On 28 May 2015 in downtown San Jose, California, the San Jose Water Company held the first and only public hearing on their Proposed Water Shortage Contingency Plan – that is, how they will respond to Executive Order B-29-15 by the Governor of the State of California (signed 1 April 2015) requiring a further statewide 25% reduction in potable urban water usage through February 28, 2016. The private San Jose Water Company serves over a million people in the greater San Jose metropolitan area (about 230,000 paying customers) – including many in core Silicon Valley cities: Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Santa Clara, San Jose, and Saratoga.
In his introductory remarks, John B. Tang (Vice President of Government Relations and Corporate Communications, San Jose Water) said that they expected a decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by 15 June 2015. He further mentioned that there has already been a 17 foot drop in groundwater during the last year (subsidence) and that it would take up to 300% of normal rainfall to retreat from the drought. Mr. Tang said that San Jose Water is asking for residential customers to cut 30% of their water usage – by average rather than by individual customer usage. There will be an appeal process published later to address issues of medical needs and larger-than-4 family size. Palle Jensen (Senior Vice President-Regulatory Affairs, San Jose Water) and Bob Day (Director of Customer Service, San Jose Water) also spoke. Mr. Jensen in particular expressed his frustration in only having 25 days to prepare their plan. He several times blamed the plan’s shortcomings on the short development time allowed and on requirements given to San Jose Water by the Santa Clara Valley Water District and other agencies.
My son Paul and I were among about 350 upset local citizens, landowners, and small business owners who attended the meeting. All who spoke objected to how the San Jose Water Company has chosen to respond to the Governor’s new water reduction order. Of the dozens who came to the microphone after many hours of patiently standing in line in the auditorium, no one objected to conserving water or minimized the seriousness of the California drought, now in its fourth year. They did energetically disapprove of how the San Jose Water Company proposes to respond.
- California’s Executive Order calls for a 25% water usage reduction as compared 2013 and directs that “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.” [emphasis added]
- The San Jose Water Company’s plan calls for a 30% reduction of the average water usage across residential customers. Apartments and business will only have to reduce landscape watering. However, private homes will have in addition to conserve inside water usage. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 31% of City of San Jose citizens live in “Housing units in multi-unit structures” – that is, about a third of area housing that will not have to conserve water under this plan.
- The single most recommended change requested by the public to the San Jose Water plan was to ask that reductions be based on individual (per capita) usage for all customers rather than by average of only residential customers.
- The criticism most frequently expressed at the hearing was that no notes were taken by the three executives (other than to record who spoke and what city they came from) and no recording was made – indicating that this meeting was only for legal requirements, rather than to listen seriously. There was no indication that the San Jose Water Company proposal would be modified before its submission to the PUC. However, the executives did say that they would consider changes to the program in the future.
- The size of a residential lot is not taken into consideration in the proposed plan. Several speakers from the public said that they have many large trees that will die without water this summer. One woman with a big lot said she had already deeply cut her water use and the new plan would require her to cut 88% of her water usage in addition to paying much higher water rates because of drought surcharges. She said it cost her over $4,000/each to have large dead trees removed so that they did not create a fire hazard. Another man with a larger property said he had already cut his water usage by 45% but was being asked to reduce even more. The San Jose Water executives eventually mentioned that the Santa Clara Valley Water District has an agricultural exemption program that homeowners who grow their own food or have orchards can investigate.
- Some businesses (commercial nurseries, golf courses) are exempt from the restrictions; however, swimming pool and spa companies will not be allowed to fill new pools. About five of the speakers from the audience identified themselves as being associated with pool or spa companies who foresaw serious job losses. They said that swimming pools use less water than even drought-resistant landscaping (and one third of the water of a grass lawn), so the restriction on filling new pools did not make sense.
- One speaker reported that other water companies in the San Francisco Bay Area are being far less strict in their requirements of customers. For example, the nearby East Bay Municipal Utility District (“East Bay MUD”) is only seeking to reduce water use by 20%.
- Several speakers objected to San Jose Water encouraging neighbors to tattle on each other. There is even a special webpage to make local spying easy. (Compare this to a southern California community that last month started giving cash rewards to their Water Saver of the Month to encourage conservation success.)
Our own family lives in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, part of the San Jose Water Company’s service area. We have a large lot bordered by the Guadalupe River. As I wrote in February, the Guadalupe River in San Jose was dry in summer 2014 for the first time since we bought our house 18 years ago. The river rose this winter but only a few water pools are left now. Our riparian property is home to a large number and variety wild animals, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. We have dozens of very large trees – old native oaks, cottonwoods, redwoods, ashes, olives and other nut and fruit trees – that are already stressed by the long drought. We have been reducing our water use for many years and are in the process of applying to the Landscape Conversion program of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. That is, we are letting our lawn die and planning to replace the grass with less-water-hungry plants. We will redirect the lawn water to do what we can to save our trees. Fires set by the homeless who often settle along the riverbank are a big concern for us. There was a serious fire caused by a campfire a few years ago just upstream from our house. We are very motivated to keep our trees watered and in good health to reduce fire risk.
From the 9th edition of the New Sunset Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide (2012) p.719:
“How to Fight Drought:
When drought comes, and with it the possibility of local bans on lawn watering or punishing hikes in water bills, what can you do? It’s too late at that point to install a water-conserving landscape, but you can take steps to save the plants you have.
Save established trees and shrubs first. These are costly to replace and have the greatest impact on your landscape. (A lawn can be replaced with sod in an afternoon, but a 70-foot-tall redwood can take 20 years or more to replace)….”
Images Copyright 2015 by Katy Dickinson