Amid drought, Sacramento water use climbed...Charles Piller
As the state entered a severe drought, many of the city of Sacramento's biggest water users increased their watering dramatically, including some familiar locations: the City Cemetery, Land Park and Curtis Park.
A Bee investigation of water use in Sacramento, based on an examination of three years of metering records, reveals city government itself as the top water scofflaw.
Even when Sacramento issued its first-ever "spare the water" alert this summer, forbidding outdoor watering by residents from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the city's own park and cemetery workers apparently missed the memo.
At 2 p.m. on one recent triple-digit day, a mother goose led a line of goslings across Land Park's cool, sodden fairways. Golfers darted under sprinkler-water rainbows.
In the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery off Broadway and Riverside Drive, streams from antiquated jets pooled on crypts. The cemetery may host a drought-resistant garden of native plants maintained by volunteers, but its overall consumption grew by 76 percent from 2006 to 2008, the second-fastest rise of any large user.
Such bad habits are the norm at city agencies. Overall water use at metered city properties shot up by 22 percent in those three drought years, even though water available locally for all users rose by less than 4 percent.
Marty Hanneman, an assistant city manager who oversees utilities, could offer no explanation for the watering transgressions, though he suggested that cemeteries and parks might need more water during a drought.
Last year the city spent about $700,000 on water for its own operations.
"We know we are viewed as not very good stewards for water. We want to change that," Hanneman said. "We want to be known as the water conservation capital, the green capital."
Mayor Kevin Johnson called The Bee's findings "outrageous."
"We're going to have to learn to use water smarter, which is a new way of thinking in our city where residents have tapped into two major rivers for generations," he said. "We need to light a fire under the city's efforts to save water so we can be a shining example of how to use water more efficiently instead of being a showcase of waste and inefficiency."
Johnson pledged to speed up efforts to put in place rigorous conservation measures at all city properties.
City shares limited data
Citing a state law protecting the privacy of utility customers, the city agreed to share data only for its top 50 water users. The data contain many blatant gaps, errors and ambiguities, but the Department of Utilities said it did not have the staffing to answer many key questions about them.
Among the top 50 users, The Bee also found steep increases from 2006 through 2008 at some private companies and other public agencies.
Some of those customers were bewildered by the city's data, which they said did not reflect their experience. Others offered reasonable explanations for the changes.
For example, bottling plants for 7-Up and Alhambra Water spiked due to increased production. The Marina Vista family housing project, operated by the Sacramento Housing Redevelopment Agency, had higher occupancy. The Campus Commons Golf Course used more water in 2008 only because it was shut down for course changes during 2006 and part of 2007.
Sacramento is among a handful of California cities that resisted water meters for decades until a state law enacted in 2005 mandated universal metering within 20 years.
Practices here still lag behind most other California municipalities, which have adopted aggressive conservation measures. On average, Sacramento residents consume 236 gallons each per day, more than twice that used by their counterparts in Los Angeles.
The city itself is partly to blame, experts said.
Peter H. Gleick, an internationally known energy and resources specialist who heads the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, said Sacramento's own water usage and its apparently haphazard oversight of major users suggest that it is "not really serious about water management."
State leads on conservation
In February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state water emergency. Warning of grave effects on the economy, the governor called for an immediate 20 percent reduction in water use by urbanites.
The state Capitol has reduced consumption by 11 percent since 2006 by mulching flower beds, watering lawns more sparingly and replacing leaky irrigation lines.
But Sacramento continues to be a "green capital," and not in the way Hanneman, the assistant city manager, meant. Lush lawns predominate. Instead of drought-tolerant landscaping, thousands of miles of grass strips between sidewalks and curbs line streets in a thirsty embrace.
Although the City Council recently set new water regulations that prohibit watering lawns or gardens during the day, the city itself does not have to follow its own rules as long as it adopts conservation measures that are at least as effective.
So far, no internal water-saving rules have been issued, said Utilities Department spokesman Maurice Cheney. He called it "a work in progress."
A civic sense of entitlement about water dates from the city's early years, when the Sacramento and American rivers seemed inexhaustible. In 1921, the right to unlimited water for a low, set price, forever free from metering for residential customers, was enshrined in the city charter.
Today, 30,000 residential and 6,000 commercial customers, including parks and numerous other city properties, are metered, out of 140,000 in all. Hanneman said his department may need all of the next 16 years to finish the job.
"Efforts to fight water metering were certainly inconsistent with being good stewards of our natural resources," said City Councilman Rob Fong. "The city of Sacramento should do everything in its power to beat that legislative deadline of 2025."
Hanneman blamed budget cuts and layoffs, in part, for the city's conservation shortcomings. The Utilities Department has just four full-time and two seasonal employees dedicated to conservation. Parks and Recreation has lost 145 jobs in the past year, he said.
