Correction: Because of an error by the city of Pismo Beach, an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Pismo Beach's residential per capita water use.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have expanded San Luis Obispo County Public Works Director Wade Horton's comment on water use to say that the county did not have any further plans to restrict water use before the governor's order, but county staff is now seeking further information from the state on the proposed regulations and will seek ways to comply as needed.
Pismo Beach — where residents used nearly three times as much water as Cambrians in September — was the only city in San Luis Obispo County targeted for the most severe water cutback under a new proposal by the state water board.
Cities and towns across California were told this week to cut water use by 10 percent to 35 percent compared with 2013, with the deepest cuts aimed at the largest water users.
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The state Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday released proposed targets for urban water suppliers based on how much water residents used per capita in September 2014 and conservation progress since last year.
A revised draft of the plan will be released April 17, after water districts and others have a chance to comment, with final approval scheduled in early May. Water suppliers who fail to meet the targets could receive warnings or fines of up to $10,000 a day.
Five local communities — Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and Nipomo — will have to cut back by 25 percent.
That’s compared to a proposed 10 percent reduction in both Cambria and Grover Beach, where residents used only 40 and 52.7 gallons of water per day in September, respectively.
The state water board had targeted Pismo Beach for a proposed 35 percent cut in water use, but Public Works Director Ben Fine said that an error in the city's water-use reporting to the state should result in a 25 percent cutback instead.
“We’re doing a lot, but they’re saying we need to do more,” said Christopher Alakel, water resources manager for Paso Robles, where residents used 149.5 gallons of water a day in September. “We’re re-evaluating our incentive programs to see if it makes sense to enhance or modify those, and we’ll ramp up education and outreach.”
Varied conservation efforts
Every city in San Luis Obispo County and many smaller communities cut their water use last year. Several came close to or exceeded the state’s 20 percent goal in 2014.
The most notable conservation was in Cambria, where residents facing the threat of no water cut their use by 43 percent from June 2014 through February compared with June 2013 through February 2014.
Grover Beach and the Nipomo Community Services District cut water use by more than 20 percent during that time period, data from the State Water Resources Control Board shows.
State data shows that Pismo Beach residents reduced water use by 17 percent during that same time period.
Other communities’ conservation efforts barely made it into the double digits.
Morro Bay, for example, reduced water use by 11 percent, but residents there only used 69.5 gallons per person per day in September.
After Gov. Jerry Brown’s directive last week for towns and cities across California to reduce water use by 25 percent, some local officials said those targets would be difficult to meet because their communities had already conserved so much in the past six years.
Many cities already have rebate programs in place to encourage residents to rip out their lawns or replace their washing machines with water and energy efficient models.
Targeting outdoor watering, which dramatically increases in the summer months, could be a way for local communities to further curb water use. Watering restrictions are in place in many areas, but could be tightened further.
The Atascadero Mutual Water Co., for example, produces about 2.5 million gallons a day from January through March for its customers, including about 31,000 people in the city of Atascadero and some surrounding unincorporated areas, General Manager John Neil said.
In the summer, that number swells to about 9 million gallons, he said.
“The difference between that and 2.5 million gallons in my mind is discretionary water use,” he said, since most of the additional water is used for irrigation. “We have the ability through rates and education to adjust that delta between the two.”
The governor’s order also requires campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use and prohibits new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used.
The order bans watering ornamental grass on public street medians. Administration officials told The Sacramento Bee that the street median requirement to use nonpotable water refers only to grass medians, not to shrubs or trees.
No easy answers
Pismo Beach Public Works Director Ben Fine said the City Council in May will consider a plan to replace the grass in some landscaped medians on Ventana Drive with artificial turf or drought-tolerant plants.
In addition, the city reduced irrigating at all of its facilities by an additional 5 percent, on top of the 20 percent cut the city had already made.
San Luis Obispo County officials said they’ve also significantly reduced the amount of water used at county facilities, parks and golf courses, saving an estimated 4,500 gallons of water per week.
The county has also limited outdoor watering to two days a week in the four communities where it provides water: Cayucos, Avila Beach, Shandon and Santa Margarita.
San Luis Obispo County Public Works Director Wade Horton said the county did not have any further plans for restricting water use before the governor's order. He said county staff is seeking further information from state officials on the proposed regulations and will seek ways to comply as needed. He said he expects to meet with staff later this week to discuss whether further conservation is possible.
The city of San Luis Obispo will have to further reduce water use by 20 percent, said Ron Munds, San Luis Obispo’s utilities services manager.
The state data listed a 25 percent cut for the city, but Munds said an error was made on a report the city filed with the state that showed higher per capita water use in September than residents actually used.
He filed an amended report to the state this week showing the city’s per capita residential use per day in September was 70 gallons.
“We’ve really got to work this out, but it’s going to have to come from outdoor irrigation,” he said when asked how the city could reach the 20 percent target.
In February, Munds said, residents used 50 gallons of water per person per day.
To reach a 20 percent reduction, the entire city would have to reduce use to 92 gallons a day per person (including residential, commercial and industrial uses).
“Back in 1990 when we were at the height of the last drought, the citywide per capita hit 86 gallons a day, and the community really was struggling,” he said. “So can it be done? Yes. Will it be easy? No.”