CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

After months of rain—and increased revenue from last year’s rate increases—both the western Coachella Valley’s Desert Water Agency and the eastern valley’s Coachella Valley Water District find themselves wading in more riches than they could have imagined just one short year ago.

However, that does not mean that all of the water-conservation mandates are a thing of the past.

“The drought is over, but conservation isn’t,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA’s outreach and conservation manager. “That’s the big message.”

While Gov. Jerry Brown declared on April 7that the drought was officially over in most of the state—including Riverside County—many of the water-usage restrictions imposed during the drought may be with us for some time.

“We live in the desert, and we’re always in a drought,” said Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of conservation and communication. “Even though there were many areas of the state that were facing unprecedented circumstances, for us, this is how it is all the time.”

Coachella Valley residents are continuing to conserve. According to the CVWD’s March conservation report, customers used 24.5 percent less potable water than compared to the same period in 2013, while the DWA reported a 23.6 percent decrease.

“There are still prohibitions on water waste, water runoff and watering during or soon after rainfall. These are all things for which the DWA will cite people,” Metzger said. “We see the drought as having been a good learning opportunity for our customers, and we want to keep that message going in terms of water use efficiency.”

However, some of the most onerous water restrictions may be eased.

“Any restrictions that local water agencies imposed above and beyond the state’s, according to my understanding, can be eliminated,” said Engel. “That’s where you see that some of the local time or day-of-the-week outdoor-irrigation usage restrictions are being lifted. But the state restrictions are pretty much common-sense restrictions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board make those kinds of restrictions permanent.”

Still, the local agencies are celebrating the results of all the recent precipitation.

“The big and good news is that, with the state getting plenty of rain and snowmelt runoff in Northern California, we are expecting to get 85 percent of our imported water allotment from the State Water Project this year,” Engel said. “That’s huge. If you’ve driven over that Whitewater Bridge lately, you’ve seen the water flowing down, and it’s going to be flowing all year. We’re thinking that we might be able to put about 300,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer, which is huge for all of us here in the Coachella Valley.”

The last year in which the valley received a noteworthy imported water allotment from the state was 2013.

“The only downside is that we have to be more diligent in our messaging concerning safety,” Metzger said. “You know during the summer when people want to get a reprieve from the heat out here that the river flow is alluring. But we want to point people to the reserve to experience the water resource—and not have them go into the river.”

The CVWD may also receive an unexpected revenue windfall. Last year, the CVWD board of directors approved aggressive incremental rate increases over five years. Engel explained: “When we pitched the need for these rate increases to the community, we said there were three key reasons: chromium 6 treatment (required by new state regulations); reduced revenue due to conservation; and the third had to do with a number of other capital-improvement projects, some of which had been deferred during the recession years.”

However, CVWD staff members last fall—after the rate increases were enacted—became aware of test results involving an alternative chromium 6 treatment program.

“We decided to take a timeout and do a pilot study of this alternative treatment method,” Engel said. “If this doesn’t work, we probably won’t meet the deadline to be in compliance with state-mandated chromium 6 levels by 2020. So there’s a bit of a risk there, but the savings to our customers would be so significant, and the positive impact on our communities and the environment so significant, that our board decided it was a risk worth taking. Since the report came, a handful of water districts in the state, and the city of Coachella, are looking into this other method.”

Could this new treatment option lead to—at least—lower rate increases for CVWD customers?

“The board could reduce rates back to 2010 levels if they wanted to do that,” she said. “Or they could say they don’t need any increase this year. Or they could increase any amount up to the total that was published.”

At 8 a.m., Monday, May 22, the CVWD Board is holding a public meeting to review a presentation on next year’s fiscal budget, effective July 1.

“Certainly, we did not spend the money in the last year on the chromium 6 treatment project that we had planned, but we’re uncertain about that future,” Engel said. “People are still conserving, and that’s good, and we do still have these additional projects that we need to do. For instance, we’re in the planning stages for the construction of a new aquifer-recharge facility in Palm Desert, where subsidence of the aquifer has become an issue. So there’s still a need to fund these other projects, but whether or not we can do it with or without a rate increase is still undecided. Based on what the board has said in recent public meetings, it’s clear they’re hoping that staff can come up with a plan (for the next fiscal year) that does not require an increase.”