Replacement of wasteful municipal landscaping and irrigation are now completely off the table.
"The city doesn't have one extra penny to do that," Hanneman said.
Plans for drought-tolerant landscaping demonstrations at City Hall and the Utilities Department headquarters will be carried out only if donations and volunteer labor underwrite the entire cost.
Watering with abandon
"If you don't lead by example," said Chris Brown, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Urban Water Conservation Council, "you have a lot of trouble making a successful program."
That observation resonated in the responses of a few top water consumers.
Sacramento Manor, a 260-unit senior apartment complex near Florin Road and Interstate 5, is the city's 18th largest water user. It features pristine lawns, other luxuriant landscaping, a pond and a swimming pool.
The complex's water use increased by nearly one-quarter during the drought – the 10th largest rise among large water customers. Last year, Sacramento Manor used about 40 million gallons, 418 gallons per apartment per day.
Property manager Larry Lucchini didn't know his usage had shot up or even what he pays for water. Rates are low enough that cost has never been a concern, Lucchini said, and he does not expect to change any landscaping to save water.
Elder Creek Transfer/Recovery Inc., a recycling processor on Elder Creek Road, saw the steepest rise of any major customer in the last few years – more than doubling its water use to about 29 million gallons.
General Manager Keith Hester said he was shocked to learn that his usage had spiked and mystified about the cause.
"We don't use a lot of water," except to steam clean the garbage carts, he said. "There's a huge lawn in front of the transfer station, but we water only the edges."
Hester didn't even know that his water use had doubled until contacted by The Bee, an indication that the city's stated conservation goals and its oversight practices don't match up.
Data in disarray
The first words on the city's online 2008 water quality report are "Tradition of Excellence." It goes on to detail city efforts to "conserve and preserve our water sources."
The page, however, was published upside down.
Though small, that glitch seems emblematic of shortcomings in the way the city gathers, manages and reports water data, and notifies customers of possible problems.
Hanneman said the city spots water-consumption problems chiefly through "high-low flags" in water bills – sharp changes that prompt an investigation. However, like Hester, most major users with fast-rising water use contacted by The Bee had no idea that their consumption rates had shot up.
The city Department of Utilities could not explain many suspicious changes in data among top water customers, either.
For example, at North Natomas Community Park on Cagney Way, no meter readings were available for 2006 or 2007, and the city couldn't say why. The Silverado Family Apartments on Bruceville Road reduced its water flow by more than 40 percent from 2007 to 2008, but the city was baffled about what happened there, too.
A median strip with trees and bare dirt on Fruitridge Road ranked 27th on the city's list of water consumers in 2006, using 30 million gallons. For 2007 and 2008, however, no data appeared for the median. Officials later said the 2006 reading was wrong but could not provide an explanation – or corrected totals.
In numerous other cases the city reported incomplete or jumbled data. It combined records of more than one facility or separated large customers such as medical centers or colleges into multiple accounts. Because large customers sometimes shift water use from one meter to another, that practice makes assessing spikes in water use difficult.
"What you need is not just metering. You need smart metering," the Pacific Institute's Gleick said. "You need audits … and advice to heavy water users to help them conserve; so if there is a problem, they can find it and fix it."
To improve metering, the City Council last week accepted federal stimulus loans and grants for water meters, and recently approved a contract to install high-tech transmitters on all water meters for real-time leak detection, beginning in September.
The problem, again, is time and money. The transmitters will take 15 years to install.
Hanneman also blamed vandalism or normal wear and tear for other metering problems and conservation setbacks.
Those problems are not unique to private customers.
At high noon on a recent "spare the water" day sprinklers gushed at the city's Southside Park for at least 40 minutes, soaking a building and flooding the sidewalk. Workers were testing sprinklers after an apparently unsuccessful repair job. Spill-off ran down a path into the park pond.
"A complete waste," concluded Igor Kharitonoff, one of many passers-by forced to give the flow wide berth to avoid a soaking.
Others curb excesses
Given today's harsh economy, it is understandable that costly updates of landscaping and irrigation at city properties are on hold, said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for the environmental group Friends of the River.
Stork found it harder to comprehend the city's response to problems that are neither expensive nor difficult to fix, such as following its own edict to shut off sprinklers when the thermometer hits 100.
"It doesn't take a lot of city time," he said, "to pull together some of the irrigation managers and say, 'How can we do better?' "
Locally, some large water users have shown that major improvements can happen quickly and without massive landscaping changes.
