State releases new water reduction targets

Letter carrier Adrian Aguilar crosses dry lawns on High Street north of Redwood Avenue in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 16, 2016.
Letter carrier Adrian Aguilar crosses dry lawns on High Street north of Redwood Avenue in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 16, 2016.

State regulators released Tuesday the results of having urban water suppliers determine how much water they need to save to weather three more years of drought. These “stress tests” conducted by the suppliers replace state-mandated reductions.

The State Water Resources Control Board said 343 of the 411 suppliers set their drought reductions at 0 percent. Thirty-six suppliers set higher targets, and 32 did not report to the state and will continue to follow the state-mandated reductions.

At one point, California had mandated a 25 percent overall reduction in urban water use.

The suppliers used a state formula in determining how much water they need to save, though water officials with two Stanislaus County cities raised concerns with the formula. “I don’t think it (the results) accurately reflected the conditions in our region,” said Turlock Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke, adding the results understate Turlock’s situation.

Three cities in Stanislaus County — Riverbank, Oakdale and Patterson — reported 0 percent reductions to the state based on the formula; Modesto reported a 20 percent reduction; Ceres 13 percent; and Turlock 16 percent. The formula asks suppliers whether they would voluntarily conserve at a higher rate. With the exception of Ceres, most of the other cities said they would.

Modesto picked a voluntary conservation target of 25 percent while Patterson, Oakdale and Turlock picked a 20 percent voluntary target. Riverbank Public Works Superintendent Michael Riddell said his city is waiting for guidance from the state in determining what its target should be. He also said Riverbank is waiting for the state to lift a conservation order it issued after Riverbank failed to meet its state-mandated reductions.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said in an email that his City Council will decide whether it wants to set a higher conservation target. He added that his city’s “water conservation efforts began in earnest in 2010, so we saw significant conservation improvements long before the state began requiring a fixed conservation standard.”

The state required in 2010 that retail urban water suppliers, such as cities, reduce water use 20 percent by 2020.

Wells said water use in Ceres is among the lowest in the region based on how many gallons per day its residents use. “We are more interested in getting our residents to change water use behaviors to long-term, sustainable water use practices rather than striving to hit an arbitrary number set by the state,” Wells said in his email.

The Stanislaus cities said their drought restrictions and enforcement of those restrictions remain in place, such as limiting outdoor watering to two days a week. “We’re still in a drought,” Riddell said. “We need three or four more (wet) winters like the last one to catch up.”

State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a conference call with reporters that because of the rain and snow from last winter and local efforts to use water more efficiently, such as recycling projects, the state is ceding more control to local urban water suppliers. But she said the state could step back in if conservation lags and this winter is a dry one. The urban suppliers will continue to report monthly to the water board on their water use.

California mandated a 25 percent statewide reduction in urban water in June 2015, though the reductions varied among communities. For instance, at one point Modesto was required to reduce its water use 36 percent. The reductions were based on 2013 water use. The reductions under the stress tests also are based on 2013 water use and took effect in June.

Cooke said Turlock is reducing its water use 20 percent because the region remains in a drought and because of the condition of its wells and aquifer. He said Turlock has 19 active wells but the formula only asked for data on the most productive one. “That does not fairly represent the aquifer,” he said. “We’ve seen zero recovery in our aquifer in Turlock.”

He said he understands the state water board faced a difficult task in switching to a new conservation method and had little time to implement it.

Modesto Utilities Director Larry Parlin said he also has concerns about the formula. He said that is one reason Modesto set a 25 percent reduction. “We are not betting on the drought turning into a bunch of wet winters,” he said. “We are not betting that the drought is going to end anytime soon.”

California’s drought is in its fifth year, though conditions have eased after a wet winter. Parlin said he suspects the state bowed to pressure from Northern California water providers that saw their supplies improve this winter to modify the restrictions.

Max Gomberg – the water board’s climate and conservation manager – said Parlin’s supposition is baseless and reiterated Marcus’ point that the board moved to the stress tests because of improved conditions. Gomberg added Turlock may not have understood the formula because the board was seeking complete information about a supplier’s water conditions.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316