Meanwhile, the DWA and other local water agencies have found a way to lessen the impact of rate increases on some customers. Partnering with the United Way, the DWA formed the Help2Others program, which provides financial aid to help lower-income residents pay their water bills.

“We have a lot of seniors and some lower-income neighborhoods. … it was really important to get a program like that set up, and we did,” Metzger said. “… Now all five public water agencies in the valley have this program in conjunction with the United Way.

This valuable assistance is funded differently through each of the participating agencies. “Here at the DWA,” Metzger said, “our vendors and our employees have contributed funds to make our program possible, which I’m super-proud of. I think we all realize what we do wouldn’t be possible without the residents paying our rates, and if you need help, we understand water is one of the most fundamental things you need.”

Published in Local Issues

So far this year in the Coachella Valley, water-rate increases have gone into effect in both the Mission Springs Water District (encompassing Desert Hot Springs and northern Palm Springs) and the Myoma Dunes Water Company territory of Bermuda Dunes.

In both cases, mandatory public meetings were held—and citizens came out to protest what they saw as unfair increases.

On Tuesday, June 14, the latest domino to fall was the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward. Its board of directors was holding one final public meeting on whether to approve the controversial rate-increase plans it had been proposing for more than three months. Various local media and an overflow crowd of more than 300 customers showed up for the meeting, held under the watchful gaze of armed members of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

As expected, the board approved the first step in a five-step rate increase plan … sort of: The members voted for a rate increase in volumetric charges, effective July 1, as well as a 44 percent increase in fixed-cost charges for customers effective from July through September, with a reduction to 22 percent beginning in October.

Or did they? Heather Engel, the CVWD director of conservation and communication, told the Independent after the vote that the increase would not be quite as steep.

“For our (single-family residential) customers, their fixed charge was going to go up (on July 1) from $7 to $11.30, but now, it will be $9.26 (a roughly 32 percent increase) as of Oct. 1” rather than July 1, she said.

She said it’s possible the board could further lessen that fixed-charge increase between now and October.

“It will be revisited (in September) to see if it can be adjusted down further,” she said.

As for the volumetric portion of the customer bills, the proposed increases were indeed adopted as proposed. (To review the final approved water rates, visit www.cvwd.org/ratechanges.)

With all of the local water districts, the rate-increase rationale begins with the revenue shortfall caused by successful conservation efforts. Another undeniable factor is the cost of maintaining and upgrading the existing water-management and delivery infrastructure.

But the wild card in each agency’s deck is the State Water Resources Control Board’s new Chromium 6 abatement regulations. After initially fighting the state-regulation terms that the agency viewed as onerous, the CVWD has now decided to move forward aggressively with plans to create and maintain a massive treatment infrastructure—at an estimated minimum development cost of $250 million, with ongoing annual maintenance costs of $8 million.

At least one local lawmaker thinks the CVWD should be pushing back against the state a little more.

“If I was in the CVWD’s shoes, I’d say let’s hold off a little bit,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. “Let’s maybe spend some money on doing some designing and some engineering, but let’s hold off a little bit to see if there’s any change (in the current regulations).”

Garcia said it’s indeed possible that those Chromium 6 regulations could be changed.

“Last year, we were successful in passing Senate Bill 385, which I co-authored. … The bill gave (affected) agencies a five-year variance to comply with the new standard,” Garcia said. “That meant three things from our perspective: (We can) continue to gather scientific information that would either support or invalidate the (Chromium 6) standard … and possibly challenge that standard; give agencies the time needed to plan, design and build the infrastructure needed to meet the standards; and allow time for specific legal challenges already under way to proceed and potentially change the direction or outcome of the new standards. … But (the CVWD is) moving steadfast, perhaps because they feel there might not be any changes, and I respect that outlook and the direction they are going in.”

Garcia said it’s also possible the CVWD could get financial help from the state.

“Another area we’re looking at is money made available in the water bond, Proposition 1. Specifically, it allocated $260 million for water grants and loans for public utilities, and for addressing infrastructure needs and what have you. These dollars were originally meant for smaller utilities, but we’re trying to see if utilities with a larger footprint could potentially be eligible.”

On a related front, during the June 14 meeting, board member Peter Nelson expressed a desire for the CVWD to join a lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board, being led by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. It questions the need for the stringent drinking-water regulation of Chromium 6. The CVWD board has scheduled a closed-session discussion of this possibility for July.

