Water is the second largest line item in the Livermore Area Recreation and Park District (LARPD) annual budget.
And as the state slogs through its second consecutive year of drought, LARPD officials are closely watching how and where every gallon of water is used.
Compared to 2020, the district has spent $174,284 more on water this calendar year through July — the last month for which complete data is available. Over the same period, LARPD has used nearly 27 million more gallons of water than last year.
“Water usage is largely driven by the weather,” said Fred Haldeman, LARPD parks and facilities manager. “If we have a long, hot, dry year, we’re going to use more water to irrigate. We can’t completely control how much we spend. We have an obligation to the community to maintain our parks at a level where they can use them, especially during the pandemic (when) we saw three and four times the number of people in our parks than we do normally. It’s even more important that we maintain these. It’s always a challenge trying to walk that line of using as little as you can but still maintain them at a relatively high level.”
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 88% of California is currently experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions. A year ago, only 3% of the state was classified that way. All of Alameda County is currently experiencing exceptional drought conditions.
With little rain over the winter and early spring, and several unseasonable hot spells, the district was forced to start irrigating earlier in the year. Water usage in April, May and June significantly exceeded usage in the prior year.
“The most significant thing we’ve seen is the gap in the spring,” explained LARPD Administrative Services Manager Jeffrey Schneider. “It was just dry. It was a dry February. It was a dry March. Fred and his team have needed to water more (during these months) than they have in prior years. That’s been the biggest blip in our trend of water expense and usage.”
As the district’s fiscal year ended in late June, the new year started off with a different water-related challenge. Water usage in July closely mirrored 2020, reversing the trend observed for the three prior months, but the expense was still up.
“July was the biggest month that I’ve seen,” Schneider said. “It was $263,000 worth of (water) expense. It’s always big in July, but that alone is $50,000 more than the highest July we’ve seen previously. The problem is — right out of the chute —we’re negative. We’ve got a challenge. We’re looking at this by location, by provider. For us right now, we’re watching it carefully. We’re planning for it. Thankfully, we have enough of a contingency in this year’s budget to take on any negative variance we see in water.”
There are several factors that complicate the district’s efforts to reduce water usage. The extent of the drought is now threatening mature trees. As a result, some now need to be manually watered or the district risks losing them. Ball fields must be maintained at a higher level to prevent injuries. Allowing turf to wither and die to achieve short-term water savings only contributes to long-term expense increases when that turf has to be replaced.
Additionally, irrigation systems in the district’s parks are several decades old and were designed to operate most efficiently with a given water pressure. As development has occurred in the areas surrounding the parks, overall water pressure has dropped, making sprinkler heads less efficient. A plan to upgrade sprinkler systems throughout the district has been developed.
“I’m not a big fan of taking out turf and replacing it with mulch,” Haldeman said. “I believe it significantly reduces the usability of the park when you do that. Turf is very viable. You can do anything on it. When you put a bunch of mulch down in the middle of a picnic area, it just becomes not nearly as user friendly. I believe our best plan is to become as efficient as possible.”