Burbank reduces conservation worries and reliance on imported water

May 8, 2024

Guest article by Jackie Krentzman, freelance writer and editor

In 1970, a drive through a typical Burbank neighborhood would reveal homes with lush green lawns, sprinklers spritzing away. Like most places in California, water seemed to be in endless supply.

But in 2000 the drought years came. Since then, California has been in a drought 76% of the time — with increasing strength and frequency. City officials realized if they wanted to ensure a reliable, affordable water supply for residents and businesses, they needed to implement new conservation measures and a sustainable water management plan. 

That same drive today would look very different. Many lawns were replaced by drought-resistant landscapes or artificial turf. Automated water sprinkling is restricted to certain days, as is the length of watering. A series of messaging and ordinances focused on horticulture management, recycling water, native plants, low-flow irrigation, and a community receptive to water management reduced water usage to nearly half of its 1970 level.

“The community has bought in, and they are environmentally conscious," Mayor Nick Shultz said. “We have made tremendous progress on reducing our water use. While the city government took the lead, our community members have embraced conservation.” 

The non-rainy day fund

Burbank’s sustainable water supply required a great deal of foresight and management. Unlike many California cities, Burbank is 100% dependent on water imported from hundreds of miles, through canals and aqueducts. Burbank buys its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets its water from the Colorado River aqueduct and the State Water Supply Project. The latter flows down largely from snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada.

Richard Wilson is the assistant general manager of Water Systems with Burbank Water and Power, the community-owned utility that provides water and electricity for more than 100,000 residents and businesses. He likens Burbank’s sustainable water use practices to someone who works on commission.

“We need to save for the non-rainy day fund,” Wilson said. “It’s like the difference between being on commission and on a salary — If I have a great month, I can’t spend it all, as next month my commission may be less.”

Burbank can preserve its water supply and keep costs for consumers low because it can store several years’ worth of water. It buys untreated water when prices are low and keeps it underground until it’s time to pump it, treat it, and deliver it to customers.

A little over 80% of water usage in Burbank is residential. Due to ongoing drought conditions and state water usage targets, conservation is an ongoing priority for local leaders. The city reduced its water usage by 17.6% between 2020 and 2023.

This is in large part the result of the city’s enforcement of its Sustainable Water Use Ordinance. Consumers who do not follow the city’s ordinance receive two warning notices, followed by escalating fines. Wilson says fined residents often want to do the right thing. They were simply either unaware of the ordinance or forgot to reset their sprinkler system. Most make the needed adjustments after receiving the first warning letter. 

People who don’t make the needed adjustment and receive a fine can attend a “water school.” The city waives the fine showing that education is the true goal of enforcement.

“It turns out that many enjoy water school,” said Wilson. “They are interested in learning where Burbank’s water comes from, and how difficult it is to get water here.”

In August 2022, 22% of residences and businesses were out of compliance. By this past February, this number had dropped to just 1%.

Making conservation a way of life

Burbank is tweaking its conservation messaging in response to growing aridification, drier periods, unpredictable weather, and higher temperatures. Last year, the city began updating its 2008 Sustainable Water Use Ordinance to be even more effective.

Wilson expects the proposed new ordinance to be in place by the end of 2024. It builds on the ordinance’s previous provisions, such as encouraging or requiring horticulture management best practices and the adoption of new technologies, like moisture sensors connected to smart irrigation controllers. New housing developments will include high-efficiency water fixtures and a limited amount of landscaping with drought-tolerant plants.

Burbank’s early track record, coupled with its continuing commitment to water sustainability, can serve as a model for other cities in California. Mayor Schultz emphasized that water sustainability demands a collective approach.

“Having a commitment to conservation requires everyone,” he said. “Cities need to educate and communicate the issues to their residents. It requires council leadership, department execution, and community awareness.”

Wilson outlined his recommendations for ways cities can incentivize water use reduction among consumers. It begins with frequent messaging on the importance — and ease — of reducing water consumption, followed by enforcement to get people’s attention.

“Some customers get their bill, but don’t read the inserts on responsible water use,” he said. “But if they see a fine, that will get their attention. Cities don’t need to be heavy-handed; instead, it is one more way to bring attention and change behavior.”

He is optimistic based on Burbank’s success that any city can do the same. Many cities don’t have a choice: Burbank is one of 200 cities that needs to cut its water usage by 2040 under a new law. Wilson compares water conservation to the way consumers have been more conscious of their food sources in recent decades.

“It’s like when you go to a nice restaurant, and you want to know what farm your meal came from and if the meat was raised sustainability,” Wilson said. “It can be [the] same for water — if we can tell [the] story of how water got into their glass, consumers are more likely to turn the water off when brushing their teeth.”