Ashley Metzger, the manager of conservation and outreach at the Desert Water Agency, which serves much of Palm Springs and Cathedral City, defended the CVWD’s efforts.

“CVWD fought this (Chromium 6 regulation) tooth and nail,” she said. “They really put up a strong campaign against this standard being set so low.”

Metzger also offered a reminder for all local water-agency customers: “One thing that people often forget is we’re all public agencies. We represent them. We’re not for-profit. We’re different from Edison and SoCalGas, which are private companies. Everything we do is with our customers in mind.”

Is a water-rate increase coming to the DWA?

“We are doing a rate study right now,” Metzger said. “A whole host of factors will be evaluated. It’s a very comprehensive process. We expect to see the results sometime in late summer 2016.”

Published in Local Issues

Since March 24, the Coachella Valley Water District management team has been conducting a series of public presentations billed as “Water Rate Workshops.”

The managers’ goal of these presentations: Cnvince wary customers to go along with a proposed four years of considerable water-rate increases, slated to start on July 1.

The CVWD board of directors will decide on the first year of proposed increases on June 14.

At the May 2 workshop, many customers of the utility—which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward—left unconvinced about the need for the rate hikes, despite the arguments made by CVWD General Manager Jim Barrett and Conservation Manager Katie Ruark.

The CVWD cites three main factors in the increase request: a decrease in revenue due to successful conservation efforts which obviously reduced water sales; water treatment needed to meet newly adopted state drinking-water standards for chromium 6, which will cost the agency about $250 million; and system maintenance and upgrades needed to serve the 318,000 residents who rely on the agency for reliable and safe water.

Many audience members had legitimate questions regarding the proposed CVWD responses to these financial challenges.

It was obvious from the start of the state-mandated water-conservation effort in 2014 that all water agencies’ revenues would decrease if customers’ water usage decreased. The CVWD relied on budgeted reserve funds and customer over-usage penalty fees to bridge the gap, and understandably, those resources will not be sufficient to cover costs moving forward.

But are there other areas in the current CVWD budget where money might be saved? Employee-compensation costs make up 39.2 percent of the domestic-water-service expenses at the agency. Barrett mentioned that more employees had been hired in the past few years after a decrease in staff following the Great Recession, but he indicated that employee costs were not a factor in the move to increase rates.

On the other hand, in a recent interview, Heather Engel, the CVWD director of communication and conservation, recently told us: “When those chromium 6 treatment plants are built, we’re going to have to hire a lot more people, because we will need them to operate the plants.”

That leads to an interesting question regarding the proposed $250 million chromium 6 treatment plan: A customer at the May 2 workshop asked if the utility had considered pushing back or initiating a lawsuit against the new state mandate. The response: After serious consideration, the board chose not to push back, and instead to implement the costly treatment solution.

The chromium 6 situation happens to be much different on the Coachella Valley’s western end, where water customers are served by the Desert Water Agency.

“The DWA is extremely fortunate, because a lot of the (aquifer) recharge happens right in our own backyard,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA outreach and conservation manager, in a recent interview. “One effect of that process is to dilute the naturally occurring chromium 6 levels, because the Colorado River water has no chromium 6. We’re actually below the (state’s new) 10 parts per billion threshold level, so we’re not going to have to treat anything.”

However, Metzger did express doubts about the need for the new strict state standard.

“I would argue that we don’t know if there’s a threat at all,” she said. “Our federal level is currently 100 parts per billion, and (in California), we’re now talking 10 parts. A part per billion is like if you had $10 million worth of pennies, you’re going to be able to find one of those pennies that’s different than the others. Science has evolved very quickly, and because we’re able to detect minute traces of substances, there’s a tendency, I think, to regulate based on the ability to detect. But sometimes (that tendency to regulate) is for the good of the community, and other times, all the factors are not evaluated.”

Back to the Coachella Valley Water District: Are these proposed rate increases a foregone conclusion?

“(The board has) a proven history of listening to the customers and trying to be responsive to their feedback,” Engel said. “But let me say that this is not a popular rate-increase proposal. This is going to mean that most homeowners will see an increased rate of about $6 per month, but (homeowner associations) and businesses are going to see a much more significant increase on their bills, and we know that. So we have not proposed this plan without a lot of thought and consideration from CVWD.

