Executive Summary for November 20th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Nov. 20, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

To Save Water, Ban the Sprinkler

That’s what the city of Santa Monica has done. In a recent vote, the City Council banned the use of sprinklers to irrigate landscaping.

Long a pioneer in green policies, Santa Monica has again broken new ground.

The ordinance adopted last week prohibits installation of sprinkling systems for all new developments and new irrigation in existing landscapes, including parkways.

City officials regard sprinklers, invented around 1881, to be technology that isn’t keeping up with the times, said Dean Kubani, the city’s sustainability manager.

“Sprinklers are ineffective,” Kubani told the Santa Monica Lookout. “It’s part of the new normal in terms of the drought.”

The new rules contain two primary exceptions: repair and replacement of existing sprinkler heads is allowed; and new sprinkler systems will continue to be allowed on large private green spaces such as sports fields and playgrounds.

There’s no question sprinklers are wasteful. They are often aimed poorly, shooting water over sidewalks and driveways instead of the intended lawn or plants. The automatic timers that control them are often ignored by the property owner, resulting in sprinkler use that is too frequent or that occurs during rainstorms.

So it seems an obvious and simple move: If the sprinkler is a source of trouble, outlaw it. But apparently no other city in California, and perhaps the nation, has ever banned irrigation sprinklers. The new rules take effect at the end of this month.

The landscaping industry isn’t happy with the decision.

“Its a witch hunt,” said Mike Garcia, former president of the California Landscape Contractors Association.

Water Conservation Boosts Groundwater Levels

In September, residents in the city of Chico cut their water consumption an impressive 35.9 percent, compared to the same month in 2013.

Almost immediately, California Water Service Co., the private utility that delivers water in the city, was able to measure a rebound in groundwater wells, Chico’s primary water supply. Water levels in the wells recovered by an average of 2.4 feet.

In short, conservation led to less pumping of wells, which stalled the depletion of groundwater and actually allowed some recovery, said Pete Bonacich, local manager of the water utility.

Just a few months before, in the middle of summer, water levels had fallen 13 feet from where they were in March.

Another big change in Chico is that residents are now fully converted to water meters. This means all residents now have a powerful price signal to conserve. When offered rebates this summer to remove thirsty lawns, customers snatched them up.

Until recently, Chico was among a handful of California cities that were not fully metered. All cities face a 2025 deadline in state law to meter all customers, and only a few remain. Sacramento is the largest, and it approved a plan earlier this year to speed up its meter installation program.

East Porterville Scrambles to Replace Emergency Water

The community of East Porterville, in Tulare County, is arguably the community hit hardest by water shortages in the ongoing drought. Many residents depend on individual wells, which have gone completely dry in many cases. For months, they have subsisted on water delivered in tanker trucks from a well in the neighboring incorporated city of Porterville.

Now the city of Porterville has abruptly closed that well.

“It’s a fairly dramatic loss for us,” Andrew Lockman, director of the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services, told the Porterville Recorder newspaper. “We’re concerned that decisions were based on miscommunications or a lack of communication.”

The county had to scramble to make alternate plans. It appears water deliveries to affected homes in East Porterville will continue, albeit at additional inconvenience. The new supply will be a large water tank that is, itself, filled by a large delivery truck. As a result of this altered routine, the smaller delivery trucks that service homeowners may have to operate at night.

The well that was serving the program previously was in a Porterville housing subdivision called Village Gardens. Those residents have been expressing concern their own water supply could be depleted by the delivery program — even though they have seen no sign of problems so far. This may have been part of the motivation to close the well for the emergency water program.

“We’re trying to deal with a real problem. You have an imagined problem,” Tulare County supervisor Steve Worthly told a Village Gardens resident at a meeting on Tuesday.

But Porterville’s real reason for cutting off the supply may be that it recently annexed additional homes into the city. Although those homes have adequate water supply, apparently the city being cautious to ensure it has enough water to serve them. City public works director Mike Reed has “repeatedly stated” that city leaders must be mindful of this additional demand, according to the Recorder newspaper, which called this new demand the “driving force” behind the decision to cut off access to the well.

The move upset state officials, who have been working closely with Tulare County to help East Porterville residents through their crisis and find a permanent water supply solution.

“They don’t want to use the water to provide water to residents without water, but will to homes that have been annexed and have water,” said William Croyle, drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources. “It’s just crazy.”

Top image: The city of Santa Monica has approved a plan to ban sprinklers in new landscaping projects, a recognition that sprinklers often waste vast quantities of water because they are poorly maintained and monitored. (Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

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