Keeping tabs on North Coast’s water use

People are using twice as much water in the city of Sonoma as they are along the Russian River, with residents of five other cities and one water district in Sonoma County falling between the two extremes, according to a state report that calculates per capita water use for the first time.

With drought-stricken California striving to curb consumption by its 38 million residents, Sonoma residents used 148 gallons of water per person per day in September. During the same period, residents of the Guerneville-Monte Rio area consumed 71 gallons, the lowest rate among 12 cities and water districts in the area from Marin to Mendocino County. Officials attributed much of the variation around the region to differences in climate, topography, residential lot size and income.

“Our customers do not have lawns,” said Julie Kenny of the Sweetwater Springs Water District, which serves 3,600 customers along the river, an area cooled by ocean fog. “Backyards are redwood forests, and small.”

Sonoma, with 10,800 residents in a warmer, drier inland valley, has large landscaped lots that “require more irrigation,” said Dan Takasugi, public works director and city engineer.

Outdoor residential water use, primarily landscape irrigation, accounts for 34 percent - the largest portion - of California’s urban water use, vastly exceeding commercial, institutional and industrial water consumption. It also is the prime target of the state’s campaign to cut total use by 20 percent by 2020. In some areas, outdoor irrigation accounts for 50 percent or more of urban water use.

“Demand reduction in landscape water use carries a high potential,” said the California Water Plan Update 2013, released Oct. 30.

Sonoma also was the only one of the dozen cities and water agencies that did not reduce per capita water consumption between September 2013 and September 2014, according to the State Water Resources Control Board’s report issued last week.

Average daily personal water use increased by 2.8 percent over the year in Sonoma, while eight cities or agencies reported double-digit reductions, led by Healdsburg with a 25.3 percent cutback and Ukiah at 24.6 percent. Three others - Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Valley of the Moon - reported reductions of 6 percent to nearly 9 percent.

The reason for Sonoma’s increase in personal water use “is not completely known,” Takasugi said in an e-mail. But the city is “on track to comply” with the state’s 20 percent water conservation goal and has implemented numerous standards, such as restricting landscape irrigation to two days a week, closely monitoring and repairing water leaks and adjusting water rates to reward conservation, he said.

In 2016, Sonoma will begin using recycled water to offset use of potable water for landscape irrigation, Takasugi said.

The state figures are based on residential water use divided by population and do not include commercial, institutional or industrial water use.

Healdsburg slashed per capita daily water use to 118 gallons in September, down from 158 gallons a year earlier, and Jaime Licea, the parks superintendent, said he is proud of his personal and professional contributions to the effort.

Ever since he turned off the sprinkler and left his large lawn to die in February, Licea said he has saved water, almost certainly saved money and gotten rid of his least favorite household chore.

“I don’t have to cut grass any more,” he said. “My wife used to hammer me over that: ‘When are you going to mow the lawn?’ I haven’t heard that for months.”

Drought-tolerant plants and native oak trees, irrigated by a drip system, took the place of Licea’s lawn, and he planted vegetables in the backyard, he said. He turned off the drip system last month and said his plants “are still green.”

Applying the same principle to Healdsburg’s parks, Licea said he has cut water consumption 21 percent by fertilizing and aerating more and watering less. The lawn at City Hall on Grove Street was removed two weeks ago and replaced with drought-tolerant vegetation.

“If you don’t lead by example, no one’s going to follow,” Licea said.

Sandy Metzger, a Sonoma County Master Gardener, said she’s heartened by the disappearance of lawns she has documented while riding her bicycle around Santa Rosa’s Junior College and McDonald Avenue neighborhoods.

“I am so thrilled to see that people are taking it seriously,” she said, referring to the trend toward xeriscaping, which replaces water-hungry grass with drought-tolerant native and Mediterranean species.

It’s “aesthetically pleasing” as well as water-wise, Metzger said, noting that plants like lavender, rosemary and santolina have colorful blossoms.

She also has seen that Santa Rosans are planting vegetables and fruit trees in their front yards, getting food on the table instead of cut grass in recycling bins.

Santa Rosa has subsidized the conversions through its “cash for grass” program, which has paid nearly $725,000 to 1,933 residential water customers and 240 commercial customers who have replaced turf grass with low water-use plants or permeable material, such as mulch. Homeowners have torn out 1.6 million square feet of lawn; businesses have converted an additional 684,960 square feet.

Replacing turf with plants saves an average of 18 gallons of water per square foot per year; switching to permeable material that is not irrigated saves an average of 24 gallons per square foot, the city says.

Santa Rosa reduced daily personal water use by 8.5 percent in September, compared to the same month of last year, with residents now using 86 gallons per day.

“We continue to be very proud of our customers,” said Jennifer Burke, deputy dir ector of water and engineering services.

Californians saved 77 billion gallons of water from June through September compared with the same four months in 2013, with the conservation rate soaring from 4.3 percent in June to 11.6 percent in August, the Water Resources Control Board said. Board members were concerned by the drop in September to 10.3 percent, officials said.

Conversion of lawns to drought- tolerant landscapes can “make permanent conservation gains,” the board said in a news release.

Residential water use per capita per day figures now will be reported every month, based on information submitted by nearly 400 urban water agencies statewide. The information is intended to “give residential customers and water agencies an idea of how much water they’re using” and measure the effectiveness of conservation programs, water board spokesman George Kostyrko said.

He cautioned against using the per capita figures to compare communities’ water-saving efforts, noting that population density and growth, temperature, topography and residential lot size can contribute to significant differences.

Felicia Marcus, state water board chairwoman, noted that some areas have been conserving far longer than others. The data on personal daily use “shows us what is possible,” she said.

Geographic differences in average daily per capita water use among the state’s 10 hydrologic regions were dramatic. The North Coast region, which stretches from the Russian River Basin in Sonoma County to the Oregon border, averaged 90 gallons in September, comparable to the San Francisco Bay region (85 gallons) and the Central Coast, roughly from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, at 95 gallons.

The South Coast, including Los Angeles and San Diego, averaged 119 gallons; the Sacramento River region (Sacramento to Redding) averaged 177 gallons, and the Colorado River region in the state’s southeast corner was tops, with people using an average of 252 gallons of water per day.

Mandatory water conservation rules imposed by the state July 29 targeted outdoor urban water use. The rules included blanket prohibitions on using potable water on any driveway or sidewalk and on allowing potable water used on landscapes to run off onto adjacent property.

Landscape irrigation often wastes water due to overwatering and malfunctioning sprinklers, the state water plan update said. Preventing over-irrigation at single-family homes would cut water demand by 28 percent, it said.

Use of automatic irrigation controls at single-family homes typically increases water use by more than 50 percent over homes with manually operated systems, the update said.

“We collectively can and should be saving far more (water),” Marcus said in an email. “Those who haven’t been conserving as much as others should learn from and emulate those who have been effectively conserving water.”

“Every gallon saved today forestalls the need for more drastic, expensive and painful measures later if it doesn’t rain much this year,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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