Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) delivers treated and raw water to 43,000 customers across a 1,500‑square-mile service area stretching from the Sacramento suburbs in the west to Lake Tahoe in the east. With California continuing to suffer from severe drought, PCWA is urging its customers to cut water use by 20 percent, and it is providing rebates and pushing out public service announcements (PSAs) to encourage efficiency. In this interview, Linda Higgins, PCWA’s deputy director of customer services, tells Municipal Water Leader about the creative methods the agency is employing to promote its message of conservation and efficiency.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Linda Higgins: I am the deputy director of customer services for PCWA. I manage the water efficiency and metering program. I started my career in public service nearly 20 years ago as a water conservation representative for the City of Sacramento. My primary role was to investigate reports of water waste and educate customers on ways to save. At the time I was hired, the conservation program was growing. My boss empowered her staff to learn, so I was afforded the opportunity to expand my understanding of efficient landscape watering and conserving water outside and in homes and commercial buildings.
Later, I worked as the conservation coordinator at the Sacramento Suburban Water District, where I implemented a conservation program from the ground up. I started the toilet and clothes-washer rebate programs there. At the time, I was the only person working on the program, and I didn’t have the capacity to inspect each toilet, so we took the old toilets from customers to make sure that the new ones were installed. My colleagues made a sign for one of the parking stalls that said, “Potty parking here.” Everyone got a kick out of my sign. Now, we just require a photo of the newly installed toilet, so we no longer collect the old ones. At this position, I learned about hiring part-time and full-time staff, managing a budget, collecting data, and preparing reports for the state, and I learned the importance of learning what support looks like for your staff. It’s not always more compensation.
Then, I went to work for the Regional Water Authority (RWA) in Sacramento, a joint powers authority representing two dozen water providers and associate members. My role involved implementing water conservation best-management practices with our member agencies and communicating the importance of water efficiency to the public while also representing the region by serving on several statewide water conservation committees and boards. In my role at RWA, I learned how to obtain, track, and implement regional grants, regional contracts, and services, which has been helpful in my current position.
I’ve been at PCWA for 10 years as of July 2022. I have the great fortune of leading the water efficiency and metering division. My awesome team does the meter reading, meter testing, and installations and implements our water efficiency program. An important part of the daily work of the customer services department is to support and respond to customers’ needs pertaining to their bills or water usage.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about PCWA.
Linda Higgins: PCWA has a five‑member board and about 230 full-time staff as well as some seasonal and temporary staff. We have about 43,000 customers—roughly 39,000 are what we call treated water customers and about 4,000 are raw water, or irrigation, customers. We also have a power system that operates the Middle Fork American River Project, which is the eighth-largest public power project in California. Our service area covers about 1,500 square miles, ranging from the rim of the Sacramento Valley to the Sierra Nevada and to Lake Tahoe to the east.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the company’s top concerns today?
Linda Higgins: What concerns our agency, or at least my department, is that California’s governor asked all Californians to reduce water use in March. Then, in June, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency drought regulation.
Municipal Water Leader: What actions are you asking your customers to take in response to that?
Linda Higgins: We’re in what we call stage 2 of our water shortage contingency plan, which means we’re asking our customers to cut back water use by 20 percent during this drought. To help customers meet this goal, we have ramped up our rebate programs. We have a smart controller rebate. We have a rebate of up to $1,000 for the costs of removing turf and planting drought-tolerant plants and a similar rebate of up to $8,000 for commercial customers. We also have an irrigation efficiency rebate for both residential and commercial customers that helps cover the costs of installing high-efficiency drip irrigation or other irrigation products.
We’re asking customers to stress their lawns but save the trees. During the last drought in California, we saw many trees die because people were doing their part to cut back on landscape watering. Now, we’re urging folks to make sure to continue watering trees while cutting back on watering their lawns. By reducing their sprinkler cycles by 2 minutes, they can immediately reduce water use by 20 percent. We’re also urging customers to check the soil before turning on their sprinklers, and to encourage that, we’re giving away free moisture meters. Sometimes, the top of the grass or soil may seem dry when it’s still moist underneath. We are also asking customers to replace old sprinklers with more-efficient nozzles, which we have a rebate for, and to upgrade to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) WaterSense-labeled weather-based sprinkler timer. Those timers shut off the water if it’s raining and decrease or increase watering based on the weather. We are also asking customers to water during certain times of day. Watering early in the morning can reduce evaporation. When someone waters at 1:00 p.m., when it’s super-hot outside, they have to water more. Finally, we are asking people to add a layer of mulch 2–3 inches thick to keep the soil moist and reduce evaporation.
Municipal Water Leader: What about untreated water conservation?
