By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
North Bay water officials are afraid that residents may not be worried enough about the state of the region’s water supply after two consecutive years of below-normal rainfall.
Results from an April survey of 600 Sonoma County voters bolster that fear, with 43 percent expressing limited or no concern about water availability despite below-capacity storage in Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino as the summer looms.
But rather than dwell on the negative, the Sonoma County Water Agency and partnering Marin and Sonoma County water utilities are posing a challenge for local consumers: Save 20 gallons a day to help conserve summer water supplies and help bridge the gap until the next rainy season.
The 20 Gallon Challenge is designed not only to inspire conservation, but to help people figure out how much water they use during day-to-day activities through an online checklist they can use to identify specific ways to save.
For those who remember the summer of 2009, when three years of dry conditions prompted a state order mandating a 25 percent cut in water use by the Water Agency’s 600,000 customers, the current state of things might raise the specter of similar measure.
But Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood said there’s been no word of mandatory rationing so far, though “I can’t say what they’re going to do in the future.”
“As of right now, we’re hoping to deal with this on a local basis,” Sherwood said. “Part of the 20 Gallon Challenge means we’re illustrating to the state and others that we can reduce our water use without mandatory rationing. We feel that we can achieve the same goals by the cooperation of our water retailers and our community.”
Shave two minutes off a shower and consume 5 gallons less, the Water Agency checklist says. Water outdoor plants before 6 a.m. or after 8 p.m. and stop 20 gallons from being lost to evaporation. Use a pool cover to reduce evaporation and save 30 gallons. Mulch plants and trees, save another 25.
“The aim is the fact that we’re coming out of one of the driest springs on record,” Sherwood said. “It’s dry out there, and now more than ever is the time to increase awareness about how to use water wisely.”
Santa Rosa has had about 27 1/2 inches of rain to date in the rainfall season that runs from July 1 to June 30.
The 30-year average is 36.28 inches, the National Weather Service said.
The 2011-12 season saw even less rain — 23.23 inches — though nearly a quarter of it fell in the month of March, raising storage levels before the driest months arrived.
This year, there’s been just 5 inches of rainfall since the deluge that was December, after which the Army Corps of Engineers, anticipating the potential need for additional flood-control capacity, released water into the Russian River that was never recouped, Sherwood said.
The water supply pool at Lake Sonoma is now at 91.3 percent of capacity, while smaller Lake Mendocino, which is key to the water level of the Russian River from Ukiah to Healdsburg, is at 53.8 percent of capacity.
In a telephone survey of randomly selected Sonoma County voters conducted in late April, nearly a quarter acknowledged a “very serious problem” with the water supply. Another 31 percent considered the problem “somewhat serious.”
Comparing the results with those from a similar poll in 2009 — a dry season when awareness of water scarcity was high — suggests “we have to re-educate and make people aware again,” Sherwood said.
In the 2009 survey, 51 percent saw water supply as a “very serious” problem, and 31 percent viewed it as “somewhat serious.”
Water officials also have seen per capita water use creep up since the low in 2011 of 113 gallons per person per day to 119 per capita per day last year. Per capita figures aren’t available for 2013, but overall demand does not reflect the realities of a short water supply, agency personnel said.
“We are currently seeing summer-like water demands on our system right now,” Sherwood said last week. “That means we are pumping 63 million gallons of water from the Russian River water supply system every day. Folks are obviously watering and using lots of water.”
But the survey indicated people are, or think they are, doing a lot to conserve water and are willing to do more.
That mirrors what local retailers say about customers coming in for drought-tolerant plants, drip irrigation systems and timers and the like.
“We are booming in that category,” said Jerry Nelson, a plumbing salesman at Friedman’s Home Improvement in Santa Rosa. “It’s a big part of what we do every day. People would rather do drip irrigation. That’s what our specialty is here.”
“A lot more people are asking for drought-tolerant planting,” said Patty Hamilton, sales manager at Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery in Graton.
Steve Chase, manager of the Bennett Valley Ace Hardware store on Yulupa Avenue, said widespread resolve to conserve water outdoors contrasts with many folks’ general frustration with low-flow faucets, showers and toilets, however.
“I think people are more frustrated with the lack of pressure than the shortage of water, unfortunately,” he said.
But Carrie Pollard, water use efficiency manager at the Water Agency, said design improvements and new standards testing adopted since 2006 — through which federal WaterSense labels are awarded to high-performing water-saving products — permit consumers to feel confident they are getting devices that will work for them.
There also are direct-install, rebate and discount incentive programs available for water conservation measures in different communities.
One of the easiest ways to reduce consumption is to cut back slightly on outdoor irrigation, which accounts for the biggest use of water in most households, Pollard said.
Cutting two minutes off routine watering times, even in the warmest weather, shouldn’t affect plants or a lawn much, but can save 100 gallons a day, she said.
The Water Agency hopes a large-scale campaign to raise awareness and give folks tools to use toward conserving could make the difference between having enough water in the coming months and coming up short.
“If everyone conserves 20 gallons a day per person we can ensure we have ample water supplies for all uses, including the fish,” Sherwood said.
Information on the 20 Gallon Challenge is available at savingwaterpartnership.org/20gallons. There’s also a link to report wasteful water practices at http://www.savingwaterpartnership.org/water-waste/.