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Local cities flex muscles to promote saving water

It might seem like a drop in the bucket now, but subtle pushes by local governments to implement systemic change in how residents use water are growing.

Joining 37 counties, cities, tribes and districts across California that have already enacted emergency proclamations during the ongoing drought, the Mountain View City Council April 1 activated Stage 1 of a four-stage Urban Water Management Plan. On the same day, state snowpack measurements registered 32 percent of normal. Although the ordinance does not mandate cutbacks, residents are asked to reduce water consumption by 10 percent voluntarily.

With the dry season just around the corner, the state teeters on a pivotal precipice.

“Heavy rain and snow would have to fall throughout California every day for the remainder of April to reach average annual rain and snowfall levels,” according to the April 7 Governor’s Drought Task Force Statewide Drought Summary. “Even with such precipitation, California would remain in drought conditions, due to low water supplies in reservoirs from the two previous dry years.”

Mountain View’s recently enacted policy takes steps to eliminate nonessential water use. Under the Water Conservation section of the city’s municipal code, serving water unrequested at a restaurant, using hoses without shut-off devices, wasting potable water or failing to fix broken plumbing and irrigation systems is punishable by fines and possible discontinuation of water service. Before cutting off a water connection, however, Mountain View offers a public hearing to enable offenders to defend their excess water use and appeal to rescind the directive.

LAH eyes ordinance

Supported by the town’s Water Conservation Committee, members of the Los Altos Hills City Council are considering policies that would boost conservation efforts. Although the council’s authority to influence residential water use is limited, the gesture may carry clout with residents who look to the town for direction and leadership.

“We’re not the enforcers, but we can write ordinances in our town,” said Mayor John Radford at the March council meeting.

While the supplier that provides approximately one-third of the town’s water – the Santa Clara County Valley Water District – has already imposed a 20 percent reduction on users, the supplier of the other two-thirds, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), has not yet prescribed mandatory water cuts. Water Conservation Committee Chairwoman Kit Gordon said looming water cutbacks could hamper the town’s most voracious users.

Los Altos Hills residents consumed an average of 268 gallons of water per capita per day in 2011-2012, surpassing the average level of 78 gallons of water per capita per day for all communities served by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. Inefficient irrigation systems and leaking fixtures persist in the community despite rebates and incentives from the water district to switch to more efficient options and repair leaks.

“For many years, we’ve been so over our allocation and we have such a high percentage for irrigation that if SFPUC announces the next stage of drought, we’ll be hit with a 48 percent mandatory reduction,” Gordon said.

To enforce any potential mandates, the Purissima Hills Water District – the distributor of SFPUC water – would impose price increases for the top tiers of users to achieve a 48 percent reduction in water use over the entire district. Users falling into the bottom two tiers would remain unaffected. Although an SFPUC representative said mandates remained unlikely unless the drought worsens, voluntary water reductions of 10 percent are expected to continue through 2014.

Although the Los Altos City Council has not placed water conservation on its agenda, city staff report that they are following the California Water Service Co.’s lead, asking residents and businesses to reduce water use by 20 percent. Staff also noted that they are evaluating the city’s water use and assigning priorities for park turf maintenance.

As the current situation generates interest from local municipal leaders, water districts view the attention as an opportunity to influence permanent consumer behavior.

“While we are undoubtedly in a crisis, this is an opportunity to do a lot better,” said Santa Clara Valley Water District Vice Chairman Brian Schmidt, director for District 7, which includes Los Altos Hills.

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