Bay Area water users finally meeting SFPUC’s voluntary reduction goal 

click to enlarge drought
  • AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
  • In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, a sign on westbound Highway 50, in Sacramento, Calif. used normally to warn drivers of traffic problems or display Amber Alert messages, displays a message to conserve water due to California's drought.

After a free-flowing spring, some Bay Area water users have saved themselves from a long, hot summer of mandatory cutbacks and higher bills.

But there’s still a long way to go — and a lot of lawns that need to die — before the Bay Area saves enough precious fluid to weather the current drought.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s 2.6 million water customers — in San Francisco, San Jose, on the Peninsula and in the East Bay — were put on notice in January to reduce water usage by 10 percent. That was an easier goal than Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for a statewide 20 percent reduction.

But the 10 percent cut did not happen at first. Instead, SFPUC customers responded to “voluntary conservation” by using more water, prompting warnings that mandatory 20 percent cuts could be imposed.

However, four straight weeks of on-target water savings mean that mandatory cutbacks will not happen for now.

Despite cutting water use by the 10 percent target only once since February, SFPUC customers met the savings goal in late May and exceeded it in mid-June, according to weekly tabulations of water use.

“People are changing their behavior,” said Harlan Kelly, the SFPUC’s general manager, adding that he believes consistent messaging — and an end to spring rains, which might have given people the impression that they could use water as normal — has finally taken hold.

But if water use spikes again, the SFPUC could “reconsider at any time” a mandatory reduction in use, Kelly warned.

To date, users have reduced water consumption by 1.4 billion gallons, according to SFPUC data.

But to finish 2014 at 10 percent under the prior year, some 8 billion total gallons will need to be saved. That could prove difficult now that it is summer, when water use is at its highest.

This means watering the garden less, keeping the swimming pool empty and taking shorter showers, among other cutbacks, officials said.

“It is as simple as everyone doing their bit,” said Steven Ritchie, the SFPUC’s general manager for water.

To drive that message home, the SFPUC is launching an ad campaign. Muni buses and billboards will carry messages to remind users to change their daily habits.

Along with San Francisco, SFPUC delivers water to homes and businesses in other parts of the Bay Area. Daily demand ranges from as low as 170 million gallons a day in the winter to 270 million gallons a day in the summer.

A 10 percent savings would mean reducing usage to an average of 209 million gallons a day.

In The City, total water use has stayed steady at about 69 million gallons a day, down from 75 million at this time last year, according to recent SFPUC data.

Not every water agency in the state has taken measures to address the drought.

Only 53 percent of agencies have “formally invoked their drought or water shortage plan,” according to the California Water Resources Control Board.

Bay Area water users are already far stingier than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. Sacramento-area water users were recently lauded for cutting use. But on average, a customer there uses 160 to 170 gallons a day, whereas the average San Francisco customer uses about 49 gallons a day.

That’s mostly due to the fact that there aren’t as many lawns to water or pools to fill in The City, where the biggest water users by volume are businesses like hotels.

In the Bay Area suburbs, meeting savings goals will require homeowners “to let their lawns go brown,” said Nicole Sandkulla, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.

That’s good news to some commercial property owners in San Francisco who say they already implemented water-saving measures before the drought.

The Embarcadero Center, for example, put in low-flow toilets and urinals, said Danny Murtagh, the complex’s director of operations.

“We’re misers with water,” he said, adding that the complex’s four buildings recycle the water used in their cooling towers and hand-water landscaping.

“The low-hanging fruit has already been picked off the tree,” he added.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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