Commentary: Are California Blanket Drought Reduction Rules Fair to Davis?

These NASA images from 2013 and 2014 illustrate the impact of the drought.
These NASA images from 2013 and 2014 illustrate the impact of the drought.

When Governor Jerry Brown first announced mandatory water conservation efforts, cities quickly cried foul, noting that urban areas only consume 25 percent of the state’s water, with the rest going to agriculture. Indeed, the city of L.A. in three years doesn’t consume as much water as the state’s almond growers.

While the State Water Resources Control Board will impose restrictions to achieve a statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water usage through February 28, 2016, the actual wording means there will be city by city variance depending on per capita water usage.

In the executive order, “These restrictions will require water suppliers to California’s cities and towns to reduce usage as compared to the amount used in 2013. These restrictions should consider the relative per capita water usage of each water suppliers’ service area, and require that those areas with high per capita use achieve proportionally greater reductions than those with low use.”

For Davis, the city council will hear recommendations from city staff on how to comply with a proposal from the state that will increase Davis’ conservation level to 28 percent.

That is over and above the 16 percent reduction from 2014 to 2015 versus the 2012 to 2013 period.

On the state list of water users, Davis uses roughly 144 gallons per day, which is 213th on the list and in the middle tier.

The statewide regulations have the local newspaper crying foul in an editorial Friday morning. They call it a “blanket target for water reduction.” They write, “For a city like Davis, which already was conserving before Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandates, it will be a lot harder to meet the 28-percent target than for places where water use was much higher before the drought started to bite.”

They continue, “With every city held to the same standard (and without any real explanation of how the state came up with the 28-percent figure) it smacks of the usual blind, top-down thinking that typically comes out of Sacramento.”

They paper concludes, “It’s going to take some serious creative thinking on the part of city leaders to come up with ways to get our consumption down to that level.”

However, as usual, the Enterprise has this wrong. It is not a “blanket” approach, but rather one targeted by overall consumption. The biggest per capita water users will have to cut consumptions by as much as 35 percent over the next year while the lowest per-capita water use would be required to cut by just 10 percent.

If that’s not fair – then I fail to see the logic.

For example, Davis may have cut its water use by 16 percent, but it still uses 144 gallons per day compared to Woodland’s 119 gallons. Meanwhile, the cities of Arcata and Santa Cruz use less than 50 gallons per day.

Already, back in August of 2014, Santa Cruz imposed some of the toughest water restrictions in the state, according to an article in the San Jose Mercury News.

They report, “Since May 1, every residential property has been allotted a monthly ration: 10 units of water, or 7,480 gallons, for a family of four, to cover all uses, including lawn watering. Each unit averages about $3. But for people who go much above the limit, the cost skyrockets to $50 per unit, meaning monthly water bills can easily top $500 for families who don’t conserve.”

The fees work almost like a traffic ticket, where the customers can attend a water conservation class which would waive the fee.

It was a large deterrent, but apparently one people were willing to go to. The result was a dramatic decrease in water – they use one-third of the water that Davis does. So the Davis Enterprise can cry me a river complaining that the state is mandating a 28 percent reduction, based on how much the city has already cut, when other communities have done far far more.

As a result, KGO in San Francisco reported two weeks ago that Santa Cruz’s water reduction program could become the model for the state. Santa Cruz County is actually in a far tougher spot because it is completely dependent on precipitation, with its water supply coming from creeks and rivers with a small reservoir collecting runoff.

Contrary to the notion that this is a blanket cut, the state regulations hit the communities that use the most water harder than those who use less water.

For instance, the LA Times a few weeks ago reported, “Residents in communities like La Cañada Flintridge, Malibu and Palos Verdes used more than 165 gallons of water per capita per day in February. By contrast, Santa Ana residents used just 60 gallons, and in communities in southeast Los Angeles County, residents used less than 45.”

Communities in the 35 percent reduction group include: Bakersfield, Redding, South Pasadena, Hemet and Colton.