“The challenge that we face results from the cost-of-service studies. In order to have rates that are defensible against any lawsuits, we have to base any increase on a cost-of-service study. Our consultants came back and said that we are not charging customers what we should be.”

Do the CVWD’s domestic water customers have any real voice in this debate? They do, according to the agency’s “Important Information About Your Rates” brochure, recently mailed to all invoiced customers.

In the section titled “How Can I Participate?” there is this clause: “At the time of the public hearing, the board of directors will hear and consider all written protests and public comments. After the hearing, if a majority of the property owners of the impacted parcels or tenants directly liable for the payment of the charges submit written protests in opposition to the proposed rate increases, the increases will not be imposed. If a majority protest is not received, CVWD’s board of directors may adopt the proposed changes, though they are not obligated to.”

Published in Local Issues

As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

Published in Environment

On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts.

“With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said.

However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted.

Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent.

A bit more conservation success was realized by the Indio Water Authority; the agency reported a 26 percent usage decline, but that still fell 5.6 percent short of the targeted 32 percent. The Coachella Water Authority reported a 20 percent decline, 4 percent below the 24 percent target.

By far, the best local June conservation results came from the Desert Water Agency, which exceeded its 36 percent target with a 40 percent decline in usage.

Representatives of the agencies put a positive spin on the numbers.

“We were pretty satisfied with our June number of 21 percent,” said Heather Engel, the Coachella Valley Water District’s director of communications and conservation, “although the state water board criticized us because it was 15 percent away from our goal number of 36 percent. We got some feedback from the state that we might have to do something differently, but we felt that 21 percent was pretty impressive for summer in the Coachella Valley.”

Even more impressive are the CVWD’s July numbers: The district saw a 41 percent decrease, when compared to the same month two years ago. However, the Desert Water Authority’s reduction fell from 40 percent in June to 30 percent in July.

As of our press deadline, July reports were unavailable for the Indio Water Authority, the Coachella Water Authority and the Mission Springs Water District.

Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, said her agency wasn’t sure why the 40 percent reduction in June slipped to 30 percent in July.

“We haven’t been able to determine any factual evidence to demonstrate what made the difference between the conservation results in June and July of this year, since it’s only been two days since we reported that information,” she explained. “But we will continue to implement our restrictions and conservation programs to keep the momentum going.”

Ruark did offer some preliminary theories on the difference between the two months: “July was a hotter month in terms of temperatures than June, so that could have been a factor in increased use. Also, it occurs to me that we should look at an increase in tourism rates throughout July, because that could impact the level of usage as well.”

Over at the CVWD, the marked improvement in conservation results obviously pleased Engel. She credited the agency’s public outreach, education programs and rebate programs. “We’ve had this jump in July, and I think that can primarily be attributed to not only the ongoing efforts just mentioned, but that’s when the drought penalties went into effect. That was an additional financial incentive for people to cut back their water use.”

However, the water agencies now find themselves in a curious quandary: As their conservation successes increase, they’re bringing in less money. Does this forebode a rate increase for water customers?

“In July alone, our regular billed water consumption revenue was down by more than $2 million, but we received $1.9 million in new penalty revenue,” CVWD’s Engel said. “We’re hoping to use some of that (penalty) money to further fund our conservation programs, like the turf-buyback program, but I’m not sure if that’s the way it will work, honestly, because our overall revenue is down due to the conservation of water. That penalty funding may be needed to recoup some of that lost revenue.”

Ruark said the Palm Springs-area Desert Water Agency readied itself for the loss in income.

“The DWA, in the preparation of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget … did prepare for a revenue hit that we knew would result from decreased water use,” she said. “We compensated for that by projecting a $10 million hit, and we deferred capital-improvement projects, and we’ll be taking some money out of our operating reserves to fill that gap. In 2016, we were already scheduled to be doing a rate study, so we’ll be taking a really hard look at both our costs and our rates to determine if our customer rates do need to be adjusted.”

At the east end of the valley, the CVWD’s Engel described the challenge this way. “We do have reserve funds that are specifically designated for use as a rate-stabilization resource. So, when and if we do have a large drop in revenue, we can rely on those funds to be a short term solution. As a result, we are not seriously concerned about the near future.”

There will be no relief forthcoming from the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined to accept appeals and population-data submissions by the DWA and CVWD, which felt the absence of seasonal residents in population statistics skewed the agencies’ per-capita water usage—and resulted in the harsh decrease mandates from the state.

