Lawn-watering cutbacks alone could meet governor’s demand

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Curbing Californians’ passion for watering their lawns will be central to the campaign to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s demand for a 25 percent reduction in water consumption this year, state and local water officials said.

“We really need the residents of California to immediately begin reducing their water use,” said George Kostyrko, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control board.

Noting that outdoor watering accounts for up to 80 percent of urban water use in some areas, Kostyrko said that cutbacks on lawn irrigation could, by themselves, meet the governor’s order issued last Wednesday, the state’s first mandatory water-use restrictions.

“If people are really rigorous about outdoor use, only using it when we absolutely need to, we can meet the 25 percent (standard),” he said.

Californians pour about 1 million acre feet of water a year on lawns and landscaping, according to the Department of Water Resources, an amount that would fill Lake Sonoma, the North Bay’s largest reservoir, four times.

The governor’s order requires cities and other local water agencies to achieve a 25 percent water cutback this year, compared with use in 2013.

New regulations aimed at meeting that goal will be developed this month by state water officials and presented to the five-member water board in May, Kostyrko said.

Those regulations likely will include limits on the number of days per week on which lawn irrigation is allowed, a restriction some Sonoma County cities already have in place and others do not.

The town of Sonoma imposed a two-day-a-week limit last August, Public Works Director Dan Takasugi said. “We’re a little bit ahead of the curve,” he said.

Healdsburg allows lawn sprinkling every other day, a standard that may need to be tightened, Utility Director Terry Crowley said.

Windsor recommended a three-day limit to town water customers last summer and may now make it mandatory, said Paul Piazza, water conservation program manager.

A limit on watering days doesn’t control the amount of water consumed, but it “simplifies the message to homeowners,” he said.

Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park restrict outdoor irrigation to nighttime hours from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., with no limit on the number of days it can occur.

Dan Muelrath, general manager of the Valley of the Moon Water District, said that local water suppliers have collectively agreed to recommend to their boards of directors a limit of three or fewer days a week. On Tuesday, his board will consider a three-day limit.

Local water agency managers said they weren’t sure if they would get credit for water conservation gains they already have achieved.

Valley of the Moon has reduced water use by 20 percent, compared to 2013, while Santa Rosa has cut use by 19 percent, Healdsburg is at 17 percent and Windsor’s last estimate in December put the town at 16 percent, officials said.

Rohnert Park has reduced consumption by 12 percent, but has maintained the area’s most robust recycled water system for 20 years and requires all new development to connect to that system for landscape irrigation, City Engineer Mary Grace Pawson said.

Overall, the nine cities and water agencies that buy water wholesale from the Sonoma County Water Agency cut use by 16 percent last year, compared with 2013.

Sonoma County’s cities are “well positioned” to warrant a lower mandate than 25 percent, Piazza said.

Kostyrko acknowledged that some local water agencies have been conserving water for up to 20 years and the state intends to take that into account. “One of the things that will likely be addressed (in the forthcoming state regulations) is how to ensure that conservation-minded communities get credit for the work already done,” he said.

County residents are generally doing a good job of conserving water, as six agencies reported per capita water use well below the state average of 72.6 gallons per day in January. Santa Rosa was lowest at 49 gallons per person, with Rohnert Park and Windsor residents using 50 gallons, Valley of the Moon customers at 51 gallons and Sonoma residents using 56 gallons.

Petaluma residents used 79 gallons per person daily, according to a state water board report.

Statewide, more than 146 billion gallons of water were saved from June to January 2014, compared with the same period in 2013, the report said.

Local water agencies have the authority to fine water wasters up to $500, but Kostyrko said that penalty has rarely been used.

Santa Rosa will resume “water watch patrols” within a month as the weather warms up, said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of water and engineering services. The city has issued some water-use violations and customers have voluntarily corrected the problems, she said.

Sonoma’s water system can detect dripping faucets, leaking toilet valves and pinhole leaks in a customer’s pipes, Takasugi said. The city sends about 100 letters a month notifying residents of such problems, which can compromise water conservation efforts, he said.

Local water agencies have taken a variety of steps involving water rates since Gov. Brown’s first call for conservation in January 2014.

Santa Rosa has no rate changes in the works, but can impose a 10 percent water shortage charge if conditions worsen, Burke said. Windsor is conducting a water-rate analysis, which is done periodically and is not drought-related.

Rohnert Park officials plan to present a water-rate increase to the City Council on April 14, including a 2 percent increase for residents at the lowest of three tiers to offset rising wholesale water costs, Pawson said.

Valley of the Moon is scheduled to restructure its tiered water rates in June, including a 4 percent reduction for residents at the lowest tier, using 5,000 gallons a month or less, and higher rates for those in the top three tiers, Muelrath said.

Sonoma raised water rates an average of 5 percent in January.

Healdsburg, which operates its own water system, charges a flat rate for all the water customers use, which involves no financial incentive for conservation, Crowley said. The city may switch to a tiered rate structure this year, he said, noting that “seems to be what the state wants.’

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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