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Water Forum Questions and Answers

Post Date:04/20/2016 5:42 PM

In response to questions that were submitted via the water forum pre-registration, Utilities staff prepared answers to as many questions as possible.  Duplicate questions and questions with similar themes were combined in an effort to answer as many questions as possible in the short time frame.  We appreciate the feedback from the community and hope that the answers provided were sufficient and informative.  Thank you for being an active participant in this process and for your concern about the current and future use of our resources.

Q. Climate change is a huge unknown. How will climate change impact our available water supply over the next 20 years? What provisions are being made or contemplated to counter its negative impacts?

A. For resiliency to withstand the potential effects of climate change, the City has a multi-source water supply including three surface water supplies from different watersheds and recycled water. The City is also exploring adding other water sources to the City’s water portfolio in the future including groundwater and potable reuse of treated wastewater from the City’s Water Resource Recovery Facility.


Q. Annually, 98% of our household water comes from three reservoirs—Nacimiento, Santa Margarita, and Whale Rock.  In 2011, before our drought began, our major source, Lake Nacimiento, was overflowing.  A few months ago, only 17% of that water was left.  Some of that has been restored, but what has happened to the water in Santa Margarita Reservoir? Why is it completely off line?

A. As of April 2016, Nacimiento Reservoir is at 35 percent capacity which equates to over 130,000 acre feet of water. The City’s entitlement of 5,482 acre feet is less than 1.5% of the total storage capacity of Nacimiento Reservoir. For reference, the City used 4,700 acre feet total during 2015.

Santa Margarita Lake, also called Salinas Reservoir, is not currently off line although water levels are low. The main Salinas pumping facility was offline for critical, long planned maintenance from October, 2015 thru January, 2016.  The need to perform infrastructure maintenance is a critical reason for our multi-source water supply. The City utilized water from Salinas Reservoir in 2015 during the ten-month period that the Nacimiento pipeline was down for repair.  The City’s current strategy is to utilize all of its annual allotment at Nacimiento Reservoir and keep both Salinas and Whale Rock Reservoirs as back up sources. 


Q. El Nino’s arrival was touted as a 95 percent probability. Now it looks like we may not even reach normal rainfall this year. That would make it eight in the last 10 years in which rainfall has been below normal!  How long can this go on before we’re in serious problem with our water? 

A. The lack of rainfall that occurred during this El Niño demonstrates how difficult it is to make definitive predictions as to how future weather patterns may occur. For this reason the City takes a conservative approach in water planning. This includes conservative estimates of population increases and the community’s future water demand along with planning for secondary supply and reliability reserves. 


Q. What’s next for us in conservation and/or rationing? My lawn is already dead; is my avocado tree next? What else will we have to sacrifice before a building moratorium is triggered?

A. In 2015 the community surpassed all state conservation mandates and city goals, we ask that in 2016 the community continue to conserve water the same way that they did in 2015.  Water use reductions are made via many different conservation methods; while some choose to let their lawns go, others replaced them years ago with drought tolerant landscaping and have found that they are able to keep landscapes alive with minimal water use.  Some have made sacrifices inside their homes by reducing shower times, replacing outdated appliances, and altering water using behaviors.  We encourage a combination of reduction of outdoor irrigation and responsible use of water indoors.  The community should be aware that trees are a long-term investment that are of tremendous value; they are valuable assets to the community which is why the watering of trees was prioritized above the irrigation of turf at City parks.  Grass and many other landscape materials can grow back in short periods of time. If outdoor irrigation must be reduced, homeowners are encouraged to prioritize their outdoor irrigation based on the consequence of death of certain type of plants and trees.  As an alternative to letting trees die, the Prado road non-potable well is available for unlimited use to Utilities Department account holders for a yearly cost of $50.  This well can be used for outdoor irrigation within City limits.  More information can be found at


Q. How do our City review commissions know how much water a new building development will take?  Do developers provide this information?

A. The City completed comprehensive water supply planning as part of the General Plan’s Land Use Element update in 2014 consistent with the policies in the General Plan’s Water and Wastewater Management Element on Water Supply Accounting which uses build out population and the ten-year running average per capita water use.


Q. Where will their new water come from?   

When a new housing division is approved, where does the new water come from and who pays for the cost? Do developers pay offsets for it?  What are examples of future offsets they might pay?  Could current residents get that money to defray the cost of things like greywater reuse systems? 

A. The water supply for new development will come from the City’s multi-source water supply. New development pays its fair share of the cost of a source of water supply through payment of development impact fees. The City does not have a water offset program in place at this time.



