Saturday, May 31, 2014

Guiding water conservation during a drought

Need to catch up here, so I thought I should post the most important memo I wrote this year on how the Water District should confront our drought. Here it is (Director Lezotte joined my memo as well):

Board of Directors and Staff
Director Brian Schmidt
Director Linda J. LeZotte

A proactive response to the current drought
January 23, 2014


Introduction – the need to act.

The statewide drought emergency raises alarms for our region. We have done a far better job than most of California to diversify our water supply between local and out-of-county sources, to store large amounts of water for dry years, to transform wastewater into useable water and to individually conserve tremendous amounts compared to previous usage per person. None of that, however, eliminates the seriousness of the current situation with a record-breaking dry period following two dry winters, a low-rain forecast for the remainder of the rainy season and no idea if next winter or subsequent ones will likewise be dry.

While the drought presents difficulties, it is also a time of opportunity to rise to the challenge. We must take action that ensures we have adequate water, that preserves the way of life here in Silicon Valley, and promotes water sustainability to better position us for future years without droughts and even more so when there are droughts.

History shows that challenge breeds opportunity. The response to the 1987 through 1992 drought created many of the conservation and water supply programs we have today. However difficult those years were, we are now better off facing this drought than we would have been had that drought not occurred and inspired the current programs. We can do the same again – or do it even better this time.

Acting at the societal level, local government level, and at the District itself.

Our region should be proactive in the face of this drought, doing the things that we need to do (and maybe should have done anyway) at the general societal level, at local government levels, and at the level of the District’s water supply. We can help lead at each level.

1.    What everyone should do to conserve water, and how the Water District can help
At the general societal level, everyone – individuals, families, businesses, farms –should be doing what they can to conserve water for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do. To help this, we recommend investigating a doubling of every water conservation rebate given by the District. A doubling, or similar large increase, should be backdated to the publication of this proposal so as to not deter anyone from conserving water immediately. The increase should not exceed the actual cost of the item or service rebated.

Staff should investigate the cost to the District of this proposal. We are well aware of large capital costs in future years and large increases in water rates that are “baked in” to a significant degree. Generally those increases are at the upper edge of what is politically acceptable, but there is one exception. A drought rebate surcharge, for revenues that only pass through the District to provide conservation rebates to the public (minus a small administrative cost), is something that we believe the public could support if it is financially necessary.

These rebates will help families and businesses respond to the drought. In addition, we should pay special attention to farming, which uses about 10% of the water in our County. Our farmers pay far less than farmers elsewhere for water, a benefit intended to help stop sprawl. We can’t, however, ignore conservation. The District should investigate restarting previous cooperation with the Farm Bureau on special water conservation training programs for farmers. If participation in the program is inadequate, we can consider other incentives such as whether the agricultural water price rate should be tied to conservation.

2.    How local governments can lead with our assistance
On the level of local governments, they should act on their own as stewards of the public’s environment, but the Water District can help identify and promote the best water conservation ordinances and practices to raise every local government to a “best in class” standard on conservation. For example, one of us (Director Schmidt) had the opportunity to attend a public workshop in Mountain View to develop a “Precise Plan” for the El Camino Real corridor. These plans and associated ordinances ought to recognize that lawns on commercial business property landscapes, at least for new development, should be a thing of the past. New multi-family development should only have high-water-use landscaping on intensively-used areas, and single family homes should be incentivized to make lawns no more than part of the yard, and not the majority of it.

Other steps like graywater recycling and low-water usage fixtures should be standard construction. Ordinances dealing with rationing, which we have no expectation of needing this year but might in some future year, should account for whether the properties are already using little water instead of imposing the same percentage reduction on water conservers and water wasters. Other savings may also be possible.

These steps need not be mandatory – if landowners and businesses can demonstrate an alternative water supply, they should be able to use it flexibly. The community-provided water supply, on the other hand, should be used in recognition of the environment where we live.

The Water District can help anyone – city staff, concerned citizens, Parks and Planning Commissions, City Councils and council candidates – understand what is available out there, what other cities have done and what possibilities they have. Rather than every city being the same, each city can investigate what others have done well and then innovate in their own way.

3.    Accelerating Water District programs for drought resiliency
Finally, at the level of the Water District itself, everything we have been doing and planning for the future helps our resiliency to drought. The steps described above at the societal and local government level will have the effect of accelerating our currently planned conservation program. The other major step we can take is to accelerate our potable reuse timetable. We should work toward direct potable reuse of recycled wastewater within five years. There is no technological or public health barrier to this goal, it is merely a matter of gaining public acceptance. Silicon Valley has a sophisticated, well-educated, and environmentally-conscious public that can understand why this is the right step. If, and it is an important “if”, we can get the acceptance and support of our partner government agencies and community leaders, we can then obtain a brand new water source to provide drought resilience.


Some might object that these steps (and other conservations steps that others may suggest) could take too long to address our current drought problem. The sad fact is that this current drought could continue for multiple years. Even if we escape future dry years, the probability is there will be others. We can be ready for them – we have the will, the technology, and the resources to be ready, and the steps outlined above can make us ready.