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Conservation success: SLO County residents saved more water than required by state mandates 

It should be no surprise to anyone that California is in a drought. Even elementary school children are taking the initiative to do a little tattling on could-be water abusers.

San Luis Obispo Utilities Service Technician Mychal Boerman said that the city has received phone calls from every demographic about water and conservation.

“I got a phone call from an 8-year-old who was on the school bus and she wanted to report that she saw somebody watering in the middle of the day when she was on her way home from school,” Boerman said. “When kids are calling that kind of stuff in, and I have people who are my grandparents’ age saying that they’re carrying a 20-pound Tupperware that’s full of water outside and dumping it on their garden, it’s clear that it’s pretty widespread.”

This enthusiasm for conservation led every city in SLO County to save more water than the state required them to between August 2015 and March 2016. These conservation efforts follow Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014 drought state of emergency proclamation directing water officials to do whatever was necessary to make water available. Those officials responded by mandating water purveyors to use less water year over year—and the percentage reduction requirement was dependent on how much water each municipality had already conserved over the previous year.

According to statistics from the State Water Resources Control Board: The city of SLO reduced water use by an average of 9.8 percent above the required 12 percent reduction. Arroyo Grande averaged reduction levels of 7.9 percent above the 28 percent required, Paso Robles averaged 4.1 percent above the 28 percent required, and Atascadero averaged 2.5 percent above the 28 percent reduction required. 

John Neil, the general manager of Atascadero Mutual Water Company said the city’s customers are one of the driving forces in the city’s water conservation success.

“It was really just a matter of reminding them,” Neil said. “Really, we didn’t do any policing. We had a robust public outreach, and people stepped up to the plate.”

Both Boerman and Neil also cite the media as a major aid in conservation efforts. 

“It really was a combination of huge state messaging last year and it was all over the news in California and all over national news,” Boerman said. “And really, it was one of those things where you walked outside and everything was brown and you knew. … It was pretty front-and-center in people’s minds. People were thinking about this a lot.”

The news and the brown lawns were two of the things that kept the drought on the minds of residents, according to Boerman, but there are also red flags that keep the drought on utility department radars. Those areas of concern typically deal with things that the eye can’t see without help, things such as rainfall levels, well levels, and above-ground water levels. 

When it’s clear that levels are low, water reduction is the go-to for utility departments, and cutbacks, even those that aren’t required, typically come in the form of outdoor watering because reducing in-house water use is extremely difficult, according to Boerman. 

While this water reduction doesn’t typically cause too many issues, it can cause some problems with surface water sources. This is due to trihalomethanes, a chemical compound that has been a headache for SLO because the water supply for the city is a surface water source. SLO gets its water from three different above-ground reservoirs—Nacimiento, Salinas, and Whale Rock. 

Chlorine is used to disinfect the water coming out of all three of these reservoirs, and trihalomethane forms when chlorine reacts with organic materials found in surface water. It creates sort of a catch-22 situation because the longer water stays dormant in the system, the more time the trihalomethanes have to form. Essentially, water is either consumed quickly enough to keep trihalomethane levels down, or the chemical compound has time to build up into more than the legal limit allowed in drinking water. 

“[San Luis Obispo’s] water use is down so they’re not turning the water over in their systems as much and that contributes to that problem,” Neil said. 

While SLO has had the highest percentage water reduction in the county, the 2015 Annual Water Quality Report SLO recently distributed to every mailbox in the city found a violation of trihalomethane levels in the water supply—meaning the amounts were higher than they should be.

The science isn’t conclusive, but the report states consuming water containing excess trihalomethanes over many years can lead to liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems as well as the possibility of an increased risk of getting cancer.

The problem has since been resolved, according to Boerman, and the city is doing everything it can to make sure that the trihalomethane levels remain below the legal limit.

While water conservation is far from a thing of the past, Gov. Brown is starting to push for a change in the rules that his 2014 declaration put into place. Those changes went before the State Water Resources Control Board on May 18.

“What they’re pushing for is for [the new rules] to be more tailored to each community’s specific water supply,” Boerman said. “Originally they came out with a one-size-fits-all approach, … but it never took into account supply. It just took into account demand.

“This is a measure to make sure that while they’re looking at demand, they’re also looking at supply,” he continued, “so if a community has way more supply than they will ever need, they’re going to have the option to be treated a little differently.” 

Intern Alexander Davidson can be reached through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com

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