“We did submit our data to them in a memo with backup documentation of our methods,” Ruark said. “They would not accept our conclusions because they felt that we should only include seasonal residents in our winter months’ usage calculations. We explained that those homes are still using water even when the residents themselves are absent, because most of the water usage is on landscaping needs outdoors, and continue regardless. But they declined to accept that premise.”

Published in Environment

The board of directors of the Coachella Valley Water District—the agency that provides water to much of the east end of the Coachella Valley—met on Tuesday, May 12, to issue a final set of emergency water usage restrictions.

When it was all over, CVWD customers were facing a much less onerous set of restrictions than residents elsewhere in the valley.

After more than an hour of public comments from an audience of roughly 120 residents and business owners, the CVWD issued mandates including:

  • The watering of outdoor landscapes within 48 hours of measurable rainfall is prohibited.
  • The irrigation of ornamental turf on public street medians is no longer allowed.
  • The use of water in decorative fountains is prohibited unless there is a recirculation system.
  • Restaurants must serve water only on request.
  • Runoff flows from outdoor watering are now a no-no.

However, the CVWD did not follow the lead of the west-side Desert Water Agency (DWA) or the Indio Water Authority (IWA) and place mandatory restrictions on the watering of ornamental landscapes.

Rather, it was “recommended” that CVWD customers continue to water only between sunset and 10 a.m., any day, if they so choose. That’s quite a contrast to the restrictions issued by the other water agencies. The IWA limits landscape irrigation to the hours between 6 p.m., and 6 a.m., on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The DWA mandated that residential customers can only water Monday, Wednesday and Friday, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., while commercial, industrial and institutional customers can water on alternate days—but only after they submit a plan approved by agency personnel.

Katie Ruark, the DWA’s public information officer, explained how the DWA board of directors came to the three-days-per-week, mandatory restriction.

“Math,” Ruark said. “We ran some calculations internally to see what we would have to do to reduce overall usage by 36 percent, and knowing that landscape watering accounts for the majority of water use … we knew that we had to cut down to that many days to get where we needed.”

Almost all of the CVWD board’s “restrictions” aren’t restrictions at all, but “recommended activities” in which actions are either “strongly encouraged” or “strongly discouraged.”

“I think the board decided that people need to have flexibility in determining what works best for them,” said CVWD spokeswoman Heather Engel after the meeting. “They set a goal at 36 percent below your budgeted water use amount, and you know we’re not asking every single person or customer to reduce. Some people have already done their part, and they don’t need to do any more. But for the people who are above that threshold, they are saying, ‘You do what you need to do to get your number down.’ So if that means you need to limit your watering, then fine, but maybe there’s somebody else who can get to their number without reducing their watering.”

That flexibility was not offered to DWA and IWA customers.

“Our strategy has been to achieve a community-wide reduction,” said Ruark of the DWA. “And the reason for that is that we know there are people in our community who have put in desertscapes; they’ve taken out their old washer and dryer and put in water-efficient ones; they’ve redone their irrigation systems, and they don’t have a lot of room left to save. We also know that there are people who do have a lot of room to save. So we implemented 13 water-use restrictions, and we’re essentially controlling the way you use water, and not necessarily how much you use.”

There is some hope for all valley residents: The onerous 36 percent total reduction mandated by the state may be rolled back to some lesser amount, thanks to the efforts of the DWA.

As reported previously, the DWA was the only one of the Coachella Valley’s three major water agencies that put in the time and effort to argue for the reduction of the valley’s per-capita water-usage calculation as adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board. Partly as a result of the agency’s explanation as to how the valley’s seasonal and tourist population inflates the water usage that is attributed to the smaller full-time residential community, the state board decided to allow agencies statewide to present revised estimates and supporting data on actual per-capita population totals.

“We’ve been making the comment since 2010, when we did our urban water-management plans, that it was just not accurate for us to use (federal) Census data,” Ruark said. “Other population projections have to be incorporated in this area, because our seasonal population is so significant.”

If the revised and lower per capita numbers are accepted by the State Water Board, that could lessen the target water-usage reduction total.

“This is huge for all the agencies in the Coachella Valley, and we’re very excited that we’ll be able to do that,” Engel said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out and back up a population number which we think is more accurate. But we’re still confirming our data with as many experts as we can to make sure we can defend it.”