Q. Lake Nacimiento has a huge watershed and huge capacity! But Monterey County owns Nacimiento Dam and controls the water in it. Annually our City is entitled to less than 2% of its full capacity.  When push comes to shove and water gets scarce, can we be sure of even that?

A. Monterey County is legally required by contract to stop discharging water long before it reaches a point that would prohibit the City from withdrawing its annual allotment of 5,482 acre feet of water from Lake Nacimiento.

 Q. In 1959, the City contracted for almost 5500 acre feet of water a year from Lake Nacimiento. That allotment sat unused for 52 years. Then, beginning five years ago, in just two moves, we’ve tapped into all 5500 acre feet of that water.  Why did we not need it for 52 years, and then take it all in just 5 years?


A. This water source was not utilized before because the means to transmit that water to the City required a partnership with our North County neighbors that took many years to establish. In fact, this partnership did not develop until after the drought of the late 1980’s in which the City was within 18 months of running out of water.  The outcome of this regional partnership was the building of the Nacimiento pipeline project. With the current drought it is in the City’s best interest to take Nacimiento water FIRST over its other surface sources, so that the storage in those reservoirs can be utilized in the event of an interruption in the Nacimiento supply.


Q. How will we know when our conservation efforts have been enough to erase the drought surcharge on our water bill? If we are certain of at least 3-1/2 years of water left, why is there a drought surcharge on my water bill at all?

A. The drought surcharge is a measure put in place to offset decreased revenues due to mandatory conservation measures. The intent of differentiating between the regular water bill and the drought surcharge is the drought surcharge is in place as a temporary measure.

The drought surcharge is only meant to assist in normalizing revenues until water use returns to a more stable level. As the community recovers from the drought, the drought surcharge will be reduced or eliminated.  To take this a step further, should citywide water consumption be permanently altered, an increase to the overall rate would then be considered instead of a temporary drought surcharge.


 Q. Who declares water rationing?   Utilities, Mayor, City Council?

How does the rationing we have undergone, 12% required by the state and the other 10% contributed voluntarily by the residential, commercial, and institutional sectors of the city, jibe with City’s rationing stages? Without being required to do so, citizens have complied with almost all of the first two stages.  When rationing is officially declared, will the city residents be expected to go through the first two stages again before they reach the last one? 

A. Similar to the emergency drought declaration in place now, the City Council would take the necessary steps to pass ordinances for water rationing through an allotment program as described in the Water Shortage Contingency Plan. A draft ordinance is provided in the City’s Urban Water Management Plan, Appendix VI.


 Q. Guidance to citizens about how to react at the various stages is minimal.  The first stage, a 5% reduction, calls for acts such as stopping pouring drinking water in restaurants without being asked, stopping washing driveways with a hose, and making sure that on our limited irrigation days no excess water flows into the street. Easy enough to visualize. But the documents are silent on the next two stages, when the required reduction quadruples (another 20%) for the second stage and then quintuples (another 25%) for the third stage. What are the kinds of things that will make it possible to reach these levels of reduction? 

A. Information on how to conserve water is provided at the City’s website, and many other forms of media. If less than three years of water was available, the City has a water allotment methodology for residential uses and other percentage-based reductions for non-residential uses.


Q. On the matter of priorities for access to water (residential, commercial, landscape, new development):  Are they implemented in reverse order cold turkey?  That is, is the first step to stop all new development, then to stop all landscape watering, then to stop all water to commercial and institutional, and so on? 

Other sections in the water shortage documents seem to suggest that all will receive water, but at some to-be-subsequently-determined-percentage level. Who will be deciding the percentages appropriate to these levels? Are the priorities implemented cold turkey, or are they going to be implemented pro rata?  Say 10 percent from the top down to 50 percent from the bottom (new development).

When the stages for rationing are set, what is the baseline for reduction? Current wet water usage, or wet water usage from one or two years earlier?  The higher the baseline, the easier the compliance, but the less water is saved and less of the future is secure. In my analysis, I used 6000 AF from a few years ago making maximum rationing level more realistic as a goal. If we use 5000 AF (current usage), the minimum level target is 2500 AF, which will be very difficult to reach for the following reasons.