The Radisson Hotel Sacramento cut water use by 37 percent in two years by keeping sprinklers in good repair, updating cooling towers used for air conditioning and installing water-saver bathroom fixtures. The Hyatt Regency Hotel and Kaiser Permanente's South Sacramento Medical Center used similar measures to make substantial improvements.
Luther Burbank High School, the city's 20th largest water consumer, used about one-third more water in 2008 than two years earlier, due in part to replacing rodent-infested ivy with lawns, and watering large playing fields.
But the school district managed to budget for artificial turf at Burbank's soccer and football fields in the coming year, to save water and grass-tending labor.
Other water purveyors across the state have pushed conservation aggressively.
For example, the Sonoma County Water Agency, which serves 600,000 people in that county and parts of Marin County, has reduced water use by 21 percent in each of the past two years – and expects to meet its goal of a 25 percent reduction this year. In 2008, per capita daily use there declined to about 100 gallons per day.
Water retailers in Sonoma County pay businesses and homeowners to replace grass with drought-tolerant plants. Among its cities, Petaluma has already installed smart meters for all users, and Santa Rosa is not far behind.
Such practices stand in stark contrast to those in Sacramento, with its spotty metering, dwindling budget – and extravagant municipal water use.
"When you don't measure your water use and when you don't obey your own rules for water conservation and efficiency," said Gleick, "you're not even doing the minimum."
Opposition to Delta salmon rules mounts...The Record
SACRAMENTO - Legal challenges are mounting against new rules to protect salmon and steelhead from California's water works.
The latest lawsuit was filed in federal court Thursday by the State Water Contractors, whose members deliver water from the Delta to 25 million Californians who live from the Bay Area to San Diego.
The lawsuit says that the new rules - which could reduce Delta exports by about 330,000 acre-feet, or about 5 percent to 7 percent - ignore the facts and are scientifically flawed and biased.
"There is simply no conclusive evidence that further water delivery cutbacks from the Delta will benefit the fish species," the lawsuit says.
The restrictions for salmon and steelhead are on top of existing regulations to protect the tiny Delta smelt. These protections, combined with low snowpack for three consecutive years, have restricted water deliveries to portions of the San Joaquin Valley.
A spokesman with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which wrote the new salmon rules after the old ones were thrown out by a judge, declined to comment Friday.
The Stockton East Water District has also filed a lawsuit over the new rules, which would reduce the amount of water the district receives from the Stanislaus River.
Pensions are a timebomb
We must find political will to address problem...Editorial
California must think and do what only a few years back was not only unthinkable, but not considered doable.
Today the state is sitting on unfunded pension liabilities of at least $63 billion. That figure is equivalent to roughly 70 percent of general fund spending this fiscal year.
The system we have allows state workers to retire as early as 55 with 2 percent of their salary for each year worked, plus health benefits.
The argument, of course, is that public employees settle for a career making less than they could in the private sector in exchange for a solid and, dare we say, generous retirement plan. No doubt there are highly skilled engineers, scientists and others who could command considerably more money in the private sector. But Census Bureau data show that in 2007 the average annual salary of state government employees was $53,958. Compare that with the average private-sector worker's pay of $40,991 and you see that state workers are not being slighted during their careers.
Obviously, as a direct result of the meltdown in state revenues, state workers have had to share the pain. Most are required to take three furlough days each month, which amounts to about a 14 percent pay reduction. Some might suggest, though, that the reduction has softened some by having those furlough days fall on Fridays, so it creates a three-day weekend.
The fact is the present pension system cannot be sustained. The unfunded pension liabilities the state already faces is a nasty warning something must be done.
Across the nation, other states facing the same problem have lengthened the number of years an employee must work, raised the retirement age, required greater employee contributions to their retirement, and done away with or modified their so-called defined benefit retirement plans.
California is not alone except in the size of its liabilities and its lack of political will to fix this problem.
One reason, perhaps the biggest reason, is that unions representing state workers contribute heavily to politicians, especially Democrats who hold sway in both houses of the Legislature. And as the late Jesse Unruh, Assembly speaker in the 1960s, used to say, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." Money buys access and combined with highly organized unions, the scale of the pressure on Sacramento becomes clear.
As if to underscore this, last week the state's largest public employee union, the Service Employees International Union, overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike because of the workers' unhappiness with the furlough days. While no strike date has been set, with 74 percent of the SEIU's members voting to approve such an action, it must be considered a legitimate threat.
But beyond the public unions and the politics, Californians are asking why they are paying for all this. Private sector jobs have disappeared by the tens of thousands. Salaries have been frozen or cut. Pension plans, virtually none as generous those of state workers, are disappearing. And health benefits in retirement are so rarely available to private sector workers that most must work until they at least 65 and can get on Medicare.
It's well past time fairness for the taxpayers funding this system becomes part of the equation.
