April 25, 2009

Level 2 Water Shortage Alert

On Friday, the San Diego County Water Authority decided that we are in a Level 2 Drought.  The board of the water authority agreed to cut water delivery by 8%.  

What will Level 2 mean to Poway water users?  
Let's check the ordinance:

3. Water Use Restrictions. During a Level 2 Water Shortage Alert, the water use efficiency measures identified in PMC 8.94.040 and at Level 1 Water Shortage Watch are mandatory for all persons using City of Poway water in addition to the following mandatory conservation measures:
a. Landscape watering shall be conducted only in conformance with landscape watering schedules and restrictions for commercial and residential properties approved by the City Manager. The watering schedule and restrictions may address factors such as how many days during the week, which days of the week, the amount of time per watering station, and other pertinent details. Watering of landscaped areas that are not irrigated by a landscape irrigation system shall be subject to the same watering schedule and restrictions, using a bucket, hand-held hose with positive shut-off nozzle, or low-volume non-spray irrigation.
b. All leaks shall be repaired within 72 hours of notification by the City of Poway, unless other arrangements are made with the City Manager.
c. Ornamental fountains or similar decorative water features shall not be operated unless reclaimed water is used.
4. Allocation. During a Level 2 Water Shortage Alert, the City of Poway is authorized by action of the City Council to establish a water allocation for property receiving water service from the City of Poway, and to establish a penalty for any person that uses water in excess of their allocation.
5. Rate Structure. During a Water Shortage Response Level 2 condition, in addition to water use restrictions, the City is authorized by action of the City Council to implement a conservation rate structure designed to encourage water conservation. This rate structure may also include penalties to be used during periods of water allocation

Shorter version- no fountains, higher bills, limited watering schedules. Oh, and something called "allocations" and penalties.  Almost every city has  similar water conservation rules on the books now which is not surprising since the San Diego County Water Authority sent out a model ordinance for them to use.  The variations are all about how each water district determines "allocations".

Poway has a lot of big water hogs. The SDUT posted a list of the month by month use of the 200 top residential water users in Poway. No names are on the list, but the water use totals are just eye- popping, jaw dropping ginormous. The top residential user in Poway racked up 13,287 total units in 2007 and 2008 combined. That averages out to almost 5 million gallons of water per yr.  Even the 200th top person managed to use over a million gallons per yr. And there are at least 198 other high end users just like them. 

Poway's  first tool in their conservation kit will be new water rates that increase as consumption increaes.  The new rates (awaiting final approval) will be tiered in 5 blocks. 

block 1 0-15      $2.72  
block 2 16-40    $3.06
block 3 41- 80    $3.40
block 4 81-120   $4.08
block 5 121+     $4.76

Update (h/t to joe st lucas) The rates in the first draft were incorrect.

In case the water hogs don't give a rat's ass if their rates go up, the city has a few other tools in their kit. They have transferred 6 employees to a "Water Conservation Team". It will be their job to cajole, bribe (conserve and get a chance to win a wii), allocate and if need be, issue fines, until water use decreases. Already, a disgruntled Powegian has stepped forward to complain in last week's Chieftain:

Avoid class warfare in Poway 
I understand the need to conserve water in the face of the ongoing record drought, but it strikes me there is an effort to play a blame game in the proposal before the council to have multi-tiered water rates that go up to the stratosphere for people using significantly more than the average amount of water. 
I’ve lived in Poway for more than 20 years and I always wanted to have some nice landscaping. Also, one of the reasons I wanted to live here was because it is more open, but a consequence of that is there is more landscaping. 
Anyway, two years ago I finally bit the bullet and spent $25,000 to put in some nice landscaping. No one expected the drought to last so long. I expected the city would be a reliable supplier of water. Now I’m hearing that I’m going to be cut off at the knees if I don’t reduce my water usage to the level of a condo owner and let all my landscaping die. And no account is being made of the fact that I used much less water for so long, but now my needs have increased. 
Class warfare seems to be staple of politics in other communities; I’d be sorry to see it here in Poway. I don’t think it has any place here. I’m sure our recently departed mayor would have found a reasonable compromise, may God rest his soul. I hope the council will be able to continue in that vein. 
Gregory West 

Class warfare? Are you kidding me? Let's just de-escalate this thing right now. How about a water balloon fight? I tell you what, we fill the balloons at your house, Mr. West and we can throw them at each other on my front lawn.  

Just kidding.  