If the state does decrease the target from 36 percent, would usage reduction targets be moved to that lower number?

“I think we would have to go back to the board and see how they want to respond,” Engel said.

As for the DWA, “That is hard to say,” Ruark said. “Our board is open to effectiveness always, but specifically to say would they change the restrictions halfway through the game, I don’t know.”

No matter which Coachella Valley water agency provides you with the valuable natural resource, you should visit the appropriate website and study up on the restrictions from and behaviors allowed by your agency. If you hope to avoid financial repercussions, such as higher-tier rates and/or potential fines—the CVWD has had fines in place for a year now, and the DWA is looking into them—you need to be proactive in observing and managing your water usage.

“We’re not a policing agency,” Engel said. “We’re not going to go crazy with these restrictions and fines. Our goal is to educate people and to assist people.”

For more information, visit www.cvwd.org, www.dwa.org or www.indiowater.org.

Below: The Coachella Valley Water District mandated that customers can’t water within 48 hours of measurable rain. That was one of the few actual restrictions issued by the agency, which instead focused on recommendations. Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Environment

On March 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board made it clear: Californians need to escalate the battle against the continuing, disastrous drought that’s plaguing our state.

Gov. Jerry Brown first held a press conference to reiterate the need for increased voluntary water conservation. Soon after, though, he went on the offensive: In an executive order issued April 1, he delivered the first list of state-mandated water-use restrictions in California’s history—mandates which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 28, 2016, although most people believe they’ll remain in effect well beyond that date.

The order means the two main water-management agencies in the Coachella Valley—the Desert Water Agency (DWA) on the west end, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) on the east end—have been charged with creating, implementing and following local water-usage-reduction programs.

The CVWD held a board meeting to solicit public input on April 14.

“I’d estimate that we had nearly 100 people there—and we don’t get any people at our meetings very often,” said Heather Engel, the agency’s director of communication and conservation. “I think the board really appreciated the outpouring from the community and the sharing in the discussion. Here’s the thing: We need to hear from them which restrictions are feasible and are going to be accepted by them.”

The CVWD’s new strategies and restrictions will be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday, April 28.

Over at the DWA, on Tuesday, April 21, the board of directors held a public meeting—and an estimated 200-plus citizens packed into the small meeting room, overflowing into the lobby. The size of the crowd required that Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, deliver her multimedia presentation on water-conservation efforts twice—first in the meeting room, and then to the disgruntled citizens forced to stand outside the meeting room’s doors.

While the CVWD put two weeks between the public-input meeting and an announcement of new restrictions, the DWA issued revised policies just hours after public input was received on April 21. Given that tight turnaround, it’s difficult to understand how the public comments could have influenced the final policy announcement.

The DWA restrictions, which took effect immediately, declare that “the following uses of water are now prohibited (or continue to be prohibited): washing of hardscapes; running water to wash vehicles (buckets and stop nozzles on hoses are permitted); (and) the use of potable water in fountains or other decorative water features (unless necessary for aquatic pets).”

The decree continues, “Irrigation restrictions include: using potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems; outdoor residential irrigation shall be restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.; a commercial, industrial or institutional customer may implement an alternative water use reduction plan that achieves reductions in water use equivalent to those expected from the restrictions prescribed herein, if approved …; runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures is prohibited; irrigating up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall is prohibited; the use of potable water to irrigate turf within street medians, and turf within the dedicated right of way on either side of a public street, is prohibited.”

The restrictions end with: “Additional restrictions for hotels and restaurants include: Restaurants may provide water to customers only upon request; (and) operators of hotels and motels shall provide guests with the option of choosing not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”

The DWA also asked customers to refrain from emptying and refilling swimming pools from June 1 through Oct. 31, unless absolutely necessary.

Per State Water Resources Control Board policy, no restrictions are being placed on the agricultural industry. In CVWD territory, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of total water usage, as compared to 17 percent by golf courses, and 33 percent for domestic use—public and private, commercial and residential.

Both of the valley’s agencies have been told to reduce their customers’ total usage by 36 percent as computed against 2013 usage numbers. By comparison, some water districts in the state have been asked to reduce usage by as little as 6 to 10 percent. The percentage target for each district was based on per-capita usage numbers, so this high target for valley residents was predicated on consistently high per-capita average-usage totals.

In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board by DWA general manager David Luker, he blamed seasonal residents for much of the high water usage.

