As the dry summer slogs on, signs of the exceptional drought can be seen throughout San Luis Obispo County.
At Santa Margarita Lake, the grass at the White Oak day use area is brown and brittle, a victim of low lake levels. County parks officials stopped watering it once well levels dropped.
Elsewhere in the county, water use has been cut back at parks and golf courses, low-flow fixtures have been installed, and some residents have ripped out lawns in an effort to conserve.
In January, the governor declared a statewide drought emergency and urged “all Californians to conserve water in every way possible” to cut water use by 20 percent.
Only the residents of Cambria are meeting Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal — and many communities are falling far below that number. Still, residents in most communities have cut their water use, although the same can’t necessarily be said for their public facilities.
In places such as Nipomo, Grover Beach and Templeton, residents cut back while public facilities used more water in the first part of 2014 compared to the previous year.
In Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, both residents and the cities used more water during that period.
Officials in some cities, such as Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, protest that they’ve worked to conserve for several years before Brown’s urging.
The Tribune sought to learn whether customers in the communities — as well as the municipalities themselves — are heeding Brown’s call to conserve.
To do so, Tribune reporters asked San Luis Obispo County, its seven cities and several larger unincorporated communities for water use data from the first six months of 2014 compared to the same time period in 2013.
The data shows that some residents and cities are not watching their water use — despite voluntary and mandatory conservation programs, a local emergency drought declaration, and news about dire water situations in Cambria and in the North County.
But that revelation matches a statewide trend. Residential and business water use statewide rose 1 percent in May, compared with a three-year average of the same month from 2011 to 2013, according to a survey of 276 water agencies covering about two-thirds of urban water users, The Sacramento Bee reported.
And a June state Water Resources Control Board report said that, since the governor's declaration, there had been zero change in water use in the state’s Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz.
In some cases, including in the unincorporated communities of Avila Valley, Cayucos, Shandon, and Santa Margarita, residents already use less water than state and local averages and are finding it difficult to conserve further, county officials said.
For example, in 2013 the average daily water use in the Cayucos county service area was 75 gallons; in Shandon it was 110 gallons per day. That compared to the regional average of 147 gallons and the statewide average of 197 gallons daily.
“Percentage-wise, additional water savings will be very hard to achieve because most people, for one reason or another, are already very close to where they need to be,” said Mark Hutchinson, the county’s deputy public works director.
No one questions the gravity of the drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has classified the county as experiencing an exceptional drought — the most severe designation — with significant impacts, including loss of agricultural production, drinking water shortages and an increase in wildfire danger.
In March, San Luis Obispo County supervisors declared a county drought emergency.
And officials are well aware that Brown’s call for a 20-percent cut in water use wasn’t without precedent: Legislation in 2009 set a statewide target for all urban water suppliers to conserve 10 percent by 2015, and 20 percent by Dec. 31, 2020.
Here is a snapshot of water use around the county in the first six months of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013:
» Cambria: This is a community where residents face a real threat of running out of water and responded with a vengeance — cutting their water use by 31 percent in the first six months of the year, according to the Cambria Community Services District.
Cambrians’ water use actually increased in January — up 13 percent from the year-earlier period. But they began conserving in February with monthly savings exceeding 40 percent since April.
» Arroyo Grande: Both residents and municipal users have cut back water use. Public works director Geoff English said the city has reduced irrigation at its 15 parks and other landscaped areas, stopped watering some mature trees, and is replacing older sprinkler heads. The city also removed more than half an acre of turf from Rancho Grande Park and replaced it with drought-resistant plants.
“Our primary focus is identifying the areas where we can do turf removal, and we’re in the middle of that process now,” English said.
» Atascadero: The city is a customer of Atascadero Mutual Water Co. and was not able to analyze the data by press time. However, officials said the city strived to conserve water and is letting eight grassy locations at its parks go dry, such as the boat dock lawn at Atascadero Lake Park and several areas at Paloma Park.
Meanwhile, residents cut their water use by a little more than 3 percent.
» Grover Beach: Water use at city facilities and parks jumped 56 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to 2013, although residents cut water use.
Public works director Greg Ray said the jump in municipal water use is due in part to city officials installing meters in places such as street medians, where water use hadn’t even been measured before.
He’s looking into other reasons for the increase, but said that more rain in November and December 2012 allowed the city to use much less water on parks in January and February 2013. The city has taken steps to decrease water use, including shutting off the water at Mentone Basin and Costa Bella parks, but the water savings haven’t shown up yet.
» Morro Bay: Both the city and residents used more water in the first six month of the year compared to the same period in 2013. Customer use rose slightly even though the city implemented mandatory conservation measures in late January that included limiting the days residents could water landscaping.
The city’s water use at its parks and municipal facilities jumped nearly 25 percent, which officials said was due to an influx of tourists.