I understand your angst, Mr. West. For the past 15 yrs or so, I have been paying more than twice the sewer rate that the water hogs pay. As a special bonus, the city capped sewer fees at 51 units. Yep, all those water hogs who are using 100-200 units of water in the winter time, get a discount on the first 51 units and pay no sewer charges at all on  the last 50-150 of those units. The city says this is because they can't imagine anyone pouring that much water down the drain.  Yet this same city  imagined that I poured 13.6 units down the drain in Jan/Feb, even though my bill clearly shows I only received 10 units of water during that time. Go figure.

Instead of fomenting about class warfare, Mr West, maybe you would be more effective if you helped to aim those pitchforks at the public officials who are making the bad policy decisions, or refusing to make the good policy decisions. Have you ever wondered why the city of Poway approved another golf course in north Poway and a waterpark in south Poway after our last big drought, or why the de-salinization plant is on the slow-track?  

There has been no word out yet that gives a hint of how the Water Conservation Team will set allocations. The city of San Diego tried to set  allocations based on past water use. This didn't go over too well, and they have now backtracked.  Like Poway, San Diego has hired 10 water cops and they are also employing other tools, for example, using infrared satellite imagery to peek at each parcel and see if areas are overwatered.  Neither Poway nor San Diego has met their conservation goals through voluntary methods.

One Orange county community has been particularly successful in reducing water consumption

Irvine Ranch, which serves 330,000 people in Irvine and parts of Tustin and Newport Beach, adopted its strategy in the face of the major drought that struck Southern California in the early 1990s. In the district, each home's water budget is based on site-specific data: How many people live in a house and how large the property's landscaping is. Those who go above their allocation pay higher rates the more they exceed their allowed use.

The Irvine Ranch model offers evidence that homeowners will use less water if given financial incentives to conserve. A person living in the Irvine Ranch district uses 90 gallons per day. An average San Diegan uses about 162 gallons a day.

The Irvine Ranch Water District assumes every house has 4 residents and 1350 sq ft of landscaping. They allow  75 gallons of water per resident per day. They adjust the outdoor allocation based on the weather.  If more people live in a house, or if the lot size is larger, the allocation is increased.  The water hogs pay much steeper rates.

Six percent of Irvine Ranch customers fall into the district’s excessive and wasteful user categories, forcing them to pay rates four to eight times higher than their efficient neighbors. Those penalty rates generate about $2.5 million annually, which is then used to subsidize the lowest rates and fund conservation programs.

"What we are trying to do is send a very strong price signal to customers that they have inefficient use," Sanchez said. "The message we have is that you can use as much water as you want. But if you choose to be inefficient, you’re going to pay for that inefficiency."

So, the customers pay for the water and for their inefficient use of the water. Interesting. The Irvine Ranch method of allocation is certainly worth taking a look at. 

Using water efficiently comes with living in Southern California. We've lived in Poway for over 30 yrs. Drought happens, and after a few years, it happens again.  We have made some adjustments to our landscaping to reduce our water consumption. We reduced the size of our grassy areas to less than 300 sq. ft. We've added drought tolerant shrubs.  We have our irrigation set up so that not a single drop finds its way to the gutter. Last autumn, we made 2 additional improvements. Several of our irrigation lines were still dripping after they were turned off for the winter. I finally figured out that the valves were the cause of the leak. I replaced a part inside the top of each of the valves and that stopped the leaks. The repair was pretty easy, and the folks over at Poway Irrigation knew exactly which part I needed for my model of valve. 

Our second improvement was to replace our sprinkler heads. Our backyard grassy area (pictured at the top of this post and below) has an unusual shape. It winds around the deck and patio and along a serpentine brick wall. Getting good coverage that doesn't wet the hardscape is a bit tricky.

We had been using TORO sprinkler heads with an adjustable pattern. But they  didn't really deliver the water evenly. We would get dry spots and wet spots no matter how much we adjusted them. We replaced them with the HUNTER rotating sprinkler heads that were on the SoCal WaterSmart rebate list. We bought them at Poway Irrigation for about $7.50 ea. The rebate was $4 ea. The SoCal Water Smart people did come through with their rebate, although I had to call and remind them that it was overdue.

The new sprinkler heads deliver the water at about half the rate of the old Toros, so we needed to lengthen the watering times.  We hope the city manager doesn't set the watering time so that it is too short to do an adequate job.  I would hate to have to switch back. The new sprinklers work great. Both of the pictures in this post were taken after running the sprinklers. If you zoom in, you can see that the patio and deck are barely touched by the water.  

As an added  bonus, the new sprinkler heads were easy to install. We just unscrewed the top of the old sprinklers, ran the water to clean the line and pop out the old filter, put in the new parts  and screwed a new top on. The adjustments for getting the right pattern were also very easy. I highly recommend these sprinkler heads. 