The Times notes, “But some of the state’s wealthy communities have come under scrutiny for high water use. These areas tend to have fewer apartments and less dense housing. Homes tend to be larger and include sprawling, landscaped grounds.”

There is, of course, some inequity within the community as well. The 2000-plus square foot home with a swimming pool and vast lawns is going to be using a lot of water and will have to cut back on that usage. Naturally they have to cut back a lot more in terms of actual water use than a renter in an apartment. On the other hand, it may be easier for water-guzzlers to reduce their usage than people who have already been practicing good water habits.

So my bigger concern is not that Davis has already cut back on its water usage and now has to do it again while others in the state didn’t – our usage level indicates we should be able to cut back more. The bigger concern is drafting a municipal water policy that makes the water wasters have to cut back more than those already taking pains to conserve. And that will be hard to implement.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Don Shor

    Per capita water consumption is typically a function of evapotranspiration rate, average lot size, and income. It’s reasonable to compare Davis to Woodland, and to compare Santa Cruz to Arcata. The Santa Cruz model is quite draconian and probably based on their rather dire local situation. The state mandate gives local districts a lot of control over how to achieve the goal, so it is anything but a ‘top down’ approach. 28% is doable. We just have to continue educating people about proper watering, and encourage (perhaps even incentivize) lawn removals and switching to smarter water timers. You can still have your vegetable garden, your fruit trees, and an attractive landscape.

    “If the only time you walk on your lawn is to mow it, you probably shouldn’t grow it.” – Scott Sommerfeld, East Bay MUD water conservation specialist. 

    1. darelldd

      I also agree that 28% is doable for Davis as a whole. But this is only “doable” because of how little has been done already. Just seeing all the over-watered lawns and gushing gutters is enough to tell me that it isn’t that difficult to achieve.

      These mandates almost always punish those who put significant effort into the problem well in advance of the problem. The very folks who helped ward off the problem in the first place will suffer the most. I don’t know that there’s a fair way of doing this ever… but I do know that the money and effort that I’ve put into water conservation is now coming back to slap me in a “no good deed goes unpunished” sort of way. I removed all my lawns. I have turned off my irrigation system permanently. I only water things that shade or feed me. My landscape plants are appropriate for the area and require almost no artificial water. I’ve replaced all water-using appliances with units that comply with (what was then) future regulations for conservation. I heat my water at the source, and dump none of the “warm up water” down the drain. I designed, permitted and built a gray water system for irrigation (something that Davis had never seen permitted before). We turn the shower off for the cleaning portion of the program. We don’t flush the toilets until needed. We don’t wash the cars or bikes with potable water. And we began doing all these things (at this house, after doing them at my previous house 20+ years ago) 15 years ago. WELL before 2013.

      Today we use 33 gallons per person per day, not accounting for the dog. So I guess that’s about 75% less than the average Davis resident? We grow some of our food. Cutting 28% of our water use from where we are today starts to mean not washing our hands before and during meal prep. It is a tough pill to swallow in the face of some neighbors merely having to adjust their irrigation controller to comply… or being paid to remove their lawns this late in the game. It wasn’t many years ago when the city told me that there was no ordinance to prevent the gutter flooding that I was seeing cascading down my street 4x per week from irrigation runoff . If the water bill was paid, the homeowner was free to do as he wished. And here we are. Rewarding the wasters and punishing the conservers.  The gutter flooders simply need to stop watering our gutters and storm drains, and presto. They comply. While at our house, we go two more uses before flushing the toilet, and thinking long and hard before washing hair in the shower. Meantime, the front page of the Enterprise shows a lovely artful shot of flood irrigation … right next to an article on the 28% residential cut.

      If my family complies, we’ll be down to 24 gallons per day. On a hot day, I almost DRINK that much!