“During the warmer season, approximately 30 percent of water bills are sent out of the state of California,” Luker wrote. “Seasonal residents have homes that use water whether they are here or not, but they are not counted as population. The water use of seasonal residents is placed on the backs of year-round residents, as seasonal residents are not included in population data.”

Unlike the DWA, the CVWD declined to make a comment to the SWRCB.

“A 36 percent reduction is not going to be easy as a whole water district,” said Engel. “We still think that the state’s per-capita number for us is not a fair representation, but we have decided that, no, we’re not going to push back. We’ve decided that if the state wants us to reduce by 36 percent, then we’re going to do what we can to reduce by 36 percent.”

At the DWA’s public meeting, numerous community speakers urged the board to adopt and implement a tiered-billing policy soon—even though a state appeals court had just ruled that a four-tiered pricing plan adopted by San Juan Capistrano was in violation of Proposition 218, a 1996 initiative passed by voters that prohibits government agencies from charging more for services than their actual cost.

However, the CVWD, which has had a tiered-billing system since 2009, is confident the agency’s system could withstand any legal challenge.

“We don’t think it will have an effect,” Engel said about the ruling. “Our understanding is that the court’s problem was not with budget-based tiered rates in general, but with rate structures that arbitrarily set the pricing. Our rate structure is based on our cost to provide service.”

Published in Environment

So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end.

Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1.

“As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it.

“The bad news is there are people who didn’t get their applications in right away—and (people) who maybe got them in pretty quickly—who missed out on the funding. Of course, those people are disappointed. We’ve stopped accepting any more applications.”

The picture is brighter in CVWD territory, albeit still challenging. The agency allotted $950,000 specifically for turf-buyback rebates this fiscal year, and in two months, CVWD customer requests have burned through almost all of those funds—yet the applications keep coming in.

“We have seen such an overwhelming response to our programs,” said Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation. “It’s been amazing. In fact, we’re already almost out of money, and we’ve had 158,972 square feet of grass removed in our district just since July 1 of this year.”

The CVWD has offered some form of a turf-buyback rebate program to its customers, in an effort to decrease the amount of water-guzzling grass, since 2010. “In the first three months of fiscal 2014—that was July through September—we received applications for 2 million square feet of turf conversion,” CVWD conservation coordinator Dave Koller said. “It took us four years previously to reach the 3-million-square-foot total.”

The severe drought conditions prevailing in California have definitely impacted valley residents’ awareness of their use of water resources, and as a result, the turf-buyback program has become more popular.

“I think it’s because of the declaration of the drought emergency by the governor in January, and our board-mandated water restrictions in August,” Koller said. “Combined with the public outreach and publicity on the drought and turf conversions, I think it’s all just coming together. It’s a good thing, because once turf is converted, it saves 70 to 80 percent of the water that turf would need.”

What plans do the agencies have to increase funding to meet the unexpected demand? On the CVWD front, Engel said, “We’ll be going to our board on Oct. 28 to see if we can get a little more funding.”

Will there be a decisive vote at that meeting?

“Every time I’ve gone to the board for increased funding, they’ve been agreeable to it,” said Koller. “They put a high value on conservation, so I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”

(Editor's note: The CVWD board did indeed approve more funding at that meeting. According to a news release: "The additional funding of $1.8 million will sustain the turf conversion, smart controller and nozzle programs until approximately Dec. 31, 2014. After this funding has been depleted, new applications for landscape rebates will be accepted beginning in the next fiscal year.")

Ruark said the DWA board “has sent the issue for research to the finance and conservation subcommittees and asked for them to come back with recommendations as to what they’d like to do. So that’s where we are right now. I don’t have dates as to when it will come before the board again or what the process will be from here.”

The DWA’s response to the buyback situation has irritated Paul Ortega, a longtime Palm Springs resident, a landscape design consultant and the co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley.

“There’s a large group (of buyback applicants) that has been told they have been placed on a wait list—or (in) what I call ‘the limbo phase,’” Ortega shared. “They’ve been told that they are not going to get a site inspection, which is a critical part of the DWA’s application process, because without that happening prior to the work, if a customer should decide to move forward with their own turf-conversion plan, they would disqualify themselves from participation in the DWA rebate. This is unfortunate, because the DWA is not giving these people any incentive to stay engaged in the DWA turf-conversion effort.”

