Californians Worry About Water Waste

by | September 9, 2014 AT 2:00 PM

By Thomas Peele and Andie Waterman

The expanse of verdant lawn ringing a large vacant construction site in Santa Clara, Calif, sets off Brian Johns.

For Vickie Chang, it's the city of Albany's sprinklers that spray her when they go off each night along her street. And Dave Pearce is peeved by the water he sees gushing straight into San Francisco Bay from the leaky Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct pipeline while he kayaks along the Peninsula. As California contends with a protracted drought, people who are dutifully following the "brown is the new green" philosophy are seething at the sight of freshly irrigated sidewalks and lush green lawns.

"That just torques my jaw," Herb Gomes says of the emerald baseball and softball fields at Ohlone College in Fremont, where he often walks his dog. "I'm doing my part_my lawn has turned brown!"

But those ball fields will be irrigated and stay green until sometime next year, when they are scheduled to be replaced with artificial turf, a college spokeswoman said.

Despite calls from Gov. Jerry Brown for 20 percent cutbacks in water use and the first-ever state mandate to restrict outdoor watering, there is no consensus on how green is too green. Rules on watering are different from community to community, and so is compliance.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District received almost 240 reports of water waste _ mostly sprinklers spraying pavement or running off into the street _ in August alone, four times the number of complaints earlier in the year. Calls to the East Bay Municipal Utility District soared in July, when it received 211 complaints.

The state outdoor water rules, which took effect in August, have empowered water conservers to speak out "now that their concerns are being backed by the state," said Nelsy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for EBMUD.

Johns frequently passes that vacant lot in Santa Clara that's ringed with grass. "A multi-acre lawn around the site of a building that hasn't even been built yet takes the cake," he wrote.

A spokesman for the lot's owner, the Sobrato Organization, didn't want to discuss the grass or why it's irrigated. The head of the city water department said he'd send an inspector to check it out.

Pearce was aghast when he spotted the Hetch Hetchy leaks pouring from a trestle that carries the giant pipes across the bay. "One of the state's most iconic water systems should be setting a better example for conservation," he said. "This is more than just a public-image black eye."

Those leaks cost the region's largest water provider, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, more than a quarter-million gallons a week, its spokesman said_enough to supply water for about 360 people in San Francisco for seven days. But they won't be fixed_or even patched, the spokesman said, before a new water tunnel under the bay opens later this year, taking the old pipes out of service.

Chang just wants to stay dry and not see water dumped in the street. "My car gets pretty wet and so do I," she said, complaining about the city sprinklers that soaked her street, Key Route Boulevard, "profusely at night."

A green median is the kind of extravagance that June Boudreau just doesn't understand.

She got so fed up with her Almaden Valley neighbors' ill-pointed sprinklers "watering the gutter," as she put it, that she began stuffing notes in their mailboxes, urging them to stop.

"They are in denial," she said of people ignoring the state's water crisis. "They don't want to be bothered. I don't think anyone is taking the drought seriously."

Robb Willer, a Stanford sociology professor who studies public attitude about climate change, isn't surprised by the growing sense of injustice among water conservers.

Still, some will refuse to curtail their own water use no matter whose jaws get torqued, he said. "Those who do take more than their share, they're very likely telling themselves that something about their situation is special and different."

But, you know, there's this drought. So what should people, even the special ones, be thinking?

That "we have a real problem," answered John Coleman, president of the Association of California Water Agencies and an EBMUD director. "They need to fix their sprinklers. They need to conserve."

And there's good news for those who are willing to do just that. And there's good news for those who are willing to do just that. Water agencies offer rebates_Santa Clara Valley is even doubling several of its offers_for residents who upgrade their irrigation systems to save water.

Clayton Watkins knows a few places that need to take advantage. On his morning drive for coffee in the affluent Contra Costa town of Moraga, he spotted the wayward sprinklers at the local Jack in the Box restaurant soaking Moraga Way at 6 a.m._just to keep green a tiny strip of grass between the street and sidewalk.

"They should put in a rock garden. I don't think anybody cares if there's a strip of grass when they're going in for a burger and fries."

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)