Sonoma County Gazette, May 2014: Is Voluntary Conservation Enough?

Water conservation needs well publicized

Giving credit where it is due, because of Sonoma County Water Agency’s extensive year long media campaign calling for voluntary conservation, it’s hard to imagine that many water users in our County do not know we have been experiencing the worst drought of recorded history, even when substantial rain finally poured on our parched area in February and March.

Thankfully, after only 8.5” of rain in Santa Rosa during all of 2013 (normal is 32”), we were graced with over 17” rainfall so far this year and maybe more to come. (Numbers higher in western Sonoma County.)  Lake Mendocino, with water supply pool less than one third full at the end of January, is now at 50%, still causing severe water shortages north of Dry Creek, including Healdsburg.

Lake Sonoma, upon which SCWA contractors and the lower river depends, contains triple Lake Mendocino’s capacity, and is at 76.43% as of late April. SCWA’s on-going vigorous media campaign assures that water saving messages continue to be heard.  While we are in a better water supply position for 2014 compared to last year regarding Lake Sonoma, the drought has provided a wake up call about water supply limits and has stimulated new considerations for the management of water resources with more future shortages in mind.

Water contractors purchase more river water without mandatory conservation

Some water contractors appear to take drought messages more seriously than others.

SCWA’s conservation goal was to motivate people to cut 20% of their water use voluntarily. If successful, we would expect the result to be a 20% drop in contractor water sales.  But at least five of the eight prime contractors purchased MORE water in the 2013-2014 water year than in 2012-2013 (calculated July through February since it was only data available for current water year as of April 22, 2014).  As a whole, contractors purchased 2.73% more water in 2013-14 for those eight months than same months of prior year.

        Worst offenders included Cotati with a 25% increase, North Marin with a 16% increase, and Valley of the Moon with a 9% increase.
        Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park had decreases of about 7-8% over that 8 month period. Rohnert Park may have used more groundwater causing water purchases to diminish. Press Democrat article on April 21st (“Agencies push for water conservation”)  states that some water contractors had as much as a 15% decrease in water use in March but for Rohnert Park, with almost 20% increase. To show 15% savings, they compared March 2013 to March 2014 only and didn’t consider overall averages for entire period.

Data goes up and down in any given month however, so seasonal data is preferred. In looking at the summer data (June-September when use is highest) for 2009, 2012, 2013, water sales were the lowest in 2009 when mandatory conservation occurred.  2013 sales (voluntary conservation) were lower that those in 2012 (no conservation), but not nearly as low as in 2009.

Are savings utilized to increase new growth capacity?

There is a great deal of community concern, as evidenced by numerous letters to the Press Democrat, about large water savings being realized and then passed on to new development.  It is essential that any approved new development be required to utilize every stringent measure to limit new water use.

The entire system may have already reached capacity, and it has not been demonstrated that any new growth can be accommodated by current water supplies.  According to a recent report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, the following new development in Sonoma County cities is noted:  (EBC Report did not address adequacy of water supply to serve new development, or noted number of units for which permits were obtained.)

Estimated population increases between 2012 (actual) and 2017 (projected):

  • Windsor:  27,037 to 27,799 (2.82%)
  • Santa Rosa:  169,189 to 173,813 (2.73%)
  • Rohnert Park:  41,416 to 42,659 (3%)
  •  Cotati:  7,271 to 7,378 (1.47%)
  •  Petaluma:  57,933 to 59,232 (2.24%)
  • Sonoma: 10,800 to 11,355 (4.39%)

Values of residential and non-residential building permits in August, 2013:

  • Windsor: $1,176,632 and $3,037,300 respectively.
  • Santa Rosa: $46,902,514 and $22,284,007 respectively.
  • Rohnert Park: $2,946,131 and $4,013,287 respectively.  A recent Press Democrat article announced that over 1600 new units had recently begun construction.
  • Cotati: $182,832 and  $3,416,596 respectively.
  • Petaluma: $22,839,081 and $21,332,757 respectively.
  • Sonoma: $6,627,463 and $1,750,976 respectively.


Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership

Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership encourages conservation and helps each of the eight major contractors achieve their water saving goals, but those entities whose water use is going up rather than down may be taking advantage of the savings of those who do the hard conservation work.

Furthermore, tracking savings in context of per person use, doesn’t address need for expanded water supplies (and stress to river and reservoirs during water shortages) to serve population increase.  Water sales denote how much river water is used by each contractor, while per person demand allows for an unlimited increase in the number of people, as long as calculations state that each person’s use is going down.  In other words, this method of calculation, required by State law, still ignores the limited capacity of river systems. Since there is no way to manufacture water and living beings need it to survive, the growth issue must be addressed.

Water contractors have limited allocations during water short periods.  If they take more than their share, there is provision for penalties.  Around 2010 North Marin Water District was forgiven a fine by a vote of all contractors, after having inappropriately made a secret agreement with Rohnert Park to allow them to use some of their allocation during a water shortage period.  Penalties for excessive water use should be strictly applied whether by an individual or community during drought periods.

Approximately 3% is calculated for leakage allocations.  If water shortage allocation for all contractors is 56,250 acre feet, then 3% of that is 1,688 AF. More work needs to be done to eliminate leakage.

Immediate efforts are needed to require escalating mandatory conservation for water contractors with binding long term contracts with SCWA.  There should be clear trigger points and measurable standards to be met in terms of the protection of river values.  A tracking system should determines who is saving, and who is not, and triggers put in place to charge savers less than those who don’t save and higher rates and penalties for those who won’t conserve.

Mandatory conservation can take many forms.  There can be escalating and more stringent requirements when and if drought progresses.  What’s important that there be a plan in place that has been proven to be effective and that considers environmental and recreation issues related to water quality and very low flows in a meaningful way.

Water shortages are the new reality.  We must do all we can, in addition to messaging, to take effective actions that will make a long term difference in managing our limited water supplies.