Friday is April 1st

Friday is April 1st

(Photo: March 7, 2016 in Lake Tahoe / Orange County Register)

California’s water officials call October 1st through April 1st the Water Year, because these six months are when the state receives almost all of its annual water supply. Friday is April 1st and California’s glass is clearly not full. But, that’s about all that is clear.

Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s Story

Why Landscaping Matters

Why Landscaping Matters

by Michelle Curtis

Landscaping is an important part of a community’s quality of life. It is not only beautiful to look at, but it also provides numerous environmental, physical, and psychological benefits.

We know that trees and plants positively impact our environment; they produce oxygen, clean our air, lower temperatures, reduce storm water pollutants, produce locally grown food, screen out noise and provide habitat for wildlife.

But landscaping also positively impacts people’s health and emotional well-being. Research shows that looking at landscaping, even through a window, can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. A study conducted by Dr. Roger S. Ulrich found that patients with views of trees from their rooms recovered faster than those with views of brick walls.

Image of large shade tree on sunny afternoon, taken from under the canopy.

Landscaping appears to offer economic benefits as well. According to a publication from Virginia Tech, a home with nice landscaping is worth 5.5 percent to 12.7 percent more on resale than one with no landscaping. At commercial properties, nice landscaping can also drive increased business, with nicely landscaped sites having higher rental rates.

So how do we reconcile all of these benefits of landscaping with the reality of drought in California? We redefine what the “new normal” landscape looks like.

The traditional cool-season lawn needs over 50 inches of water each year. In a region that averages 10 inches of rainfall annually, that means a lot of drinking water is being used to keep grass alive. Under the current drought restrictions, most grass has gone golden as outdoor watering has been restricted to a limited number of days per week.

Image of lavender in bloom.
Image of two dogs sniffing a lawn of warm season turf.

Some people have chosen to remove their dead grass and replace it with gravel, rock, or mulch. While this does save water, it also increased reflected heat and all of the benefits of living plants and trees are missed.

Instead, choose plants that are regionally appropriate, such as Mediterranean plants like lavender or California natives like the live oak. Use captured rainwater and then supplement with efficient irrigation like dripline. Reduce your watering schedule so that you don’t water more than your plants need, adjust your schedule as the weather changes and don’t forget to mulch to help retain soil moisture.

You’ll have color and texture in your garden, you’ll get to enjoy the environmental, emotional, and economic benefits of having a beautiful landscape, all while using less water within the current restrictions. Need help planning your new landscape? Register to attend the WaterSmart Landscape Design workshop on April 9, 2016 to become part of the long-term solution.

Next Weekend: The Garden Native Tour

Next Weekend: The Garden Native Tour

The California Native Plant Society’s Garden Native Tour, April 2-3, will showcase 20 gardens in eastern San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee, and Jamul. This year’s theme is “Landscaping for the Future”, and the tour features seven gardens designed, grown and maintained by Helix customers, including the Lincers in La Mesa.

Jeff and Judie Lincer have taken to water conservation in style.  “We feel like we have waterfront property in La Mesa!” Judie exclaims, looking over the koi in a freshwater pond. Dragonflies and damselflies now hover where there had been floats and beach balls. Egrets, herons, and osprey visit the natural environment on occasion as well.

Until a few years ago the pond had been a swimming pool. “As the kids moved out, we found that we weren’t really using the pool; we’re both are big fans of birds, so we decided to create something that we would give back to the environment and that we would actually enjoy on a daily basis,” continues Judie.

They can collect and store 2000 gallons of rainwater from the roof of their 2,200 sq. ft. La Mesa home that would otherwise run off their lot and into the sewer system.  “We’ve got two tanks that hold a total of 500 gallons to water the native plants in the front yard, another two tanks that supply the pond, and for our vegetable garden, and three 330-gallon,” Judie calculates.

The pool to pond conversion is the latest step in their efforts to make their home landscape sustainable. “Since moving to San Diego in 1996, I’ve been astounded at how lush and tropical gardens and lawns were, given how little rain we get. It just did not make sense,” Judie says.  “I decided that when I owned a home, I would embrace San Diego’s unique climate and work with that.”  When the couple pulled up their lawn, they first planted drought tolerant succulents and cacti. Gradually they began adding manzanitas and other native plants and liked the look.