“We had a lot more people using public showers and bathrooms this year,” said Damaris Hanson, a city engineering technician. The city recently shut down a public shower near Morro Rock to conserve water, he said.
» Paso Robles: Water use at the city facilities dropped more than the 20 percent called for by the governor but, overall, customers’ water use did not meet that mark.
However, city officials said, mandatory seasonal restrictions have been in place since 2009 and water use by customers in the first six months of 2014 was 19.4 percent less than in the pre-restriction era before 2009. Overall water use was down 25 percent in July 2014 compared to July 2008, they said.
The city’s mandatory conservation rules mostly target outdoor watering each summer from May 1 to Sept. 30.
Paso Robles resident Bret Harrison pulled up his grassy lawn this summer and replaced it with rocks, native plants and a front yard veggie garden. He made the switch to save water because he’s “ethically opposed to having a lawn just for the sake of cosmetic appeal,” Harrison said.
And, watering his lawn had cost an extra $50 per month, he said. Harrison plans to take advantage of a city turf conversion rebate program. The rebate pays homeowners and businesses up to $500 to replace irrigated lawns with drought-tolerant plants on drip irrigation, artificial turf or permeable paving, according to the city.
The city itself has shaved its municipal water use by cutting back on watering its parks and other facilities by nixing the overlap of sprinklers and drip irrigation and watering on several short cycles instead of over long periods to reduce runoff, said Keith Larson, the city’s water conservation manager.
» Pismo Beach: Public works director Ben Fine said the increase in water use by both residents and the city is likely due to improvement in the economy, prompting more people to travel to local hotels or their vacation homes. Fine said that same economic improvement has increased rental demand for the Pismo and Shell Beach veterans halls, resulting in more municipal water use.
» San Luis Obispo: The city’s overall water use increased by 8 percent although municipal water use dropped by more than 10 percent. City officials said that, like Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo had cut water use over a number of years.
The statewide conservation mandates don’t take into account municipalities that were proactive in securing water in the past, water division manager Wade Horton said. “Because the city embraced conservation back in the 1980s, we have already achieved significant reduction,” he said. “The way we see it is that we have already met the new mandate by the governor.”
San Luis Obispo has three water sources: the Salinas, Whale Rock and Nacimiento reservoirs. The city also uses recycled water for irrigation and construction use.
“We have gotten away from reliance on groundwater,” said Horton. “The city has invested in its water supply so that when situations like this drought occur, we have extra water.”
The city has 10,000 acre-feet of available water and last year used about 5,400 acre-feet, he said.
San Luis Obispo is the only city in the county to use recycled water for irrigation at parks and golf courses — Damon Garcia and Islay parks and Laguna Lake Golf Course — and for other purposes such as construction.
“Now we are being asked to conserve more,” said Horton. “There seems to be no consideration for folks who were prudent and funded water projects … we are being told it doesn’t matter and are now getting lumped in with everyone else who was not prudent.”
» Templeton: Water use by residents dropped substantially, while use at public facilities increased by 34 percent.
“The increase is entirely attributable to water used at Jermin Park,” said Jeff Briltz, the district’s general manager. That park’s irrigation well has nearly dried up in the drought, prompting the district to shift to using district water to irrigate it instead. The district has watered there less, though, since the shift, Briltz said.
The county’s steps
San Luis Obispo County officials say they are aggressively taking steps to conserve water both in the county’s public facilities as well as the four rural communities where it is the water purveyor.
On Aug. 19, county supervisors passed an ordinance limiting outdoor watering to Mondays and Thursdays within the county’s four service areas in Avila Valley, Cayucos, Shandon, and Santa Margarita.The ordinance is in response to emergency regulations adopted by the state that require increased water conservation in urban and nonurban areas.
A number of cities and communities in the county have already imposed mandatory limitations on outdoor watering, including the cities of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Atascadero, as well as water districts in Cambria, Los Osos and Templeton.
The county is also replacing fixtures in its offices and facilities. To date, 29 buildings have been retrofitted with low-flow fixtures, saving an estimated 2,500 gallons per week. County-run parks and golf courses have all either met or exceeded the governor’s cutback, said Larry Iaquinto, county parks director.
“Currently, we are meeting the 20 percent request and have made it mandatory,” he said.
The county could not provide current meter readings, however. Curtis Black, county parks director, said to meet the 20 percent goal, county parks officials cut watering time at all county parks and golf courses by 25 percent.
Also, all three of the county’s golf courses have computer-controlled watering system with meters and other devices that detect leaks and shut them down. The systems are being installed in parks as well. Some turf in parks and golf courses that are not part of athletic fields have been removed.
Finally, the county has hired consultants to conduct a water audit and make recommendations about additional savings.
“They are really not finding a whole lot with us because we are already doing most of it,” Iaquinto said.