Are SLO's city leaders doing their part to save water?

The drought-tolerant landscaping in front of San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx’s home.
The drought-tolerant landscaping in front of San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx’s home. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With the declaration of a local drought emergency, a slew of drought-response strategies and stepped-up water patrols, San Luis Obispo officials have been hammering a point home to residents: Conserve.

The city is under a state mandate to cut its water use by 12 percent as compared to 2013 — and the summer months are crucial to meeting that target, city officials said.

Starting mid-July, another restriction kicks into effect: outdoor watering with potable water will be cut to two days a week from three.

With all that in mind, are San Luis Obispo’s elected leaders setting an example for their constituents?

A drive-by photo tour of all five City Council members’ homes shows that most are doing their part.

Dirt, trees and drought-tolerant plants decorate the front lawns of three of the five council members. One other council member rents his home and does not maintain the landscaping; another council member lives in a complex that’s owned by a stock cooperative, which has slashed watering to a small front lawn.

In interviews, a few council members said they ripped out their lawns a number of years ago.

Councilman Dan Carpenter tore out his front and back yards on the east side of the city about a half-dozen years ago when water and sewer rates really started increasing, he said.

His yard now contains mainly trees: a few white birch trees but mostly fruit trees including apple, orange, tangerine, grapefruit, lemon and avocado, which he waters once a month by hand. “We get a plethora of fruit every year,” he said. “I like growing my own food.”

His family’s water use also dropped; recently, the monthly bill for three adults in a main and secondary unit on the same meter was $76 for five units of water (a unit is 748 gallons). That works out to about 41 gallons of water per person per day.

In its water shortage contingency plan, San Luis Obispo established a health and safety allotment of 50 gallons per person per day based on accepted estimates of interior residential water use in California and the estimated average indoor water use in the city, Utilities Services Manager Ron Munds said.

That amount was determined to be sufficient for essential interior residential water use if the customer has retrofitted plumbing fixtures with low-water using fixtures.

“Not bad when you think about it including watering the landscape,” Carpenter said. “Far less then we’re asking our residents to achieve.”

In addition, the city’s latest water projection model shows San Luis Obispo has about 3½ years’ worth of water as of April, if the community continues its per-capita use of 108 gallons per person per day and the city continues to receive below-normal rainfall.

That number refers to overall city use, including commercial and municipal water customers. Residents used about 58.8 gallons per person per day in May, Munds said.

Residents are on their way to meeting the 12 percent reduction, which will be calculated based on cumulative use from June 1, 2015, to Feb. 28, 2016, compared to the same period in 2013-14. Residents cut their use by 25 percent in May compared to May 2013.

“This illustrates the wonderful job that our community is doing overall in conservation of water, and as always, I join the community in my dedication to conservation and efficient use of all our resources, including water,” said Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson, where she’s a shareholder in a multi-unit, stock-cooperative complex downtown.

She said the board of the complex decided to remove the front lawn, but postponed the actual removal because new landscaping would use more water to establish.

“Landscape watering has been reduced substantially for some time, and I believe we’re at five minutes twice a week, and the board continues to consider the option of letting the lawn die,” she said.

Councilman Dan Rivoire has a manicured green lawn at his downtown home, but he rents and doesn’t have control over the landscaping — even though he pays the water bill.

Rivoire is moving to another rental this week, where he’ll also pay for water, but said the lawn at his new place looks a little browner.

In his current home, the lease requires the landscaping be maintained at a certain level.

“That’s a conundrum to point out,” he said. “A lot of renters have lease requirements that tell them how the yard needs to look and they are responsible for the bill so they have no freedom to conserve in some cases.”

The water use for the home, which has four occupants, has varied from five units during the winter to eight units (about 5,984 gallons a month, or approximately 200 gallons a day).

“We suffer quite a bit because of that policy,” Rivoire said. “We’ve changed our shower time — all that sort of stuff — we’ve reduced as much as we can across the board. We have an expensive water bill at that facility and think the irrigation is a big part of it.”

Vice Mayor John Ashbaugh and his wife are using about 70 gallons of water each a day, he said. Ashbaugh had his front lawn near Bishop Peak re-landscaped a few years ago with native or drought-tolerant plants; in March the backyard was replaced as well.

Ashbaugh said he cut his watering to two days a week from three a few months ago.

“I’m hoping to hold it even lower than that,” he said. “I’ve done my best to keep water consumption as low as possible.”

“We’ve typically had water bills approaching $200 (in the fall),” he added, “and it’s down now to between $120 and $130 a month.”

Mayor Jan Marx said she and her husband have had drought-tolerant and native landscaping in their front yard near Cal Poly since 1989, when the city faced a drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They also grow tomatoes.

“We also have gray water that comes from our washing machine that waters the vegetables in the front yard,” she said. “We have really tall tomatoes.”

Marx asked staff at the June 16 council meeting to explore removing grass at City Hall.

“I think the city should do everything it can to stand behind principles of conservation, and I would like to see City Hall itself becoming a demonstration of drought-tolerant landscaping,” she said.

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