As members of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), their yard was selected for a makeover in fall 2014. Members of their Garden Committee came up with a design centered on a cobble streambed that comes alive after rains (or releases from the water tanks) and features plants from San Diego desert and chaparral communities.

Get Your Tickets
Tickets for the two day, self guided Garden Native Tour are $25 for adults and free for children.  To learn more and purchase tickets, please visit

What Happened in Flint

In the last two months, public water systems across the United States have posted statements and press releases assuring the population they serve that “what happened in Flint could not happen here.” Helix posted a story on our blog on January 27 explaining that, unlike the City of Flint, we do not have corrosive water or lead service lines connecting our water mains to customer meters, and that the tests we perform every three years in customer homes, in compliance with federal law, have not identified a lead issue in our water.

Photo of Flint River in winter within the city of Flint.

Flint River
Water problems in Flint, Michigan began when the city started treating Flint River water. (Photo: Washington Post)

In Flint, corrosive water eroding the interior walls of lead service lines resulted in toxic levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The inconceivable part of what happened, however, is that the people responsible for water quality in local, state and federal government appear to have placed lesser priorities ahead of public safety, exposing Flint residents to toxic lead levels for months.

We do not want the crisis in Flint to erode your trust in Helix and our water. We also don’t want you to lose trust in the regulatory structure in place to protect public health. This structure includes state and federal regulators that oversee public water systems, and the scientific community that researches water quality issues and establishes safety standards.

This post is the first of six on water quality. We will explain today how lead contaminates drinking water, and over the next few weeks the Lead and Copper Rule, who develops water quality standards, how Helix manages water quality, the environmental argument for tap water, and what you can do to protect water quality. We hope you follow the series. Now, back to Flint and the chemistry of drinking water.

The water from the Flint River corroded the City of Flint’s cast iron water mains, turning the drinking water orange. (Photo: Global Policy Solutions)

Photo shows brown water coming out of faucet in Flint, Michigan, due to corrosion of the city's cast iron water mains.

How Does Lead Get Into Drinking Water?

Lead gets into drinking water when corrosive water dissolves lead pipe. Most of the time, the lead is in the piping of a home or building. Note that it is possible to have corrosion in household plumbing even when tap water is non-corrosive. The level of corrosion can be influenced by many factors. Pipe material plays a role: galvanized steel, cast iron and lead are more likely to corrode than brass, copper or stainless steel. Connecting pipes made of different metals can cause corrosion, as can exposure of pipe to stray electrical currents, or poor quality plumbing materials or installation.

Graphic comparing the corrosivity of metals used in pipe.

How Can Water be Corrosive?

All water is corrosive to metal to some extent. Water utilities can serve naturally less-corrosive water, as we do at Helix, or reduce corrosivity through the water treatment process. There is extensive data at this point, from monitoring lead and copper levels in tap water in compliance with state and EPA regulations, to support this assertion.

When we talk about different sources of water having different characteristics we are talking about water quality – what is in the water. This depends on what is in the air when it rains or snows, and what is on the ground – minerals, organic matter and pollutants – that water flows over and through. Three water quality parameters are most commonly linked to the corrosion of lead pipe:

The pH is a measure of how acidic water is. A pH value of 7 is neutral – neither acidic nor basic. Adding acid to water lowers the pH below 7, and adding a base raises the pH above 7. When carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in pure water it forms carbonic acid, lowering the pH. Similarly, when water flows over or through minerals and natural organic material it can add acids or bases, lowering or raising the pH.

Alkalinity is a measure of the degree to which water can neutralize acids and maintain a stable pH level. Alkalinity is determined by the amount of naturally occurring carbonate and bicarbonate dissolved in the water.

Chloride to Sulfate Mass Ratio
Although this mechanism is not fully understood by scientists, the mass (concentration) ratio of chloride to sulfate (CSMR) seems to influence lead corrosion. A recent survey showed that water with a CSMR less than 0.58 did not cause measurable lead levels in household plumbing,   while an estimated 36% of water systems with a CSMR greater than 0.58 experienced lead concentrations exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

Note that this is a more detailed analysis than simply saying soft water is corrosive and hard water isn’t. Hard water, including the water Helix serves from the Colorado River, is high in dissolved calcium and magnesium, and the calcium reduces corrosion by forming a protective film on the interior wall of pipe. When the focus is on the corrosion of lead pipe, however, hardness is not as relevant as pH and the CSMR.

