Nature

City, already cutting, digs deeper to slash its water use

A rousing game of capture the flag occupies city of Berkeley campers until their parents pick them up. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The grass in Willard Park might not look as green this year given irrigation cutbacks being implemented by the city in response to drought conditions. Photo, taken in August 2014, by Natalie Orenstein

Don’t expect lush green parks in Berkeley this summer, unless the watering is a surprise from the skies.

Already slashing its water use 26% last year, the city is taking steps to cut even more, it announced last week. Many of the cutbacks are required by Berkeley’s water supplier, the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD), and/or by the state. They include:

  • No watering of street medians
  • Minimizing vehicle watering
  • Landscape watering, such as in parks and city grounds, twice a week before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. (already in effect last year)

“The City is also . . . exploring the use of reclaimed water for irrigation and street cleaning, and researching options for converting certain landscapes to more drought-tolerant ground cover,” the city said in a recent press release.

Read more on how the drought is affecting Berkeley.


Worth noting: The city’s only water fountain at the Marin Circle uses recycled water, which means it can be kept on as it meets a new state requirement calling for a shutdown of all fresh water fountains.

The Marin Circle Fountain on April 17, 2015. Photo: Colleen Neff
The Marin Circle Fountain uses recycled water so it meets water restriction requirements. Photo, taken on April 17, 2015, by Colleen Neff

Also: If your water tastes funny, you’re not imagining it. EBMUD warned customers that, starting this week the flavor of the water may change, because it’s being drawn from upper layers of the Pardee reservoir where there is more algae. Deeper, colder water is being saved for later releases to help spawning salmon, as legally required. The water is still safe, EBMUD said. The agency recommends that customers chill or use a carbon filter before drinking to improve the taste and smell of tap water.

The municipality (or city) uses only 2% of Berkeley’s water, with residents using the majority at 57%, followed by nonresidential sources such as institutions and commercial and industrial water users at 41%, according to 2013 city estimates.

All are being told by EBMUD to help the district meet its 20% water reduction goal from 2013 levels. The water district’s reservoirs are at about-half full, lower than in nearly 40 years.

This 20% target exceeds the mandatory 16% water reduction issued to EBMUD last week, under a first-ever drought emergency executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown, announced last month. Brown called for a 25% statewide water reduction, with exact requirements proportional with per-capita water use; greater for high water users, less for lower.


San Francisco and Santa Cruz, for example, must cut water by 8%; Bakersfield and Beverly Hills by 36%. The state water board regulates water use.

If you think your glass water tastes funny, that's because it does. Photo: zaveqna
If you think your glass water tastes funny, that’s because it probably does. Photo: zaveqna

The city, which uses 82% of its water for irrigation, has gone beyond the EBMUD district goal with its 26% cut from 2013. This is also beyond the 10% water cut policy goal it set in 2013. This was accomplished largely by fixing leaks, switching to water efficient fixtures, and cutting irrigation, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

“It’s great to see our municipal customers teach double-digit savings because they set the tone for the whole city,” said Abby Figueroa, EBMUD spokeswoman.

A multi-department drought response group was formed to steer the water reductions. The group issued an update to the Berkeley City Council on April 28, with suggestions for deeper cutting, noting it won’t be easy.

“While this [26% water reduction] performance far exceeded the City’s policy target of a 10% reduction, it continues to be uncertain if this can be sustained,” the report said. Three challenges were identified:


  • Already stressed turf at playing fields, and a short-term bump in watering needs for the recent reseeding of fields at Grove, Ohlone, Codornices and San Pablo parks. “City staff continues to recalibrate irrigation clocks and watering strategies, so that we can ensure the turf is not stressed beyond repair. These adjustments are increasingly important as the drought continues and compounds its impact on the turf,” the report said.
  • Immediately shutting down water to address leaks prevents waste but “raises other costs in terms of the need for manual watering and the expense of repairing the infrastructure or renovating the landscape. Additionally, when the systems are repaired, water consumption will resume.”
  • One-time improvements such as a new cooling tower at the city’s building at 1947 Center St. “yield substantial reductions in water consumption in buildings, but are often costly and similar resources may not be available each year.”

The report calls for the city to continue its two-pronged approach of immediate water reduction and planning for permanent ways to cut water needs such as improving building efficiency and converting to drought-tolerant landscaping.

In related moves, the city has developed guides for using graywater and rainwater to for plants, and tips for replacing existing faucets, toilets and shower heads with water-conserving plumbing fixtures.

Chakko said the city is supporting community groups on drought issues, including the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, which is sponsoring a Laundry-to-Landscape Graywater Workshop with the Ecology Center on May 16. The workshop is already full, but check the website for additional opportunities.

This story is part of Berkeleyside’s special drought-related coverage. Stay tuned as we examine the impact and implications for Berkeley residents of this historically dry time. Catch up on our California drought stories.

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