The Department of Health identifies 50 gpcd (gallons per capita per day) as the minimum for health and safety, a lifeline minimum. Stage I limits water to 72 gpcd, Stage II sets max at 60 gpcd, and Stage III is 50 gpcd (consistent with DOH guidelines). However, 50 gpcd is only 29% less than the 72 gpcd level, not 50% less, which would be 36 gpcd.  Therefore, it may be legally impossible for the city to reduce the water draw by its stated goal of 50%, for residents, who comprise two thirds of the water users in the City. This could put the overall 50% reduction out of reach and unrealistic as a data point for calculating how long our current wet water supply will last.


 A. Similar to the emergency drought declaration in place now, the City Council would take the necessary steps to pass ordinances for water rationing through an allotment program as described in the Water Shortage Contingency Plan. A draft ordinance is provided in the City’s Urban Water Management Plan, Appendix VI. More information is provided below related to a building moratorium.

Water, Development and a Building Moratorium

Q. What is the feedback loop between new development coming on line and water flow or availability? That is, what information does the Utilities Department receive about new development and its impact on water availability?  Is there anything like a LEED-type water impact analysis for significant new development projects, e.g., the Avila Ranch Development? Which Commission (Architectural Review Commission or the Planning Commission) would likely now be the one to address this issue? 

A. The City completed comprehensive water supply planning as part of the General Plan’s Land Use Element update in 2014 consistent with the policies in the General Plan’s Water and Wastewater Management Element on Water Supply Accounting which uses build out population and the ten-year running average per capita water use.  Prior planning efforts, like the Specific Plans prepared for the Airport, Margarita, and Orcutt Specific Plans, analyzed available water resources as part of the CEQA process. Projects like Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch are required to prepare Water Supply Assessments in accordance  with SB 610/SB 221 which will be included with each project’s Environmental Impact Report.

 Q. If we are to accommodate the needs of growth, and growth is to be calculated at about 1% a year for the next twenty years, how much water would that add to the draw each year? Would it be 1% more acre feet a year, or less?  If new buildings are very water efficient, how much less than the 1% a year growth per residential unit would the draw on water be?  One half of the projected growth allocation of 1%? Whose has a specific responsibility to calculate and/or comment on this impact?  Avila Ranch proposal would be an interesting test case.

A. The annual Water Resources Status Report is prepared by the Utilities Department and provided to the City Council each year, consistent with Water and Wastewater Management Element program A5.3.1 which states:

A.3.1 An update on water supply accounting and demand projections will be presented to the City Council as part of the annual Water Resources Status Report.

Q. What part of new building permits goes into a segregated fund to defray past capital costs (e.g., the cost of the pipeline from Nacimiento Reservoir) as well as replacement fund for future repairs such as replacing Nacimiento or Whale Rock dams? Are they adequate proportionally?  What are the offsets for water that are like the in lieu fee for parking downtown if new development does not provide its own water? 

A. The water supply for new development will come from the City’s multi-source water supply. New development pays its fair share of the cost of a source of water supply through payment of development impact fees. The City does not have a water offset program in place at this time.

Q. Nothing in city documents about policy refers to what triggers a building moratorium. Is that judgment call made by a team at staff level and then recommended to City Council?  Who are the people likely to be involved?  What are some of the key factors leading to a moratorium?  Does it happen when our supply of available measurable stored wet water is less than three years’ worth? 

A. The City does not currently have any specific thresholds legislatively in place that would define concrete triggers for a building moratorium. The City has no direct policy basis in the General Plan or the Urban Water Management Plan that would support a moratorium at this time, especially in light of the water currently available for allocation.

Q. Is it related to water rationing?  That is, do we go through Stages I, II, III, cutting our water use 50% before we stop new development?  If we stop development at Phase I, does that mean that landscape watering stops at II or something like that?  What triggers the stopping of water to institutions and leaving the last buckets for residential users?  Who makes the decisions about whether City Hall vs Sierra Vista gets water?  Our current procedures seem vague, especially when compared to a scenario in which everyone is panicked and grabbing for as much water as they can get.  If new development is stopped for a while, how does that actually happen?  Is the application process stopped, or are design or building permits frozen, or water hookups denied?  What is the process that indicates it is time for building to resume?

A. Water assessment is a dynamic analysis that requires continual monitoring and evaluation of changing variables. Staff is currently updating the City’s various water models to include the additional water from Nacimiento, applying new worst-case drought scenarios to the reservoir safe annual yield calculations, and overlaying multiple alternative climate change scenarios to the applicable models. While staff does not anticipate this will be the case, should the results of those efforts (or additional facts, at any time) indicate that the City faces the conditions contemplated in Water Code section 350 or Government Code section 65858, staff would immediately inform and advise the Council, including a recommended course of action and a fully developed record to support immediate action.

