The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has a problem and it has disappointed a few of their customers. Fueled by Jerry Brown’s state mandate to reduce water usage, EBMUD’s Board of Directors increased conservation targets from 15% to 20% in April 2015. EBMUD claimed their East Bay residents were only conserving 6%. So they set out to curb those limits.

For starters, they said you can only water 2 days per week. Then they said you couldn’t water between 9:00AM and 6:00PM. Next, EBMUD put out brochures to encourage their customers to water their trees. ‘18” deep‘ it reads, ‘up to 70% of the tree’s root zone.’ For large trees, that could be up to 1,000 gallons per month, per tree.

Before most customers could comply with the new restrictions, EBMUD upped the ante again.

Excessive Water Use Ordinance – No. 364-15
prohibits a single-family residential customer from using more than 80 units per billing cycle. Otherwise a penalty of $2.00 per unit will be imposed.

Established April 28, 2015 – Effective May 29th, 2015

But then things got weird. EBMUD staff wrote the ordinance and the board of directors approved it 6-1. “By law we are legally required to disclose information ([name, home address and water use data]) about customers who we determine have violated a District’s water use policy,” says Abby Figueroa, spokesperson for EBMUD.  Whats missing is percent conservation numbers in that report. Ironically – businesses are exempt.

“Businesses were excluded from the excessive use penalty ordinance [because] we find that many commercial customers are already very efficient with their water use. As part of this year’s drought management plan, staff recommended we first reduce the biggest source of discretionary water use, which is outdoor residential water use. That’s what this excessive use penalty ordinance was designed to do.”

Slow down, lets get this right – first, residential customers have to reduce usage by 20%. Then if they live on a large lot and have historically high water usage EBMUD will knowingly give their personal information away if someone ‘asks’ for it, if they’re over 1,000 gallons per day. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. PG&E didn’t shame their customers for using a lot of electricity in a power crisis, why does EBMUD do it to their water customers?

Once word got out, most users did what they could to conserve; some more than others.

Unfortunately, you can’t compare someone living in a townhouse with zero landscape responsibility to someone living on a 5 acre property with 40 mature trees, large gardens and a vineyard. Both customers will use vastly different quantities of water. That’s how the double standard problem got started.

EBMUD already knows about it though, Abby Figueroa went on “it is very difficult to design a one-size-fits-all policy for a district as diverse and large as ours.” Exactly!

When you break down the politics – the 680 corridor is represented by one director. He “did not agree with the decision [to impose the $2 per unit of water for higher-use customers] because the decision would mostly effect customers living on the ‘dry side’ of the service area.” This happened because “the majority of the board members are on the ‘wet side’ vs. the ‘dry side,’ they have always been punitively penalizing just the users on the ‘dry side’,” San Ramon Mayor Bill Clarkson said.

On September 3rd, 2015 this letter was mailed to 5,000 of EBMUD’s high use customers – most of which live in Danville, some in Alamo, Lafayette and Orinda.

I set out to find three people who were impacted by the Excessive Use Ordinance. They’re not hard to find, just look for someone with a large landscaped lot.

My first interviewee said he cut his sprinkler run time by 50% and ended up painting his lawn green to maintain curb appeal. Everyone in his household takes 2 minute “power showers,” they don’t flush the toilet until its borderline unsanitary. Between installing low flow toilets, faucets and water efficient appliances to not rinsing dishes before they go into the dishwasher, these customers followed everything EBMUD said they must do to conserve water. Their property is just over a half an acre in size. They ended up cutting their water usage by more than 20% and their personal information was released to the general public.

Another EBMUD customer who used 2,900 gallons per day in 2013, said he hauled recycled water 5 times a day 6 days a week – totaling nearly 1500 gallons per day. His motivation was to try to get below the 1,000 gallon per day mark, costing him hundreds of dollars in gas each week. He lives on 6/10th of an acre and has a pool, albeit with a cover on top to reduce evaporation. He uses drinking water to irrigate his property once a week; recycled water is used for the rest. He managed to cut his water usage by 76% (EBMUD took notice, “using recycled water for outdoor irrigation is the right thing to do!”).

Lastly, I talked with another customer who was using ~ 2400 gallons per day in 2013. He lives on a large 1 acre parcel of land and has many large trees, drought tolerant flower gardens, a pool, and a lawn the size of most small homes. He has let his lawn go “California Golden Brown.” He’s installed low flow toilets and faucets. Captures sink water and pumps out the bath tub after every use. Shower warm-up water is used on the landscape too. Of the 38 irrigation stations in operation, three of them have since been disconnected. They mulch between every planting area to conserve moisture in the ground, gutters are plumbed to rain barrels, rainwater used to water plants – you name it – they’ve done it. Between reducing sprinkler irrigation by 50% and then changing frequency to two times a week, he’s still over the 1,000 gallons per day limit. He reduced his usage by nearly 50% and made his personal information was released to the public. And yet people still complain that he hasn’t done enough.

His bill this summer? $605, which included a $66 drought surcharge. See below.

So now they’ve “followed the mandatory outdoor use rules” established by EBMUD , they’ve reduced their usage by much more than the required 20% and yet their information was still released so the general public can shame them for using more water than the average household does.

Here is the point, homeowners in the East Bay have large lots. In one community, you could have people with no landscaping and living on a 1/10th acre. Those homeowners will have neighbors who live on a ¼ acre, ½ acre, acre and beyond 5 acres of land. The larger parcels tend to use more water, as residents have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for awesome landscaping and they want to keep their investment alive.

In EBMUD’s eyes, they are all the same.

Sadly, EBMUD doesn’t take into account parcel size for their customers when it comes to water usage. The Board should take note of residential water use based upon property size, not on what an average household uses with zero landscape responsibility. Plus, if they release data about water conservation – include the percent reduction next to water amount used that billing period.

As Abby put it, “overall, customers have reduced their use 20% since the start of 2015, compared to their 2013 use. Because we have only completed one billing cycle with the excessive use penalty in effect, we don’t know yet what its specific impact will be on customer’s water use. We expect as the months go by and awareness about the excessive use penalty continues to grow, demand will continue to drop.”

If EBMUD decides to create another list of “abusers” from a Public Records Request, they should include how much those users have conserved on a percentage basis and include lot size for comparison. Clearly, they have the power to level the playing field for all involved.

In retrospect – as I’ve been told by a few people – if EBMUD just left their Excessive Use Ordinance as just pay the penalty and move on, instead of leaving it open for a public records request so the media could make headlines with the data, all of this disappointment might have blown over. Put yourself in their shoes – if you had a high water use would you like it to be front page news?

As stated on the last bill I was forwarded, “Thank you for conserving.”