Local water use to be cut 20 percent in two years

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: The water conservation battle is on! Last week, the Santa Monica City Council voted to approve a water shortage response plan with the goal of achieving a 20 percent citywide reduction in water use by December 31, 2016. As you may recall, Mayor Garcetti has already set a Los Angeles goal for a 20 percent reduction for January 2017, just a flip of the calendar behind Santa Monica.

InSapphoWeTrust 15th St Santa Monica2.jpgThe cities are taking different approaches to reaching these ambitious goals. Starting in April, individual "water allowances" will begin appearing on Santa Monica consumer bills with 20 percent reduction targets compared to the water households used in April 2013. The target levels will be 274 gallons-per-day for single-family homes and 137 gallons-per-day for customers in multi-family units, such as apartments. These targets are based on water use data from a residential user study conducted by the American Water Works Association and guidelines from the state of California. No conservation threshold has been set for commercial customers because of the variability in usage in that sector. In the coming months, Santa Monica will toughen its water conservation ordinance, provide incentives for owners to install meters in multi-family units, streamline drought tolerant landscape permitting, and establish more stringent conservation requirements for new development and significant redevelopment projects The biggest proposed change would require no net increase in city water use for all new developments. These bold moves are in response to the Governor Jerry Brown's declaration of a drought emergency in California and Santa Monica's subsequent declaration of a "stage two water supply shortage." Santa Monica has also declared itself committed to being 100 percent self-reliant on local water by 2020. Conservation will be crucial to reach that goal.

The big stick in Santa Monica is a new penalty system. When customers exceed their water allowances, they will incur financial penalties: $10 for every 100 cubic feet of water (around 750 gallons) they use over their allotment. For a typical resident, this won't amount to much. I can't imagine a resident running up against the $1,000 maximum penalty per two-month billing period, because that would be an additional 100 billing units or 75,000 gallons of water! But chronic violators who exceed their allowances seven times or more would be subject to $10,000 fines or the installation of flow restrictors on their property.

Unfortunately, Santa Monica opted not to approve a penalty multiplier for less severe chronic violators. An earlier proposal had customers who exceeded their allowance three times paying three times the penalty of first time violators. This approach would have offered a greater deterrent for water wasters. The city also opted not to institute a more steeply tiered billing structure that would have more severely penalized water wasters and encouraged conservation Not exactly the approach one might expect from a city that adopted an enforceable environmental bill of rights ordinance and successfully sued oil companies for $250 million to get its groundwater cleaned up. But the city council feared liability based on a district court judge's ruling in San Juan Capistrano that customers cannot be required to pay for more than the services they receive from the water utility. Imagine customers not being on the hook for the cost of water treatment and conveyance infrastructure because they might not personally receive water from particular critical infrastructure improvements that benefit the whole city. Numerous cities, water districts and environmental groups have appealed the district court decision, and the appeal is expected to be heard this year.

Like Los Angeles, which will pay $3.75 per square foot of lawn residents tear out and replace with drought tolerant landscaping, Santa Monica is beefing up its turf replacement programs, which offers $3.50 per square foot of lawn residents replace, as a catalyst for permanent conservation. Outdoor landscaping uses between 40 and 70 percent of the water used in single-family homes. Santa Monica is also beefing up its water patrol staff to improve education and issue more tickets for violations of existing ordinances against wasting water through irresponsible irrigation and washing "hardscapes" such as driveways.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti's directive is focused on a more voluntary approach to persuading the public to conserve. But the city of LA is ratcheting down on city government water use to try to lead by example. LA's Department of Recreation and Parks hasn't used potable water for irrigation at its parks for nearly two months. The Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Sanitation, Building and Safety, and others have identified a wide variety of policy recommendations and projects that will result in major water savings if they move forward. Among the areas being investigated are strengthening conservation requirements for new development and redevelopment projects, creating a tiered rate structure, advocating for a list of priority projects for funding from Proposition 1, the water bond that passed statewide in the fall, and reducing residential watering days to two days a week. Look for major announcements from the city of LA in the next few months.

It's great to see this kind of friendly competition between cities! A 20 percent savings in Santa Monica will get the city down to about 113 gallons of water per capita per day. A 20 percent reduction in Los Angeles will lower the average to about 105 gallons per capita per day. But when it comes to better managing California's precious water resources, there are no losers in conservation.

In other regional water news, the Malibu City Council unanimously approved an environmental impact report for a moderately sized water recycling facility in the city's civic center--a courageous move that shows Malibu is finally growing up as a city. The controversy over water recycling was one reason Malibu broke away from LA County to become a city. The county had proposed a large, environmentally damaging treatment plant in Corral Canyon, now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The recently approved plant, which is scheduled to be completed in 2017, is a third of the size, will largely discharge water underground, and includes a major water recycling component. The end result will be a much needed local water supply and less nutrient and pathogen pollution going into Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

Full disclosure: The author serves in a voluntary advisory role on water policy for both the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

Photo of 15th Street in Santa Monica by Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust.

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