The City is in the process of updating the City’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan per Water Code section 375. Part of this work will involve updating current conservation goals to reflect the outstanding job the community has done in reducing water use. Staff will return to the Council in June 2016 to discuss the various elements of that plan and staff recommendations, which could include some form of moratorium included in the laundry list of mandatory conservation requirements, should the City face critical water shortage conditions.

Drought and Technological Solutions

Q: What intermediate technological solutions can be implemented and what is the lead time to put each of these into place, e.g., composting toilets, greywater for landscape?  How long would it take to get to replace all the toilets in town?  What about clothes washing and dish washing machines? Can new development that requires new water help subsidize these changes?  What kinds of offsets are available?

A: There are many opportunities for the community to immediately expand conservation through the use of greywater systems and rainwater collection.  Greywater systems and rainwater collection can be implemented immediately throughout the community but the community needs to be aware that certain types of greywater use and rainwater collection require minor permitting to ensure safe and proper use of these non-potable sources.  More information on rainwater collection and greywater systems can be found at

Starting in the late 1980’s the City began the implementation of programs designed to replace high flow toilets with low flow 1.6, 1.28, and 1 gallon per flush toilets.  The toilet replacements came as a result of the toilet retrofit upon sale ordinance, development offsets, rebate programs, and as a result of plumbing code changes.  The city has documentation that roughly 20,000 of the 30,000 toilets in San Luis Obispo are currently low flow.  Staff believes that of the remaining 10,000 uncertified toilets, most have been replaced with low flow but have not been reported to the City.  Similar programs existed for other types of low-flow fixtures and appliances, though toilet replacements were by far the most widespread and effective.

The single easiest and quickest way to reduce water use is to reduce outdoor irrigation, specifically turf irrigation.  This can be done by upgrading to smart irrigation controllers, replacing turf with drought tolerant landscaping, and by replacing worn and outdated sprinklers.

 Q: What is the possible/probable impact of the city’s evaluation study of alternative uses of recycled water?  Resource Winter 16 issue reports that the purpose of the study is to maximize “the beneficial uses of this high-quality water that is the end product of the treatment process.”

A: The 5 alternative uses of recycled water are as follows:

  1. Direct Potable Reuse - Evaluating the possibility of producing highly purified potable water at the WRRF and delivering it directly to the potable water customers in San Luis Obispo. This could provide a reliable and drought-resistant source of drinking water to the community in the future.
  2. Indirect Potable Reuse - Evaluating using recycled water to recharge the City’s groundwater basin. After undergoing advanced treatment and fulfilling stringent water quality requirements, this water could enter the basin and then be pumped out. This could provide purified drinking water to the community.
  3. Delivery of recycled water to Cal Poly - Studying the potential delivery of recycled water to the Cal Poly campus. The City currently does not have the infrastructure in place to deliver recycled water to Cal Poly, and the study would evaluate the feasibility of providing recycled water to the campus for uses such as landscape and sports field irrigation.
  4. Construction of a new satellite WRRF to serve Cal Poly and surrounding areas - Evaluating building a new water resource recovery facility at Cal Poly to treat its wastewater and produce recycled water for use on-site. This alternative would allow Cal Poly to produce its own recycled water.
  5. Delivery of recycled water to agriculture customers in Edna Valley - Studying the potential delivery of recycled water to Edna Valley to be used for agricultural irrigation. This would provide a drought-resistant source of irrigation water for the Valley growers while preserving open space and other benefits to the City.

The impact is that we are able to provide the community with a drought resistant source of water for both potable and non-potable use, directly offsetting the amount of water that we have to take from our reservoirs every year.

Q: Monthly water bills can be a place for education as well as monitoring progress.  Can it indicate how well the user is meeting conservation goals, and how they measure up against their neighbors?  At a minimum, it ought to reassure users that if they conserve now, they will not be penalized in the future by some formula that uses this as an individual baseline for future reductions.  People are worried that their conservation today may penalize them in the future compared to a neighbor who would not cooperate with conservation goals voluntarily. 

A: We appreciate this recommendation; we are currently examining the format of our water bills and working to make more valuable information available both on the physical water bill and online via our billing portal.  The draft Water Shortage Contingency Plan does not use baselines for residential water use allocations.  With all proposed rationing and allocation based programs City staff will make every effort to enact measures that will not punish customers for their conservation efforts. We appreciate the community’s conservation efforts and will continue to encourage conservation without fear that a strong conservation ethic today may at some point in the future act as a “punishment”. 

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