San Francisco Chronicle
Spotlight on delta in coming state water fight...Kelly Zito
With the bruising battle over the state budget barely over, a new fight looming in the Capitol promises to be just as ugly.
At stake is nothing less than the replumbing of California's water system, a complicated, aging network of pipes, canals and pumps that has watered America's breadbasket, fueled the largest population in the union and given rise to one of the world's most prosperous economies.
Perhaps never before in the Golden State's history has it been more clear that the system is profoundly broken and at risk of outright collapse. And experts agree that this may be the year the state's leaders finally dole out much-needed fixes.
The anticipated debate centers on the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the scenic network of islands, channels and wetlands that funnels water to two-thirds of California, including much of the Bay Area.
Over-pumping at the confluence of the two rivers, rising pollution levels and the decline of several key fish species have pushed the heart of the state's waterworks to the brink, according to a parade of experts. Add to that an ongoing drought and hairline cracks in the system have become gaping faults: Cities across the state have imposed mandatory rationing, hundreds of thousands of farmland acres have gone unplanted and water managers are scrambling to find new supplies.
Against that backdrop, officials at nearly every level of government are now paying attention: local officials, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Obama, who sent Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April to tour the delta.
Later this month, Sacramento lawmakers are set to hold hearings on five bills intended to increase water conservation, improve the monitoring of who uses water and how much, and to create a politically appointed council that would have broad authority over the delta, including the ability to approve a controversial pipeline around the estuary.
"There's never been a moment where there was more uncertainty and more focus on the future of the delta and the water system," said Barry Nelson, water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The stars only align on a complicated issue like water every decade. We're at one of those moments."
Gold miners, ranchers and urban dwellers for generations have scuffled over divvying up the precious drops that fall in the Sierra Nevada. In this round, however, the ante is far higher - an ecosystem in free fall, an erratic water supply and potentially billions of taxpayer dollars.
Scientists, water managers, businesses and lawmakers agree any solution to the water crisis must achieve two goals: Repair the delta ecosystem and bolster the reliability of California's water supply.
That's where the agreement ends.
Schwarzenegger has embraced an ambitious project that would route water around the delta. Such a "peripheral canal" would be the biggest overhaul of the system since the massive state and federal water projects were undertaken 50 and 75 years ago, respectively.
Backers include Southern California cities and the agriculture industry, which hope such a system would boost water supplies after three parched years and pumping restrictions designed to protect a disappearing delta fish.
Though there are no firm details on location or size, some cost estimates for the project run as high as $15 billion.
"We need to have a comprehensive delta plan, and conveyance has to be a part of it," said Joe Grindstaff, deputy secretary for water policy in the state's Natural Resources Agency.
Others say the state must pursue water conservation, recycling and desalting ocean water just as aggressively. What's more, they charge the governor with using the plight of some Central Valley farmers - whose fallowed fields and out-of-work field workers have garnered nationwide media attention - to advance his case for a canal.
"The idea that some pipe or canal is a silver bullet to our problems in the delta is misguided. The governor has been fixated on that in a way that's not helpful," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, represents four of the five delta counties. Building a canal through the region of 500,000 residents could potentially wreak havoc on the economic, cultural and social fabric of the community, she said.
In theory, rerouting water through a pipe from the Sacramento River at the northern delta to pumps in the southern delta would reduce man-made pressures on the ecosystem- sucking fewer fish into giant water outtake pipes, for instance - while at the same time creating a dedicated pipeline that would send water to cities from San Jose to San Diego.
Wolk and others fear that redirecting the Sacramento River would allow saltwater to overwhelm the delta, provide less freshwater to flush pollutants out of the estuary, ruin recreational boating and fishing and destroy a major source of irrigation water for delta farmers.
"For most people in the Legislature and the state, the delta is a blank slate on the map," Wolk said. "It's my job to argue for the delta's complexity and for assurances that the delta will survive."
State Democrats last week introduced a set of five bills intended to fix California's water crisis:
SB12 (Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto) - The bill would create the Delta Stewardship Council, a seven-member body that would have broad oversight of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the ability to approve a so-called peripheral canal. Four of the members would be appointed by the governor; one each by the state Assembly and Senate. The remaining member would represent the delta community.
AB39 (Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael) - The bill would require the council to adopt a management plan for the delta with two main goals: repairing the ecosystem and improving the state's water supply.
AB49 (Assemblymen Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, and Huffman) - This bill would require more aggressive water conservation statewide, including a 20 percent reduction in urban per capita water use by Dec. 31, 2020.
SB229 (Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County)- This bill would strengthen monitoring of groundwater use as well as water diversions from rivers and streams.
SB458 (Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis) - The bill would establish the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy to protect the environment and economy of the delta community.