents, ushering in things like a drought rate structure (meaning: higher water bills) or other restrictions.
Newsom’s executive order asks the state water board to consider a ban on watering of grass that is used purely for ornamental purposes, such as grass on highway medians or in office parking lots. Green spaces such as baseball fields or parks likely wouldn’t be affected. Banning watering of such grass could save an amount of water annually equivalent to what’s used by more than half a million homes, Newsom’s office said in a press release.
The state water board has until May 25 to consider the actions Newsom outlined.

Beyond limiting outdoor watering and urging more conservation, the order puts in place permitting rules for new wells to ensure they don’t overdraft groundwater that people rely on for drinking. It also eases the processes for permitting groundwater recharge projects and protecting fish and wildlife that suffer from drought including salmon. And he’s directed the state water board to boost inspections aimed at catching illegal water diversions.
In non-drought years, groundwater makes up about a third of the state’s water supply. But during droughts, when less water is available from mountain snowpack and state reservoirs, the state turns to groundwater for about two-thirds of its supply, said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.

Kathleen Ronayne of the Associated Press contributed to this report.