Linda Higgins: We have a program for a handful of our customers called our growers irrigation management program. We have a contractor who goes out with a neutron soil probe to measure the soil moisture at several locations on some of our smaller orchards, farms, and vineyards and then sends an electronic reading of the soil moisture to the farmer or grower via e-mail so that they can adjust their watering accordingly. We’ve been offering that program for about 13 years, and the growers who are involved really love it. This year, we’re also offering a storage tank rebate of up to $500 to encourage customers to store more water. Generally, customers use a pump to take their raw water deliveries from a canal and then store it for times of need.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your mulch program?
Linda Higgins: Another great program is what we call Mulch Mayhem—a day when we give free mulch to our customers. We started that about 6 years ago, and by now, six or seven other agencies offer it, too. One of my favorite sayings is that mulch is like icing on a cake. Putting mulch on the soil keeps it moist and prevents water from evaporating. We purchase organic shredded cedar mulch and give it away for free. Customers can come in with a truck, and we’ll use a bucket loader to give them a cubic yard. There’s always a huge line of customers waiting before we open, and the line is generally steady throughout the day. It’s one of our favorite events.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the bucket watering method for young trees?
Linda Higgins: During our last drought, the governor asked California to cut back, and we did, but we noticed that our community lost a lot of trees. If your lawn dies, it doesn’t take too much to bring it back, reseed, or install sod, but once you lose a tree, you have lost it permanently. There are, of course, a lot of benefits to having trees: They provide environmental and aesthetic benefits, as well as shade and oxygen, so our agencies wanted to make sure that during the next drought or dry spell, we promoted the watering of trees. We are asking our customers to reduce their lawn watering to 3 days a week, but our emphasis is on watering trees. We’ve been working with the Sacramento Tree Foundation and other organizations that have more expertise on tree care, and they have provided us information on how to water young and mature trees. We have an infographic on our website about it.
The bucket watering method is a simple way to ensure the proper watering of young trees. You take a 5‑gallon bucket, drill a small hole at the bottom, put tape over the hole, fill the bucket up with water, then take the tape off and use the bucket to water one side of the dripline of a young tree, then repeat on the other. You do that 2–3 times per week. This method applies an appropriate amount of water slowly and without overwatering. Plus, it adds a little fun to watering.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the PSA you put together about this method?
Linda Higgins: We try to come up with innovative ways to work with students, and we were trying to think of ways to spread word about the bucket watering method. We saw some YouTube videos where people used buckets as drums, and the daughter of one of the agency’s directors happened to be in a drumline at a local high school. She reached out to her instructor, and he recruited past and current students for us. We recorded a PSA in which the students drum on buckets while someone demonstrates how to use a bucket to water young trees. It came together well. We did a local PSA first and then rerecorded it as a regional PSA. It’s going to be shown on the big screen at the stadium of our AAA baseball team, the Sacramento River Cats, this summer. It was a great opportunity for us to partner with our local high school, showcase the students’ talents, and share a message about water efficiency in a fun, not-so-governmental way.
Municipal Water Leader: What other programs are you doing with schools?
Linda Higgins: Every year, we think of new ways to work with schools and students. It’s fun, and we hope the students spread our messages or at least learn more about water. Students are so creative that they usually help us come up with ideas for ways to get the message out. A couple of years ago, we worked with a fifth-grade science teacher who wanted to incorporate a hands-on component in the school garden with his science curriculum. The teachers involved worked hard on their own time to get the garden in good shape but were watering by hand, so we helped to provide a drip irrigation system. Our staff went out and explained how to water the garden using the new irrigation system and the importance of conserving water.
We also partnered with a local high school’s multimedia broadcasting class to create a video in which the high school’s mascot, an eagle, beats a big water drop mascot in a race—a fun PSA to promote the EPA’s Fix a Leak Week. We called the video Beat the Leak.
PCWA also holds a career day for high school students. We tell them about different jobs and careers at the agency. Someone on my staff was a student who participated in one of those career days.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for water conservation in the future?
Linda Higgins: The vision I share with many other water efficiency experts is that we need to make water conservation and water efficiency sustainable. When we talk about conserving water, everyone thinks we’re saying that you need to cut back now and focus on scarcity, and then when the crisis is over, you can go back to your old habits. But imagine if we could make water efficiency part of a lifestyle in our homes and in future developments. We have efficient products that can be permanently installed in your home. Also, instead of turning off the water, killing your grass, and trying to save your trees, it would be great to simply have a beautiful, water efficient landscape, perhaps with a dry creek bed through which water could stay on your property, preventing soil erosion and runoff and offering a habitat for beneficial insects. That might be too water conservation geeky for some, but I would argue that it’s because there are still too many people who don’t know where their water comes from and don’t understand the connection between their actions, their water supplies, the things they enjoy, and the people they love. My vision is that water efficiency becomes part of a general attitude of stewardship.