SAN JOSE — Despite an outcry from hundreds of residents, San Jose Water Company officials say they are sticking with their plan to impose some of the state’s strictest water conservation rules on more than 1 million people across Silicon Valley starting June 15.
More than 350 people turned out to voice their concerns late into the night Thursday at the only public hearing on the new rules. Through four hours of testimony, dozens of speakers at the Rotary Summit Center in downtown San Jose urged the water company’s top representatives to rewrite the proposed new drought regulations that will limit each home to a fixed monthly allocation of water, with financial penalties for customers who use more than their limit.
“You chose the option which was the most painful to the residents,” said Robert Goldman, a San Jose resident who noted that other Bay Area water providers such as East Bay Municipal Utility District have adopted less stringent regulations.
“Your proposal is unjust, unreasonable and discriminatory,” added Wolfgang Hausen, a Saratoga resident who said he cut water use 57 percent since 2013 but still faces significant penalties under the new rules.
Customers complained the one-size-fits-all rules are unfair to people with large yards and large families — although the water company has agreed to adjust one of its rules to allocate more water to residences with more than four people.
Company officials said they have no plans, however, to change anything else with the new rules, which were triggered by Gov. Jerry Brown’s order this month requiring urban residents to reduce water use by 25 percent statewide compared to 2013 to preserve drinking water amid the worst drought in California’s 164-year history.
“Our position is that we stand by our proposal,” Palle Jensen, San Jose Water’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs, told the crowd, some of whom yelled out criticisms. “It’s not like the spigot is going to go dry. You can still use water. But you will have to decide how.”
San Jose Water is a private company founded in 1866. It provides 80 percent of San Jose’s residents with drinking water, along with Los Gatos, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Campbell and parts of Cupertino.
On May 11, mirroring tough rules already in place in Santa Cruz, the company announced it would give all single-family residences — defined as any home that has its own water meter — monthly water allocations requiring a 30 percent reduction from 2013 levels. Apartments and most businesses won’t receive them.
A key point of controversy Thursday night: the 30 percent cut isn’t based on each home’s individual use. Instead, it’s calculated on the month-by-month average of all residential users in San Jose Water’s service area. For the months of July, August and September, each home will be allowed the same amount — 13 units of water a month. Each unit is 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons. Use above that will bring penalties of up to $7.12 a unit.
Company officials defended the strategy. They noted that in 1991, the last time California faced a severe drought, they required each South Bay customer to cut water use 25 percent from their own prior totals. But residents said then that the system was unfair because people who already had been conserving all along had little left to cut, while their water-guzzling neighbors met the target without much pain. Now, the company is trying a different approach due to that experience, officials said.
“We heard from tens of thousands of people back then who were complaining — and legitimately so — that they were being penalized when they had already reduced landscaping, and put in low-flow plumbing fixtures,” said Robert Day, San Jose Water’s director of customer service.
One person, Andrew Lowd of San Jose, said he supports the new rules giving everyone the same monthly allocation because through drip irrigation and careful conservation, his family has cut use to 48 gallons per person a day, or about 8 units a month.
“If we had to cut another 30 percent, that would be 33 gallons per person,” he said. “I couldn’t cut to 33.”
Some at the meeting said the rules should be flexible for large families.
“It’s not fair to penalize a family of six and give a bonus to a family of one,” said Bryce Carroll, of San Jose.
After the meeting, the company offered new details on how it would adjust for larger families. Homes with more than four residents will be allowed to fill out an appeal form to receive two units of water a month for each extra permanent resident, said John Tang, San Jose Water’s spokesman. Those forms will be on the company’s website soon, and the appeals program, which also will provide extra allocations to people with medical conditions needing more water, will be up and running by June 15, he said.
Some at Thursday’s meeting criticized the plan for not applying to indoor water use at businesses, or to apartments. Company officials said they rushed to meet a state deadline and wanted to focus on the bulk of their customers, residences, and their lawns, which use 50 percent of residential water.
Others blasted the company for not recording the event, which was required under state Public Utilities Commission rules. Many said they plan to file appeals with the PUC in the hopes of changing the plan.
“I get the feeling that this is token,” said Ron Rico, of San Jose. “You are sitting there looking like you are waiting for the meeting to be over. You aren’t taking notes. There isn’t going to be a transcript. That’s frustrating.”
Company officials said those using more water than the community average, particularly on landscaping, must cut back more, or next year there will be more severe rules, and local groundwater tables could fall so low that the ground sinks, breaking roads, gas lines and damaging buildings.
“I know this is going to be a hardship for some people,” said Tang. “But we don’t know if we are in the fourth year of a four-year drought or the fourth year of a 10-year drought.”
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.