      Why don’t we have inline water meters in our showers? (we’ve known for years that showing instantaneous gas mileage on the dash board saves gas). Why don’t we have easy-to-read water meters at our homes? Why don’t we have a program for rainwater collection? Why don’t we have grey water options for irrigation? Why haven’t we done *anything* to make water saving easier before the sky starts falling and we’re all in a panic?

      I’m about to petition the city to allow me to drill into the gutter in front of my house, install a cistern and pump. Then I can use my neighbor’s runoff to displace ALL of my water needs.

      1. Don Shor

        You don’t need to do anything. The conservation goal is an overall goal for the city. You’ve already done your part; actually, more than your part.

  2. Alan Miller

    However, as usual, the Enterprise has this wrong.

    I just felt like isolating that sentence and letting it float for everyone’s personal contemplation.

      1. Davis Progressive

        you may not always agree with the vanguard, but it does make an effort to get the facts right and correct things quickly when mistakes happen.

    1. Frankly

      Thank you AM this AM.  I sort of stopped reading at that flip remark.  What David should have written is “as usual, I disagree with the Enterprise”

      1. Alan Miller

        What David should have written is “as usual, I disagree with the Enterprise”

        Or, similarly . . . “I meant to write ‘I disagree with Bob Dunning today’ and somehow it slipped out ‘Dunning is the spawn of Satan who will destroy Davis with his army of seven-headed hydras’ . . . . . I’m sorry”.

  3. Alan Miller

    Last weekend I turned onto Putah Creek Road out of Winters and to our right was an orchard being irrigated with —- a sprinkler system —- like the type people use on lawns that sprays a stream and clicks back.  The sprinklers were just watering the ground around the trees, and it was a warm day so much of water evaporated.

    Hard to feel serious about running the water in the sink a few seconds less when just west of town investment in drip irrigation that would save massive amounts of water is flat ignored.

    1. Miwok

      I noticed that too, AM, with a trip to the Dayton/Durham area last weekend. I thought it was because the trees were mature and not seedlings, like so many of the new orchards that have drip lines set up.

      1. Alan Miller

        Possibly.  But we stopped and looked, and they were not targeting the base of the trees, they were just sprinkler watering the ground all around.  I can’t imagine that is an efficient irrigation technique.

        1. Miwok

          Saw the same thing, with the lines running between the tree rows.

          I know from tearing out old trees, there is no way to drip irrigated a mature tree. From seeing the orchards being torn out, the root ball is a few feet in diameter, and big trees have bigger diameters. I think you want the roots, all of them to get a drink – that would be more efficient to me. And safer.. Maybe Don Shor can enlighten us?

          I know you even have to take little plants out of little pots when they grow..

          1. Don Shor

            The higher the output, the faster you can saturate the soil. So conventional sprinklers would evaporate less, overall, than micro-sprinklers. Also, micro-sprinklers and drip can have issues with water quality on water district water.

    2. keithvb

      There are lots of properties outside the Davis city limits that haven’t gotten the message about reducing water use. They’re not on the city water system since they have wells. They most likely share the same aquifer as the city. How can they be regulated?

    1. hpierce

      Well (pun intended), the fixed costs of the water system [independent of production] remain the same, yet if 28% of the consumption is eliminated, we either should do it sooner than later, else we build a deficit.  Simple.  I say, sooner than later.

      1. hpierce

        Which raises the question, “was this happening”?  Preventing anything untoward, at all times, under all circumstances at a 99.99% confidence rate seems paranoid to me, unless experiential data showed otherwise… David, what’s the deal?

        [even paranoids can have enemies, I know]

  4. Adam Smith

    Indeed, the city of L.A. in three years doesn’t consume as much water as the state’s almond growers.


    Wow.  Imagine the comparison if you used alfalfa growers instead of almonds.  There are more acres of alfalfa than almonds, and the crop uses significantly more water per acre than almonds.