April 20, 2009

Money Down the Drain

I used the "stairs built by a drunken carpenter" graph in my last post to show how crazy Poway's tiered sewer fees are. Today I had several conversations with several people and to tell the truth, I don't think they get what I am trying to say. Maybe, I am the only one who is obsessed about my irrational and unfair sewer fee or I maybe I didn't do a very good job of explaining what has me so POd. I am going to go with the second excuse and try to explain it again.

First of all, the graph at the top of this blog doesn't show the sewer rate. It shows the tiered sewer "fees". The fees are the total amount, or purchase price that we have to pay for putting water into the sewer. The graph of Poway's sewer rates, the amount we have to pay for each unit of water we put into the sewer looks like this:
There are a couple of things to notice about the graph. The first thing is that it looks like a choppy wave.  That is because the sewer fee tiers are set up sort of crazy. They are at irregular intervals and the increases between the tiers are not consistent.  

The second thing to notice about the graph is that the wave seems to be moving to the left and the peaks of the wave seem higher as the wave moves to the left. What that shows is that the people who use the least amount of what is calculated to be indoor water pay higher rates to dump that water in the sewer. And, vice versa; the indoor water hogs pay the lowest sewer rates.    
Tier(units of water)    rate
Tier 1 ( 0-5 )                  $5-$27 /unit
Tier 2 (6-12)                      $4-8 /unit
Tier 3 (13-19)        $3.80-$5.50/unit
Tier 4  (20-26)                   $3-4/unit
Tier 5 (27-37)        $2.58-$3.44/unit
Tier 6 (38-50)        $2.14-$2.81/unit
Tier 7 (50+)      less than $2.15 /unit

So, where did these crazy sewer rates come from? Probably not really from a drunken carpenter. More likely from a drunken consultant. And not really drunk, but certainly not tasked with finding a fair way to charge for sewer use. And not tasked at all with trying to encourage conserving water.  

Giving a discount to large volume users is an old marketing trick meant to increase consumption. Vons has an advertised special going on this week. Healthy Choice Frozen Steamer Meals are $2.99 ea. If you buy 5 of them, the price drops to $1.99 ea.  Why buy 3 of them for a total of $8.97 when you can have 5 of them for $9.95?  You may be paying a little more than you intended, but you are getting it for a lower rate, so you consume more.  Our sewer rates are similarly structured to promote higher water use. As far as I know, the Point Loma sewage treatment plant is not offering a special incentive to Poway for sending a higher volume of sewage their way, so I do not know what possessed Poway to structure the rates the way they did. 
Here is a comparison of Poway's Water rate and sewer rate:

The water rate is a nice steady $2.61/unit for everybody, no matter how much water they use. That sewer rate varies from $27/unit down to $2.15/unit.  The people who use less indoor water are paying more per unit to put that water in the sewer pipe than they paid to buy it in the first place.  The council is going to increase the water rates.  They may restructure the rates so that large volume users will pay more per unit of water. That will incentivize people to use less water. Poway needs to restructure their sewer rates too. Right now they incentivize people to use more indoor water. 

Some of you may be wondering why I complained in the last post of being assigned to Tier 3 instead of Tier 2 based on my water use from 2, 3 and 4 winters ago. Shouldn't I be happy because my sewer rate is lower?  No, I am not happy about it and I will tell you why. Because of the lame way that Poway configures how much sewer water I use, I am paying for water I never got and certainly never put into the sewer. It is as if I paid for 5 Healthy Choice meals for $1.99 ea, but  only 2 of them were put into my bag. I would have been better off paying $2.99 ea for the 2 I actually got.

We don't have meters that measure how much water flows into the sewer from our homes, so the city has to have a method to make some approximation.  They use the average of the lowest water use from the last 3 winters and multiply that by 85% to determine how much water each single family residence is putting into the sewer.  During a very dry winter my lowest water use may be 20 units instead of my regular 8-10 units.  I use that extra water for my trees and gardens. That water never goes into the sewer. The averaging method was intended to moderate the figures in a very dry year, but the effect is that 1 or 2 very dry winters can skew the figures for the next 3-4 yrs.

There are other events that can increase winter water use: extended family visits, a plumbing failure or leak;  a teenager who discovers that a clean body and nice smelling hair make them more popular or any number of other events. Some of these events are temporary.  If you fix the leak, say good-bye to the in-laws, send your progeny off to college, your winter water use will decrease. But you will still be dinged for 3-4 more yrs. because of the way Poway determines your winter water use.

