Water & Drought

In Arroyo Grande, water school is in session

The elderly man approached a group of slightly surly people waiting on the wet pavement outside the Arroyo Grande City Council chambers on a recent chilly night and got in line.

“This is the line for the water wasters, right?” he joked.

The quip broke some of the group’s tension, and as they all began to file into the brightly lit room, most seemed at least slightly less annoyed at having to attend the city’s first-ever water school.

But what is water school?

Think traffic school, but instead of learning the rules of the road, students are learning the rules of water conservation.

It’s not an entirely new concept. The city of Santa Cruz has held water school classes for its residents the past two years, in light of the drought that is severely threatening water resources across California.

But it is a new idea for Arroyo Grande, where the City Council voted in May to fine customers who failed to meet their water conservation targets, and offered a one-time, get-out-of-jail-free card to those same users in the form of a two-hour water school. Arroyo Grande is the only city in San Luis Obispo County with such a program.

The background

The city declared a Stage 1 Water Shortage Emergency on May 26 and required residents to reduce their water consumption by a certain percent for each bimonthly billing period, based on their 2014 use in the same period.

Customers who used between 11 and 18 units over their two-month billing period were asked to cut water use by 10 percent. Customers using between 19 and 36 units were asked to reduce by 20 percent, and customers using more than 37 units had to conserve 30 percent. (One unit of water is equal to 748 gallons.)

Residents who used 10 or fewer units of water each period weren’t asked to reduce their use, but they were asked to not increase their water use over its 2014 levels. Failure to meet the target would result in a warning on the first bill, a $50 fine on the second, and increasing fines until the account was brought into compliance.

At the first water school on Dec. 10, utilities manager Shane Taylor told the assembled students that 30 percent of customers in the city failed to meet their conservation goals on their bimonthly water bills and were issued warnings and/or fines.

Those people were offered the opportunity to have a $50 credit put on their bill that would nullify the $50 penalty for not meeting the goal for two billing periods.

About 40 of them were in attendance at the Dec. 10 water class.

“You’re not alone,” Taylor told the class. “A lot of people are in your same boat.”

The class

The city’s first water school session began in much the same way any other class would.

Taylor — who has worked in the Arroyo Grande utilities department for 28 years — introduced himself and two of his fellow utilities workers, Tim Schmidt and Patrick Holub, and gave the class an overview of what it could expect that night.

“There will be a test at the end,” he warned. “This is water school.”

This prompted a woman in the first row to raise her hand and ask, “And if we don’t pass the test?”

“Ah, nothing bad,” Taylor responded with a laugh. “We’re not going to not give you your credit if you don’t pass it.”

(The test at the end of the night turned out to be a three-slide, multiple-choice quiz, where correct answers earned students shower timers and faucet aerators. Almost all of the students answered each question correctly.)

Topics over the two hours ranged from broad subjects, including an overview of the city’s entire water distribution system and historic water supply, to specialized questions such as how to read a water bill and who can file for an exemption.

Taylor spent much of the night emphasizing the severity of the state’s drought and what could happen to the city if residents failed to meet their targets.

“I was really trying to ram it home that it won’t be good if they don’t fix this,” Taylor told The Tribune the next day. “I showed a lot of pictures of, you know, the dry lake and things like that to show them how serious this is.”

Resident David Kirkpatrick said he wasn’t aware of the severity of the drought before the class.

“I was surprised at, if it kept going, just how bad it could get,” he said. “But I think we will be good. There’s a lot of creative people here, and there’s a lot of old retired engineers here who can probably come up with something.”

Kirkpatrick and his wife moved from the Los Angeles area this year into a house that was previously occupied by an 80-year-old, single woman.

The Kirkpatricks’ water use was slightly higher than what the woman had used — “like percentage points above,” he said — which is what prompted the pair to attend the class.

Because the house has all-new water-efficient fixtures, Kirkpatrick said he wasn’t sure what else could be done to increase their conservation, though he plans to file an amendment with the city to adjust his baseline conservation amount.

The city allows residents to file an amendment claiming they have special circumstances that prevent them from conserving their target amount. In the Kirkpatricks’ case, that special circumstance is moving into a new house and not having control over the previous resident’s water use.

“Even without an amendment though, I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “This was pretty informative.”

It was possibly too informative, though: The class on Dec. 10 went slightly over its two-hour allotted time, Taylor said, so he plans to scale back some of the information at future classes.

The city of Arroyo Grande will continue to hold several water school sessions in 2016. Taylor said he is scheduled to teach two in January. Each month will feature a class on a weeknight and another on a weekend in order to accommodate all of the city’s residents, he said.

“I’m not a teacher, but I do enjoy talking about our water system here in A.G.,” he said. “Like anything, the more you do it, the better it’s going to get. So I think we did pretty well for a first time.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

Water conservation tips

Stumped on how to conserve more water? Here are some minor adjustments that can be made around your home that could potentially reap big savings:

  • Check for outside and indoor leaks. Leaks in your irrigation systems or plumbing are some of the biggest water wasters in homes. To check for a leak, make sure all your faucets, sinks and appliances that use water are off, and then look at your water meter. If it indicates water is still flowing, you might have a leak.
  • Check the toilet. Toilets are some of the worst for leaks; to check for a toilet leak, put a few drops of food dye in the tank. If that color shows up in the bowl without flushing, you might need to replace the toilet flapper.
  • Shorten showers. Install timers in your shower to help keep showers under five minutes.
  • Install aerators. Faucet aerators cut water flow to less than 1 gallon per minute; install them in kitchen and bathroom faucets.
  • Use mulch. Spreading a layer of mulch around plants will help them retain moisture, meaning less watering for you.

For more conservation tips, visit www.thinkh2onow.com.