  5. Napoleon Pig IV

    Given the long history of lies by politician pigs during times of crisis (and during times labelled “crisis” for political reasons), nothing coming out of the halls of power in Sacramento is credible or the basis for claims of “fairness.” Times of “crisis,” real or semantic, are when porcine politicians screw their enemies and pay off their “friends” (another semantic designation for those who have made contributions and/or payoffs). I’d say Bob Dunning has it pretty right in his sarcastic comments on this ongoing use of water as one more angle to protect and expand the Porcine Pinnacle of Power. Oink!

  6. rfinch

    John Munn wrote an excellent piece in the Enterprise about how the City of Davis has plenty of groundwater in its aquifers. I’m trying to contact Mr. Munn but cannot find any contact info. Can someone help me with an email address or similar?

    Ralph Finch

      1. rfinch

        I did…they say they have an email, but when I paid for it, in fact no email was to be had.

        If someone does have his email, could you give him mine and ask him to contact me about the Enterprise aquifer article. It’s great info and I want to ask him where he got it…I was going to file a Public Records Request for similar info.

        Ralph Finch


    1. Matt Williams

      The piece Ralph is referring to is as follows:

      No shortage of groundwater for Davis

      By John Munn

      In print, on TV and by other media, we are constantly told that water is scarce. This is true for much of California that relies on surface water or where groundwater water has been significantly depleted.

      But it is not true in Davis, despite our being lumped in with truly water-deficient areas by the State Water Resources Control Board. Here, we have yet to see any river water delivered from our expensive surface water project, and all of the water we are now using in households, for irrigation and by business is coming from local wells.

      However, data available from the city of Davis show that there is no shortage of local groundwater.

      The city has been measuring water depth in its wells for many years; and over the past few years, most wells have been measured monthly. Davis is now using 21 wells, 15 of which are between 340 and 615 feet deep that rely on “intermediate”-depth aquifers. The remaining six wells are approximately 1,500 to 1,800 feet deep and provide water from deeper aquifers that is of generally better quality. All of these wells are tapping a huge reservoir that lies under our feet and extends for miles beyond Davis.

      Of course, we are not alone. The intermediate-depth aquifer is also used by agriculture, rural residents and some other communities, while UC Davis relies on water from the deeper aquifers.

      The city’s measurements show our water table going up and down for more than 30 years. Recently, the water table in our wells was rising until about 2011 or 2012. Looking at the past four years of more frequent measurements, from 2011 through 2014, we see the water table generally falling during the drought — but not by much.

      Average annual groundwater depth in our intermediate-aquifer wells now ranges between about 60 to 80 feet, which is 7 to 20 feet lower than four years ago. In the deep aquifer wells, the water table now rises to an average annual depth of 80 to 120 feet, and is about 2 to 50 feet lower than in 2011. In one deeper well, the water table is actually higher now than it was in 2011.

      The amount of groundwater available is dependent on aquifer volumes and structural characteristics. These are generally not known in much detail. But we can say that in a given well, the useable depth is the depth of the well.

      Using this as a crude reference point for putting change of water depth into perspective, the lower water tables in intermediate wells are about 2 to 4 percent of well depth and, for deeper aquifer wells, the change is less than 1 to about 3 percent of well depth.

      We are not running out of groundwater! In fact, most communities in California would view Davis as having high-class problems.


      Water conservation in Davis is currently based on personal preferences, political correctness or because of greatly increasing water rates to pay for the surface water project. If dry years continue, we may come to the point where conservation to save groundwater and/or money makes more sense. Of course, continued drought also would mean that we will be paying for a surface water project that provides little or no water, especially during peak demand in the summer.

      This calls into question why we needed a surface water project that will at least double our cost of water, but delivers little water when it is most needed? My guesses are that we are building it to pay for it with trickle-down benefits going to ambitious politicians, that surface water is really intended to promote future growth, or that our local representatives wanted to provide for future use without understanding that there is more than enough groundwater to meet foreseeable needs.

  7. rfinch

    My mistake. In fact I had used another, paid service which as a waste of money.

    White pages provides a phone number for John at no charge…I’ll give a call later.

    Thanks for the tip.

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