Ortega added: “I did meet with DWA board president Craig Ewing. He believes that a subcommittee recommendation will be made to the board to increase the turf-buyback funding allotment by at least an additional $250,000 or more in the very near term. But that action won’t address the other applicants who represent some $800,000 more in requested rebate funds. He’d like to see the board approve funding now that’s sufficient to cover all of the pending turf-buyback applications.”

What does the DWA advise their “limbo phase” customers with unaccepted applications to do? Wait to do the work until they can get an application approved? Move forward at their own expense?

“Those who can wait may do so,” Ruark remarked. “Those who cannot and can afford to do their conversion without a rebate should do that. Each homeowner should do what is best for them.”

Ortega believes that stance is inadequate.

“For the DWA to put so much effort into this whole initiative, only to shut the program down a couple of months after launch due to lack of funds, is really unfortunate,” Ortega said. “If they don’t give their ‘limbo phase’ customers some reason to hang in, then they’re not going to—and they’re going to be pissed. And they already are. I hear it a lot. People are disappointed, you know?”

Updated on Oct. 30 with info from the Oct. 28 CVWD meeting.

Published in Environment

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”

Published in Local Issues

Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California.

Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years.

“Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management.

Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could run out as early as July. “I am not calm and collected,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority, the agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to the Santa Barbara Independent.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the news is comparatively good news for Desert Water Agency customers. The agency serves customers in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. “We have underground storage called the aquifer here,” explained Ewing at the workshop. “Ninety percent of our water comes from that; 10 percent comes from snows and the creeks. So we aren’t in the desperate condition they’re in up north.”

The good news continues. Due to the combined efforts of the DWA on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District agency—which services most of the communities from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea—the water level in the aquifer has been supplemented frequently since 1973 through “recharging” of the supply with water obtained from the Colorado River as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We started banking natural runoffs during wet years,” Ewing said. “Now we’re trying to maintain a stable supply. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, since they’re telling us that the 21st century will be drier than the 20th. This comes down to some big issues around climate and geology and water availability, and your role as a human being to leave a smaller water footprint as we go forward.”

Ewing noted the fortunate reality at play in the Coachella Valley. “We live in a desert, and yet we have direct access to the California State Water Project, so we don’t pay a middle man,” he said. “We have this aquifer that actually filters the water so we don’t have to spend money on treatment, and it provides a valuable natural storage resource. We have to recognize that we are probably the most fortunate people out there with regard to water—but that’s no reason to ignore the drought problem.”

Also in attendance at the public workshop was Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who is currently running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “I’m here because I felt it was important to hear about the concerns that our constituency may have and to hear from the DWA what they are proposing. Everyone has to do their part at the end of the day. We have to do everything we can to protect our most important natural asset.”

DWA officials discussed some of the water-conservation efforts currently under way. The first is operational efficiency, which involves the water agency’s efforts to make sure it saves water in the way it’s delivered to the customer. This includes replacing damaged water mains, providing homeowners with smart water meters, and identifying irrigation-system leaks, among other initiatives.

Other efforts include educational outreach, customer incentives or rebates, and regulatory restrictions on water usage. Another conservation strategy, tiered-rate billing, is under serious consideration and study by the DWA.

For CVWD customers, tiered-rate billing is already business as usual.

“We started tiered rates in 2009,” said Heather Engel, CVWD director of communications and legislation. “And we didn’t get a lot of resistance from our customers. We did a pretty heavy education campaign, which included sending ‘shadow bills’ to every customer for three months prior to implementation. They got to see if their bill would go up, down or stay the same. And for 80 percent of our customers, the bill actually went down by a couple of pennies.

“Some people did accuse us of just trying to make more money,” Engel continued. “But it really was an education program. People maybe thought they were being very conscientious with their water use, but here was a guide that they could look at and say, ‘Wow! I’m being excessive.’ Maybe they had leaks they didn’t know about and could now address.”

Are tiered rates definitely in the future for DWA customers?

“If you ask me, I’d say yes,” said DWA board president Ewing. “But it will be a discussion for the board. I think we need to go there.”

Barbara Ojena, a Palm Springs citizen, seemed pleased that she attended the workshop.

“I was very impressed how on top of things the organization is. Personally, I’d like to see a few more regulations put in place at this time, because we are in a severe situation statewide. I think we need to make people more aware of that and conserve what we’ve got.”

Published in Environment