Saving water means city is collecting less revenue

Published in the Aug. 5-18, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Geoff Kober

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Stu Nuttall in front of his San Pedro Avenue Morgan Hill home. Nuttall recently removed his lawn to save water and money as “Brown is the New Green.”
Photo by Marty Cheek

Don Clare and Phyllis Marlino’s front yard features a vibrant and richly varied landscape. Gravel paths at the Morgan Hill couple’s home on Black Prince Court meander through yarrow, lavender, buckwheat and other drought-tolerant plants in hues of red, purple and yellow. In place of a green lawn, the newly planted flora provide a brilliant year-round display.

Like many fellow residents, Clare and Marlino took advantage of a joint Santa Clara Valley Water District-city of Morgan Hill rebate program to redesign their yard and cut water consumption. Short of renovating their lawns and gardens, most Morgan Hill residents have become conservation champions, cutting the city’s overall water use in the face of the longest drought since 1976-1977. Ironically, this effort of good stewardship may earn a startling downside for the couple and other local citizens: permanently higher water bills. And if it’s not a drought, it’s a deluge. Even before the city can finish its current study of use patterns and infrastructure, a strong El Niño predicted this winter might overshadow but not remove a continued need for higher bills. At this point, the only certainty in the current drought and potential storm season is raised public awareness about water use and supply in Morgan Hill.

“We had over 5,000 square feet of lawn here so our savings are substantial,” said Don Clare. “I only water once a week now, and it’s all on drip.”
This specific rebate program helps homeowners with high water demand by assessing their property, and reimbursing some of the costs to install a new water-efficient landscape. Santa Clara Valley Water District and the city reward residents with up to $3 for every square foot of lawn replaced.

“It didn’t really cost me anything in the end, rather than a lot of elbow grease,” Clare said.

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Photo by Geoff Kober
The Madrone Channel on the east side of U.S. 101 holds Santa Clara Valley Water District water that is used to replenish the region’s aquifer.

To save water, residents are removing their lawns or letting them turn brown. Morgan Hill is in a Level 2 water supply shortage, which means residents are required to limit watering lawns to only two days a week. The state of California has mandated the city to reduce water use over the entire year by 28 percent below a baseline from 2013, considered a normal year for water. Morgan Hill could face fines up to $10,000 a day for not meeting this target.

“Yeah, that’s a big deal,” said Karl Bjarke, the public works director for the city. “That gets people’s attention, and is incentive for cities to step up their enforcement.”

Fortunately, Morgan Hill is in the mid- to high-30s in terms of percentage of water savings. Cutting back on irrigation lets the city significantly cut back on water use compared to neighboring cities.

“Morgan Hill is one of the highest communities in the Santa Clara area in terms of conserving water,” Bjarke said. “So our residents should get a pat on the back for that.”

The city relies on the honor system for controlling water regulations. The system lets people report water wasters on the city’s website, or use the smart phone application Access Valley Water, which allows users to identify offenders by uploading a picture, description, and map to identify the exact location. Residents have set a good example in the county for water conservation efforts during this drought, Bjarke said.

Conservation efforts by Morgan Hill residents such as Clare and Marlino and their neighbors have created something of a Catch-22. “When we sell less water — and we sold significantly less water because of the drought — and people are responding to the call to conserve, we’ve taken less revenues in,” Bjarke said. The water system’s fiscal health, he adds, “is to the point now where it’s not really sustainable.”

City’s unique water supply

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Photo by Geoff Kober
The front yard lawn of Don Clare and Phyllis Marlino’s home was transformed into drought-tolerant landscaping.

Morgan Hill has a unique source of water compared to many of the surrounding communities – all of the city’s water comes from aquifers deep within the ground. An extremely important part of maintaining the aquifers is to recharge them. The Santa Clara Valley Water District pipes water from the San Luis Reservoir, and then it dumps into a long channel where it pools, percolates into the ground, and refills the aquifers. Because of the drought’s length and seriousness, the only functioning recharge basin in Morgan Hill is the Madrone Channel running along U.S. 101.

“We are probably better off than any other county in the state because of the forethought of my predecessors in building the dams, creating reservoirs and percolating water back into the ground,” said Dennis Kennedy, former mayor of Morgan Hill and fluid systems engineer who now serves as a member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of trustees.

Historically, high-standard water systems have been a priority for Santa Clara County. The county contains 10 reservoirs supplying 25 percent of the county’s water to customers. Selling water is an important business–and a complex business to run. Santa Clara Valley Water District is the wholesaler, and the city of Morgan Hill is the re-seller. Standard water rates for the city are $356 per acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, or the average amount of water two five-person families use during a year. A recently increased extraction charge requires Morgan Hill to pay the SCVWD every time water is pumped out of the ground. Costs for the city’s water supply include electricity to pump water, and the addition of chlorine for water treatment.

Operating a water enterprise produces many additional costs, too. Regardless of the amount of water the city buys each year from SCVWD and the revenues the municipal water utility collects in the process, Morgan Hill must also maintain the system of pipes and pumps to transport water around the city. Morgan Hill has stepped up efforts to fix leaks and maintain recharge ponds, to keep the water system flowing normally now and in the future. The drought, however, has placed a significant strain on the water supply infrastructure.

