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Rossmoor looks to conserve water as drought arrives

Changes so far to golf courses, landscaping have been subtle

By Sam Richards

Staff writer

The East Bay Municipal Utility District’s recent declaration of a Stage One drought emergency hasn’t brought major changes to Rossmoor – the golf courses remain green and lush, and landscaping is still robust.

There have been subtle adjustments, such as increased purchases of water from Oakland-based EBMUD, and reductions of some landscaping and replacement of thirsty turf lawns with more drought-resistant species, including natives.

Those landscaping modifications have been in progress for years, but there could be more changes coming should the current drought worsen to the point EBMUD declares a higher-level drought emergency. That could include mandatory water-use restrictions and cost increases for the water that is used.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” said Mark Heptig, Rossmoor’s director of golf. The two Rossmoor courses will cut water use by 10 percent, he said, following EBMUD’s voluntary guidelines – even if only a fraction of the water the course uses comes from EBMUD.

“With a 10 percent reduction, we can get by,” said Heptig, noting that – like last year – some parts of the two Rossmoor courses will likely be allowed to go dry when water reaches a certain level of premium. These are areas that are out of play, Heptig said, “the least vital pieces.” The GRF Board approved that strategy last year.

The Rossmoor golf courses usually get about 70 percent of their water from non-EBMUD sources, Heptig said, most notably directly from Tice Creek, to which Rossmoor has rights. The creek bisects the two courses. Other water, he said, comes from collected rain runoff and from a Rossmoor well.

Landscape Manager Rebecca Pollon said all of Rossmoor’s landscaping water comes from EBMUD, and that her crews will do all they can to observe the voluntary 10 percent cutback.

Much of that work, she said, has already been in process. Rossmoor has been relying on drought-tolerant plants for a gradually larger share of the community’s landscaping needs. Irrigation water used went down from 58 million gallons in 2013 to about 25 million gallons in 2017, and has dropped further since then, she said.

And Pollon has created, and is overseeing, a five-year landscaping plan that addresses both water use and fire safety. Staying the course on water-reduction strategies laid out in that plan, she said, will help with adapting to potential future restrictions.

For the time being, Pollon said, watering many parts of Rossmoor’s landscape twice a week should be enough to keep those plants relatively healthy. If water-availability issues cut that number, she said, “we may have to make some really hard choices” about whether to let some areas – turf lawns, mostly – go brown.

Second driest ‘water year’

The EBMUD Board of Directors’ decision on April 27 to declare a Stage One drought emergency was based mainly on the poor numbers coming from the Mokelumne River watershed east from the Delta to Lodi and east into the higher reaches of the Sierra, from which EBMUD draws about 90 percent of its water.

Utility spokeswoman Andrea Pook said that, as of April 19, that watershed had a snowpack of 52 percent of average and rainfall 54 percent of average, making the 2020-2021 “water year” the second driest in 70 years of record-keeping for the watershed. Accompanying the Stage One emergency are EMBUD’s “voluntary guidelines” for its customers to cut water use by 10 percent.

As part of that declaration, the EBMUD board also authorized buying up to 58,000 acre feet of water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Central Valley Project).

Conditions in Northern California, including Contra Costa County, aren’t expected to get any wetter anytime soon. David King, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Monterey, said the rainy season appears to be over, not likely to resume until at least October if historical patterns hold.

“I can’t rule out a weak, light system passing through … but for the most part, the dry conditions can be expected to stick around,” King said. “The traditional dry period is just starting.”

Personnel from EBMUD have worked with Rossmoor officials over time to help increase water efficiency, Pook and Pollon both said, and that will continue. Pook said she is heartened by the extent to which many EBMUD customers big and small have conserved water on a voluntary basis. But she cautioned, “Should the situation worsen this year or next, we can ratchet up our actions. We know drought is always around the corner.”

Opening the EBMUD valve

With water flow in the creek lower than usual at this early stage, Heptig said, he has had to tap EBMUD for water earlier this year than most years.

“We don’t usually open the valve for EBMUD water so soon, but we’ve already started buying water this year to supplement all our other water sources,” he said.

Helping to inform the amount of water used to irrigate the golf course, Heptig said, is a weather station that evaluates the area’s evaporation rate. That, in turn, helps determine how much sprinkling is needed, and when less will suffice.

The EBMUD board adopted its four-stage system of drought emergency water rates in 2015. Soon thereafter, the utility declared a Stage Four drought emergency that included a drought surcharge to its customers’ standard water rates.

EBMUD’s Pook said it isn’t known what will follow the current Stage One emergency, including whether more serious measures are inevitable. Those measures could include higher water bills for GRF and Rossmoor residents through drought surcharges, intended to help recover the costs of buying additional water and for temporary EBMUD staff who support water conservation and enforce watering restrictions.

There have been other steps taken to keep whatever water there is flowing; the agency has acquired generators that can keep its pumping stations working, especially in the event of a PG&E “public safety power shutoff,” the planned outages in tinder-dry areas where PG&E equipment could cause fires. Two of EBMUD’s pumping plants are in Walnut Creek and in Lafayette.

Heptig said he expects further direction from EBMUD sometime in the next three months or so.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” Heptig said. “With Mother Nature, you just never know.”