City Beat

City Hall soon will tell Fresno: Here’s how we got into this water mess

Sprinklers run on a grassy area in front of Eaton School in Fresno July 22, 2014.
Sprinklers run on a grassy area in front of Eaton School in Fresno July 22, 2014. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Fresno has a water problem to tackle, but City Hall first wants to see which way the wind is blowing.

The wind of public sentiment, that is.

City officials this month most likely will announce changes to rules for landscape irrigation.

Granted, officials seem to come up with a dramatic water announcement about every six months, be it new conservation mandates or the latest tweak in rates or yet another dangerous drop in the aquifer.

But City Hall’s latest challenge deals with the order from Sacramento that Fresno cut its water consumption by 28 percent. The smart money at City Hall is betting we won’t make it by the March 1 deadline if the status quo reigns.

That means two things. First, city officials will come up with a Hail Mary-type of plan that just might save the day. Second, they will have to publicly explain how Fresno got in this policy mess.

Communications Director Mark Standriff said Tuesday that the city this month probably will hold some type of public forum – perhaps at a City Council meeting – to hear what the people want to do. Then Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the council will decide on something.

As to all that explaining, well, voter anger has a way of making politicians confess even when they don’t want to.

Let’s start at the beginning. As we all know, there is a drought. Sacramento last spring ordered cities across the state to reduce water use by a specific percentage. Clovis got hit with a 36 percent goal. Fresno’s was 28 percent.

City Hall is asking Fresnans to voluntarily reduce their weekly landscaping watering to one day a week. That might become mandatory.

You know what? Fresno is right on track.

Fresno in the four months of June, July, August and September cut its consumption by exactly 28 percent from the same four-month period in 2013.

All Fresno has to do is cut its consumption by 28 percent in each of the next five months: October, November, December, January and February.

If we do that, Sacramento will leave us alone for a while. If we don’t, we could be hit with huge fines.

You might ask: What’s the big deal? As they say on Wall Street, the trend is your friend. Our trend line is 28 percent. We’re all in the mood to conserve. Therefore, the future is full of 28 percent monthly reductions, right?

Maybe. But probably not.

To hit a 28 percent water cut over nine months, Fresno would have to use 10.1 billion fewer gallons of water than it did for the same period in 2013.

According to city figures, Fresno in the previous four months saved 6.18 billion gallons.

Fresno in the next five months must save 3.93 billion gallons to hit the magic 28 percent figure for the full nine months.

At one point, the city was going to stop all landscape watering beginning Dec. 1. Then the council changed that to one day a week. City officials might return to the original rule.

But, strange as it sounds, the hot weather was Fresno’s secret weapon in this battle. It’s always been hot in the Valley. Fresnans have always loved their lawns and gardens. Fresnans have always watered their personal green space during the hot weather.

City Hall allowed Fresnans to water their landscaping three days a week in 2013.

City Hall has since cut that limit to two days a week. If Fresnans in 2015 watered their landscaping in the same manner as in 2013, but did so two days a week rather than three, then the result would be huge savings.

Fresno during June through September 2013 used 22.06 billion gallons of water. One-third of that is about 7.35 billion gallons — nearly 75 percent of the 10.1 billion gallons the city must save over the nine months. (I’m assuming here we also take shorter showers, etc. Indoor use is a fraction of outdoor use.)

Instead, we saved almost 6.18 billion gallons. We came up 1.17 billion gallons short of what (unofficially) was our logical goal.

Well, we’ve still got five months. And we’re right on the 28 percent track. What could go wrong?

Well, the next five months are relatively cool to cold months. And we certainly pray that the rains come long, hard and consistent beginning about Oct. 22 and lasting until about April 29.

My point: Even in drought years, we water our landscaping far less in the winter months.

So, as we’ve seen, a modest change in our watering patterns (two days a week rather than three) during the hot months resulted in big (though not big enough) savings.

Officials in the Swearengin administration met Monday to discuss water-conservation strategy. It’s almost certain City Hall will take a closer look at computers recording daily use by Fresno’s 110,000 single-family residential accounts.

Going forward, we need to save 3.93 billion gallons over the next five months. But our chances for saving those gallons simply by cutting back on our landscape watering are slim to none. As I’ve said, we’ve never watered a whole bunch during that time. There’s less “fat” to cut when it gets cold.

Now, if we had cut our water consumption in each of the four hot months as perhaps we should have, we would have saved 1.17 billion more gallons than we actually did. Therefore, the number of gallons we would need to save for the upcoming five months would be 2.75 billion, not 3.93 billion.

In other words, our water-saving burden would have been 30 percent less than what it’s actually going to be.

But, for whatever reasons, we didn’t save in the four hot months as we should have. The irony, of course, is that we hit the 28 percent goal right on the mark, yet, in a very real sense, we failed.

Swearengin and the seven council members must decide what we’re going to do for the next five months.

We can do our best and not worry too much about the 28 percent mandate, then hope Sacramento doesn’t worry much about such things, as well.

We can cut our scheduled watering days from two to one during October and November.

We can cut our scheduled watering days from one to zero in December, January and February.

Fresno hasn’t gone the route of fines as much as Clovis to spur conservation. Short of a miracle, that’s about to change. Also, the city might limit consumers to a certain length of time for landscape watering, and use their computers to check on who is obeying the rules.

We can put limits on the amount of time a person waters the yard – say, 10 minutes maximum – then use the city’s computerized tracking system to identify who apparently is keeping the sprinklers on too long. (City officials say no one logically uses 300 gallons a minute while giving the dog a bath – in other words, they’ll know when someone is pumping big amounts of water for long periods of time.)

City Hall’s public forum (time and date to come) probably will come up with plenty of ideas.

As to how we got into this mess, the easy answer is Mother Nature forgot to send rain for four straight years.

Another answer is the difficult nature of a long, slow crisis like a drought. It was quite a shock last spring when Sacramento told Fresno to cut water consumption by 28 percent for the next nine months. City officials knew the four hottest months were critical in hitting the nine-month goal.

Perhaps city officials should have said on May 31, on the eve of the start of the nine-month period: Hey, Fresno, the complex math of water consumption means we actually need to save 35 percent in June, July, August and September to safely hit the 28 percent mark by our deadline – therefore, we’re going to fine the heck out of anyone who doesn’t comply.

I’m guessing city officials ran from such a thought.

Instead, they depended on government’s two favorite policy pipe dreams: Education and hope.

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