“The water level [in the underlying aquifer] is much further down, meaning the pumps have to work harder,” explained Morgan Hill Mayor Steve Tate. “The cost of maintaining them has grown exponentially.”

Drought---DennisKennedy-(4)-webState laws help regulate how much cities charge residents for water. Morgan Hill is currently conducting a study to better understand the city’s future needs and revenue. By aligning these two factors the study will be able to determine what rates will be necessary to charge customers to continue the current water system’s quality, safety and reliability.

“Our goal is to maintain the water system to the standards our community has grown accustomed to,” Bjarke said. “We will probably have to revisit our rates to do that.”

So while residents like Clare and Marlino are currently enjoying a cost reduction from their new drier-but-still-colorful landscaping, they may eventually have to pay more in order to keep less water flowing through the city’s pumps and pipes and into their yard.

Waste-water plant recycles some water

Morgan Hill shares a waste-water treatment plant with the city of Gilroy. In the early 1980s waste-water overloaded the original facility, dumping raw sewage into the Pajaro River running between Santa Clara and San Benito counties and emptying into Monterey Bay. The water district created a team including Kennedy, to design a new waste-water treatment facility that opened in 1990. This award-winning plant on the southeast side of Gilroy is a model water treatment plant for cost and energy efficiency by recycling more than 25 percent of its 8.5 million gallons of water per day during the dry season. The rest of the waste-water percolates into the ground in ponds, refilling South Valley aquifers.

This facility has the highest recycling rate of any waste-water treatment plant in Santa Clara County. The recycled water produced in Gilroy runs through a system of recognizable purple pipes throughout the city, including an easy-to-spot one in front of the Gilroy Golf Course. Gilroy is using the recycled water in a variety of other businesses including laundry facilities, power plants and agriculture. Recycled water is a more-cost effective resource compared to ground water, but seasonal demand limits the need.

“Right now, it’s a system that’s going to be pushed to the max in the summertime, but in the wintertime there is excess capacity because people just don’t use it,” Bjarke said.

Building infrastructure to transport recycled water may not be cost effective without regular customers. The city is considering a proposal to construct a pipeline to bring some of the recycled water from the shared waste-water treatment plant back north to Morgan Hill. One option is to complete the recycled water pipeline project alongside right of way for the proposed high-speed rail project. This creates an issue of significant delay before anything is constructed.

“Take it as far as you can, as quickly as possible,” Kennedy said. “I am a firm believer in that the drought is actually an opportunity for the public to focus on getting things done, so strike while the iron’s hot, while people are still thinking about it.”

Development restrictions

Throughout its history Morgan Hill has experienced new development with periods of faster and slower growth. The current boom of new housing could tax water resources and is yet another important consideration during the drought. Developers received permission for their current construction through allocations awarded by the Morgan Hill Planning Commission years ago.

“We are working with the builders to include more water efficiency, encouraging them not to put in lawns,” Tate said. “If the drought continues it might get to the point where we have to shut down the building of new houses.”

Planning commissioners award points to developers and allocate land based on the city’s general plan and the commercial interests’ pledges, concessions, and financial commitment to Morgan Hill. Demand for these allocations is always high and city officials are reconsidering and fine-tuning its growth control plans and process.

“We’ve got to somehow keep that uncrowded hometown community feel as we grow to the point where we’re getting crowded. That’s the trick,” Tate said.

Morgan Hill’s distinctive topography, a flood plain framed by surrounding hills, creates one more potential difficulty for both growth and water. Residents living in the flood plain must pay extra for flood insurance while many with homes in the hills pay pumping surcharges. For years, the city has attempted to continue a flood control project that began in 1956 under President Dwight Eisenhower.

“They built the project, called PL-566, from the Pajaro River up through Gilroy into San Martin, and then it stops. The rest (through Morgan Hill) has never been built,” Tate said. “We’ve been trying desperately to get the rest of it built through the Corps of Engineers, and our representatives in Congress.”

The absence of PL-566 could be particularly notable if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s predictions prove correct for a moderate to severe El Niño this winter that would bring substantial rainfall to California. The stark contrast of on-going drought and potential flooding may erode some people’s resolve to continue conserving water.

Tate said, “If we get through the drought and water becomes plentiful, we want to keep people informed so they keep conserving as much as possible.”

This will help reduce the strain on the water infrastructure and,” he adds, “reduce the need for rate increases in the future.”
Whether or not the South Valley gets the heavy quenching California’s parched land needs, the state’s four-year drought will have lasting public consequences for both future policies and perceptions. Will residents such as Clare and Marlino continue to lower and control water consumption?

Karl Bjarke thinks so. “We are certainly planning on it in the future that we are going to be a conserving community,” he said. “Even when we get normal rainfalls, I think we’re always going to be using less water per capita.

Geoff Kober is a San Francisco State University graduate. He wrote this for Morgan Hill Life as part of a three-part series.

Robert Airoldi