Photo of National Guard distributing bottled water to Flint residents.

Bottled Water
The National Guard has been distributing water to Flint residents at different locations throughout the city. (Photo: USA Today)

The problems in Flint began in April, 2014, when the city stopped importing treated water from the City of Detroit for the first time since 1967 and started treating water from the Flint River in its own treatment plant. When a team of researchers from Virginia Tech University arrived in Flint in September, 2015, led by Dr. Marc Edwards, a civil engineer and leading authority on corrosion, they conducted tests comparing the effects of Flint River water and City of Detroit water on pieces of copper pipe joined with lead solder. The Flint River water dissolved 19 times more lead into the water.

Why is Flint River water so corrosive? In an interview with Scientific American, Edwards said, “The Flint River had higher chloride—eight times higher chloride. Chloride is corrosive—it’s road salt.” During the winter of 2013-14, the State of Michigan used 653,500 tons of salt to de-ice roads and highways. When salt dissolves, it splits into sodium and chloride ions and is carried by rainwater and snowmelt into streams, rivers and lakes. Past U.S. Geological Survey studies in Minnesota and New York document peak chloride levels over 1,500 parts per billion in streams following a winter storm.

What about the chloride to sulfate mass ratio (CSMR)? The Flint River water’s CSMR was almost four times higher than the CSMR of Detroit’s water and almost three times the 0.58 ratio.

Chloride to Sulfate Ratio: How Flint Compares


Detroit Water


Flint Water


Helix Water

Why is Lead Used in Pipe?

According to a 2008 article for the National Institutes of Health, physicians, public health officials, engineers and the public were concerned about the safety of lead water pipes as early as the 1850s and opposition to their use was widespread by 1900s.

Yet the use of lead continued, due in part to the Lead Industry Association, which touted its durability and flexibility and lobbied successfully that it remain an option in state plumbing codes. Note that lead was also used through much of the 20th century in paint, ceramics, crystal, batteries, gasoline, lipstick and fishing tackle.

The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986 banned lead pipe in the U.S., prohibiting the, “Use of pipe, solder, or flux in public water systems that is not “lead free”. The legislation established the same requirements for, “Any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, which is connected to a public water system.” The third requirement of the legislation was that public water systems notify the public about the potential sources of lead in drinking water, the potential health effects, and steps to mitigate the risk.

In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring water providers to test water for lead in customer homes and introduce corrosion control techniques or replace any lead service lines if lead levels in 10 percent of the samples exceeds 15 parts per billion.

How many lead pipes are still out there? An American Water Works Association study published this month estimates that there are 6.1 million lead service lines in the U.S. serving about 7 percent of the 293 million Americans connected to a public water system. Note that the public water systems with lead service lines must use corrosion control techniques in their water treatment process to comply with the Lead and Copper Rule. Note, too, that 6.1 million lead service lines is a 40 percent reduction from 1991 when the Lead and Copper Rule was implemented.

Our next article will explain the Lead and Copper Rule, how public water systems (including Helix) test for lead in drinking water, and how home and building owners can test their own pipes.

Follow Virginia Tech’s Flint Water Study

See How the Crisis in Flint Happened Step by Step

Celebrate Spring Break at Lake Jennings

Celebrate Spring Break at Lake Jennings

Looking for a great way to spend spring break? Lake Jennings will be open every day, March 18 through April 3, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., with numerous recreation activities available: fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, animal watching, and just breathing fresh air while enjoying the sun-drenched and sparkling lake scenery.

Saturday, March 19, Lake Jennings will host its second annual spring carnival.  The Kids Pond will be fully stocked to help ensure youngsters 10 and under will catch a fish.  The lake will be stocked with 2,000 pounds of fish that week to increase the odds for adult anglers, too.

Carnival face-painting will be available at the Bait Shop from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.  In Hermit Cove, free hotdogs will be served beginning at 11:30 a.m. and, at 1 p.m., an egg hunt will be held for children 10 and under—with a special sectioned-off area for those 3 and under.

While you are enjoying all the great things the lake has to offer, don’t forget to snap a slew of excellent photos to enter in the Lake Jennings Spring Photo Contest.  The shooting window is from March through May. Get full details and entry forms at

Learn More & Make Campground Reservations at


El Niño is Changing Weather Across the Globe

El Niño is Changing Weather Across the Globe

Photo: flooding on March 11th west of Santa Rosa, California / Source: AP

It has been a wet two weeks in California with El Niño delivering multiple storms throughout the state since March 1st.