For an incentive to be effective, the reward must happen in close approximation to the time period when the hoped-for behavior occurs.  People are not likely to reduce their water  use because they will see lower bills 3-4 yrs later. It would be far more effective (and cheaper to low volume users) if Poway determined sewer use on the previous winter only. During an extremely dry year, Poway could make other adjustments. It will still not be completely accurate or fair, but it will be far better than the current method Poway uses to calculate indoor water use.

Poway's sewer fees suck. To fix them Poway needs to do 2 things: restructure the rates and change the way they approximate indoor water use.

April 17, 2009

Water Woes

My last water bill was for $136.19. For 10 lousy units of water. That averages out to $13.62 per unit of water.  What makes this so pathetic is that only $26.10 of my bill was for my "consumption" of water. Strange, in an era of so little water, the consumption is the cheapest part of my bill. Which means, I am subsidizing the water hogs in Poway.

How can that be? There are 4 separate charges on residential water bills in Poway. Two of the fees don't have anything to do with how much water anyone uses. They are fixed fees, a $22.38 bi-monthly for water and a $15.48 for sewer. Every residential customer on a 3/4 in meter pays those fees no matter if they use 5 gallons or 5 million gallons of water.  That hardly seems fair, but the tiered sewer fees are even more unfair.

In Poway, we do not have any meters to measure how much water we each put into the sewer system. So the city uses a formula to guess at a close approximation. They average the lowest water use in the 3 previous winters and multiply that number by 85%. That qualifies a user to be in one of 7 tiers, each of which pays a different fee.

Only they really don't do it that way. My last 3 lowest winter water bills were 10, 8, and 20 units. My average is 12.67 and 85% of that is 10.7 units. That should qualify me for a tier 2 fee of $47.98, but instead I am paying a Tier 3 charge of  $72.23. This is because my lowest winter bill this year was in Jan/Feb 09, and the city won't count that. They are using an average from 2, 3, and 4 winters ago.  The 2005/6 and 2006/7 winters were extremely dry.  By including them in our average for 4 yrs,  those of us who are normally in Tier 2 get bumped up into Tier 3 or Tier 4. The penalty for me is an extra $145.00 a year. 

Even if they didn't include bone dry winter water use for 4 yrs, Poway's tiered sewer rates are structured in a way to reward the profligate and punish the conserver. Look at the chart below, the one that looks like a staircase built by a drunk carpenter. This chart compares the tiered sewer fees.  Notice that the increase from Tier 1 to Tier 2 and from Tier 2 to Tier 3 are ginormous, compared to the puny increase from Tier 3 to Tier 4.  That makes the sewer fees really disproportionate to water use.  For example, using 13 units of water will get you a $72.23 sewer fee. Use twice as much, 26 units and you will only have to pay $79.15.  Where is the incentive to conserve?
As councilman Cunningham says, it isn't a crime to use a lot of water. At least not yet.  The councilmembers set the water and sewer rates. They decide if we are in a water shortage emergency and what the consequences and fines will be. They have transferred 6 or 7 employees to the water department, where we will be paying them to get everyone to conserve more water. So it is only fair to look at the councilmember's own water use and see if they practice conservation and/or if they are benefitting from water and sewer rates which subsidize the water hogs.  The chart at the top of the blog shows each councilmember's water use in 2008. (note: I have included Cafagna's data because he voted on the water rates and set policy at this time. Cunningham was not a councilmember until Dec 08.)

Councilwoman Rexford gets kudos for being a real water conserver. I am not sure how she does it. Paper plates, showering with a friend, peeing outdoors? Whatever it is, she could give us all some pointers. I included my own water use on the chart for comparison. (And for the record, I pee indoors in a low flush toilet.) But holy cow! Except for Boyack and Rexford, our council members are pretty profligate with the wet stuff. 

And when they were pushing the 20 gallon challenge and water conservation on us, did they also conserve? Here is a comparison between their 2007 and 2008 water use:

Rexford decreased her water use 13% from 2007 to 2008. Boyack cut back 16%. Cunningham cut back almost 5%. Cafagna upped his usage 6% while Higginson used 38% more water in 2008 than in 2007.  Did you get that? Higginson INCREASED his water use 38% from 2007 to 2008. Way not to be a good role model, Don.

Although Poway will be increasing water consumption rates, with higher rates for the water hogs, they ought also to restructure their fixed charges and their tiered sewer rates if they really want to maximize conservation. And as for those employees now working in the water department, wouldn't your job be easier if the people who imposed the rules on everyone else practiced a little conservation themselves?