February 6, 2014

State government wringing water from operations

This is California’s state government in drought mode: Drier grass around state grounds. Dirtier windows on state buildings. Grimier fire engines sent out to fight fires.

This is California’s state government in drought mode: Drier grass around state grounds. Dirtier windows on state buildings. Grimier fire engines sent out to fight fires.

Decorative fountains? Shut off. Landscaping projects? Largely canceled.

Enter the restroom at the Capitol or any of the other 60 or so buildings the state owns and operates, and you’ll see this sign: “We’re in a drought. Help us out! Please conserve water.”

Even the iconic pool at Hearst Castle is nearly empty, a victim of leaks that Parks and Recreation officials decided they could no longer afford.

“Refilling the pool simply wasn’t an option,” said Nick Franco, a parks director whose San Luis Obispo district includes Hearst Castle.

Despite recent rains that broke the longest winter dry spell in California history, the state remains gripped by a record drought that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown last month to declare an emergency and to urge residents to cut their water use by 20 percent.

The governor, known for his appreciation of symbolism, also told state agencies to move now to reduce water use by 20 percent. That upped the ante on his 2012 order that state agencies cut water consumption by 10 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.

“Given the governor’s proclamation,” said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the Department of General Services, the facilities administrator for the state, “agencies and departments are doing our part in the larger efforts to conserve and lead by example.”

About 97 percent of the state’s 6.9 million acres of land is owned by the State Lands Commission, Parks, Fish & Wildlife and a handful of other agencies and receives no irrigation, according to state estimates.

Of the 3 percent of irrigated state land that remains, about three quarters belongs to the University of California and California State University systems. Other irrigated state landholders include the prison system (13 percent of the remaining land), the military (3 percent) and General Services (roughly 1 percent).

In a state where water policy and politics are always in flux, governors of both parties have put their stamps on how the government bureaucracy manages it. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, ordered that the 60 or so buildings the state owns and operates comply with Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design standards. The widely-used LEED certification scores a facility’s water management along with its electrical power use and other factors.

The order launched a plumbing overhaul on the cheap in state facilities. General Services statistics kept for 20 state buildings since 2007 show that water-conserving parts have been installed into nearly 3,300 toilets, faucets, shower heads and urinals, saving an estimated 9.4 million gallons per year.

State officials say while departments have been water-conscious for decades, this year’s historic drought and Brown’s latest order has imbued the bureaucracy with a renewed sense of urgency that shows up in policies both large and small.

Caltrans is cutting its water use in half by delaying or canceling landscaping projects, installing “smart” irrigation systems that apply water based on weather and soil conditions. In the hardest-hit parts of the state, Caltrans is shutting off the sprinklers entirely.

The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection won’t wash its fire engines as often, is minimizing shower times and is washing only full loads of laundry at fire stations. The department also is adjusting firefighters’ training to use dry hoses when practical.

And officials at Parks and Recreation have turned off the outdoor showers at the Lake Perris State Recreation Area near Riverside, in addition to diverting water from the leaky Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle to landscaping needs.

Franco, the Parks director in charge of Hearst Castle, said the 350,000-gallon pool was leaking up to 10,000 gallons per day through a faulty lining. Meanwhile, production has dropped from local springs feeding reservoirs that in turn feed the pool and the castle grounds.

This time of year, the springs usually produce a total 285,000 gallons per day, “but right now they’re at about 45,000 gallons per day,” Franco said. “This summer we’re going to be hurting.”

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst commissioned famed architect Julia Morgan to design the original pool, which went through two renovations before it was completed in the 1930s.

Its Vermont marble surfaces, stately colonnades and ancient Roman temple facade that Hearst imported from Europe have drawn tourists for decades.

Now some visit the grounds and are disappointed to find a dry hole, Franco said, “but it’s still pretty cool. And there’s still plenty to see at Hearst Castle.”

Given the drought, he had to turn off the spigot, he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do.”

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