Conditions have been especially good (from a drought standpoint) in the Sacramento River watershed, which fills Lake Shasta, and the Feather River watershed, which fills Lake Oroville, the water source for the State Water Project. Precipitation in the region rose from 102 percent of average on March 1st to 130 percent of average on March 15th.

Where does that leave California? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last September that reaching 150 percent of average precipitation this winter would move the state out of the bottom 20 percent of recorded five year precipitation totals. So, we are in better shape than last year, but not out of the drought.

Radar image of storms covering most of California on March 11, 2016 at 2:00pm.

Statewide Precipitation on Saturday, March 11 at 2:00pm

Here are the numbers from this string of storms:

Lake Shasta
83% of average on March 1
108% of average on March 15

Lake Oroville
76% of average on March 1
103% of average on March 15

Northern Sierra Snowpack
89% of average on March 1
103% of average on March 15

Now that you’re up to speed with El Nino conditions in California, are you wondering about drought conditions in Brazil and whether they will improve in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics? Or maybe you’re concerned about Indonesia or southern Africa.

When El Niño occurs, and the warm water in the western Pacific Ocean shifts eastward, it produce a domino effect on weather around the world. Click on the link below to read a story from Climate Central that explains why and how it happens, and how each continent has been affected.

Read Climate Central’s article on El Niño’s global impact


Save 10% on a Plumber — It’s Fix a Leak Week

Save 10% on a Plumber — It’s Fix a Leak Week

Do you have a dripping faucet at your house?  While it might seem small, one drip per second from a leaking faucet can waste more than 3,000 gallons a year.  That’s literally water and money going down the drain.

National Fix a Leak Week, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency each year, runs March 14-20.  Check for indoor leaks such as dripping faucets and showerheads and worn toilet flappers.  Outdoors, check for broken sprinkler heads and leaking hose bibs.  These items are usually easy to fix; for help with making the repairs yourself, go to Helix’s Leak Repair webpage or visit

For those that would like professional assistance, Helix Water District has partnered with the San Diego County Water Authority, neighboring water agencies and the local chapter of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association during national Fix a Leak Week, March 14-20, to make fixing water leaks less costly for residents and businesses.  Throughout Fix a Leak Week, participating contractors will offer customers a 10 percent discount, up to $100, on products and services related to fixing leaks at homes and businesses in the San Diego region.

To receive the discount, customers simply need to mention the Water Authority partnership when scheduling an appointment. Go to to locate a participating contractor in your neighborhood.

Our New Water Savings Target — 12 Percent

We are pleased to report that the mandatory water use reduction of 20 percent imposed on Helix by the State Water Resources Control Board in June 2015 has been reduced to 12 percent.

The water agencies in the San Diego region are receiving the eight percent credit for developing a new, local, drought-resilient water resource – the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant — which began producing 50 million gallons of drinking water per day in December.

“I am pleased the State Water Resources Control Board listened to us and the other representatives from the San Diego region, and I am very proud of the lobbying effort we mounted, in writing and in face-to-face testimony,” said DeAna Verbeke, Helix’s Board President.

“This credit is recognition from the State of California of the investment Helix customers and everyone in the San Diego region have made over 20 years in water conservation and diversifying our water supply,” added Carlos Lugo, Helix’s General Manager.

It’s now up to Helix’s Board and staff to determine how to incorporate the credit in the district’s water use restrictions. “We have a lot to consider. Yes, we have more water to use, but we need to keep our eye on El Niño and the snowpack in the Sierra, as well.” said Lugo.

Read the San Diego County Water Authority’s March 10, 2016 Release

Read the State Water Resources Control Board’s February 2, 2016 Release

Lake Oroville Rose 20 Feet This Weekend

Lake Oroville Rose 20 Feet This Weekend

The runoff from this weekend’s storms raised Lake Oroville, the water supply for California’s State Water Project and about two thirds of the state’s population, by 20 feet.

If you are wondering how that is possible, it’s because the lake captures the flow from the north, middle and south forks of the Feather River, which drain a watershed of 3,222 square miles. Much of the rainfall this weekend soaked into the soil throughout the watershed, but the rest flowed downhill, into the river, and into the lake. Lake Oroville is now 60 percent full.

Watch the ABC News Video