Pleasanton Weekly

News - June 27, 2014

Pleasanton buckles down to reach 25% cut in water use

City hires marketing firm, starts monitoring customers who fail to comply

by Jeb Bing

Facing its most severe drought ever and a water shortage that could see taps turned off without cutbacks by residents and businesses, Pleasanton will start the summer months of July and August with dwindling water supplies.

Daniel Smith, director of the Operations Services Department and in effect the city's water czar, said the city has seen a 20% reduction in water use so far this year, but more cuts will be needed to meet the 25% reduction goal by year's end.

"We're getting there, but we still see people irrigating their lawns during the day, washing down their driveways and washing their cars," Smith told the City Council last week. "Unfortunately, there are still a number of people who just don't get it."

To beef up public information and survey programs, Smith received the council's approval to spend up to $200,000 this year and next on advertising and promotions to persuade those who live and work in Pleasanton to cut back their water consumption. A total of $75,000 of that already has been spent from the city's water operations fund for drought education, advertising and marketing services in a contract Smith's department signed with Carol H. Williams Advertising.

Smith said with the ads and promotions created by the agency but yet to run, he expects to tap very little more into the $200,000 allocation, but will need the money if the drought extends into 2015.

Councilwoman Karla Brown questioned why Smith had to seek outside services when the city already employs a public relations officer to do the work.

Smith and City Manager Nelson Fialho said public information programs of the type needed to address the crisis situation Pleasanton faces needs the expertise of specialists skilled in creating and marketing those campaigns.

Smith said the forecast for rain to end the crisis is glum. The state Department of Water Resources, which said last month that Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley cities also served by the Zone 7 Water Agency would receive no more water this year, now says it will deliver 5% of the customary allocations, but not before Sept. 1.

"So we have a lot of hot summer days to go through before then and there's always a chance that allocation will not be here then," Smith said.

"No new sources of water have become available or are likely to this year," he added. "Even several water operators elsewhere in California that have some excess water are holding off for higher prices, which were already extremely high."

But Smith said most residents and businesses here have cut back at least the 25% asked when the city declared a Stage 3 water shortage alert in May. Some have done much more, he said, including Koll Center, a business park that has reduced its consumption by 71% over its 2013 usage.

Pleasanton's municipal water usage also has achieved notable reductions, Smith said. From March 13 to May 13, all city combined meters showed 70% less water use over 2013, for a total of 32.5 million gallons saved, or 541,000 gallons a day. So far this year, parks are tracking at 30% less, or about 8 million gallons so far.

Smith said the push is on now to make sure everyone joins in the conservation effort. The cutbacks must take place in the hot summer months to be effective, waiting until November and December when the public doesn't use much water anyhow won't achieve the year-end goal.

Smith said that although his department has received hundreds of calls from residents worried about facing penalties of 25, 50 or 100% if they don't use less than last year, very few penalties have been assessed.

"Truthfully, only 2.8% of the customers we've monitored since the start of this program would have faced a penalty, a very small margin," Smith said. "Even in one neighborhood of very large homes and yards, there would have been only 7.4% penalized. We'll see in the next billing if that percentage holds."

Smith said California's water drought could last at least two years and, woefully, Pleasanton is among cities that are in the worst shape during the crisis. Other Tri-Valley cities have also mandated cuts of 25%, while San Francisco, which has its own water supply, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) with its large reservoirs are hardly affected.

However Zone 7, the Tri-Valley's supplier, is one of the smallest water districts in the state with less political clout to make demands in Sacramento for larger allocations and not enough tax dollars to expand its own reservoirs.

"I am concerned about Zone 7's ability to actually navigate such a serious issue if this drought continues long-term," Fialho said. "My sense is that they are just too small to have the wherewithal that East Bay MUD and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission have."

To encourage residents and businesses to conserve, Dublin and Livermore have raised rates across the board.

"When you raise rates, those who can pay more just continue to use what they've been doing," Fialho said. "It does nothing to conserve."

Pleasanton's new rules, however, keep rates the same, but add penalties if 25% reductions aren't made based on comparisons with consumption in the same water billing period in 2013.

These can be steep. Customers who fail to meet the 25% mandatory cutback will be charged an additional $4 per unit of water used above that amount and fined $50. For a second offense, the extra unit charge goes to $8 with a $100 penalty; a third time will cost $12 a unit and a $250 penalty; a fourth violation will raise the unit cost to $12 with a $500 penalty.

Smith said waivers will be issued for those water users who long ago cut back and whose bills prove it. Also exempted will be families that have added newborns or older relatives in their households since a year ago.

It's the big users Smith and his department are going after. Getting those customers to comply with the 25% cut will go a long way toward solving Pleasanton's water shortage this year, he said.

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