Santa Rosa water restrictions end for city residents

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Santa Rosa residents are out from under local water-saving mandates imposed two years ago in the grip of a nagging drought, thanks to an abundant water supply behind Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma, officials said Wednesday.

Based on assurances that the reservoir behind the taxpayer-funded, $360 million dam west of Healdsburg can sustain 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents for three more potentially dry years, the City Council rescinded, effective immediately, the mandatory curbs on outdoor water use adopted in August 2014.

The council’s action followed last month’s ruling by the State Water Resources Control Board that local agencies with a three-year water supply could be exempted from state water conservation targets. Santa Rosa and five other Sonoma County water providers met that requirement, the Sonoma County Water Agency said at the time.

On Wednesday, the water agency confirmed in a forecast to the state water board that Lake Sonoma would hold a healthy 178,398 acre feet of water at the end of September in 2019, after three rain-poor years comparable to 2013 through 2015.

Brad Sherwood, the water agency’s spokesman, said the report “illustrates our region’s ability to meet water supply demands” over a three-year drought.

Gone are the city conservation target of reducing water use by 20 percent and the state goal of 16 percent reduction, the latter with civil liabilities of up to $10,000 a day for failing to meet the mark.

But while the city of Santa Rosa canceled all of its water-use restrictions, state water regulations still prohibit runoff from outdoor irrigation, use of free-flowing hoses for washing cars and several other targeted uses.

Jennifer Burke, the deputy director of water resources for Santa Rosa, said the city’s 53,000 residential and commercial water customers had reduced water consumption by 25 percent since June 2015 by embracing a host of conservation measures.

By tearing out 25 football fields’ worth of lawns, installing 5,500 ultra-efficient toilets and other drought-fighting tactics, Santa Rosans saved enough water to cover 4,500 football fields with a foot of water each year.

“We have to be incredibly grateful to our community,” Burke said, expressing hope that the community’s water-wise ways have become habitual. “We would always ask our customers to do everything they can to eliminate water waste.”

The city “cash for grass” program, which offers a 50-cent-per-square-foot rebate for residents who replace their lawns with low-water-use landscaping, is still in effect, she said. State rebates of up to $1.50 per square foot are available as well, she said.

Since 2014, the city rebate program has replaced nearly 1.2 million square feet of lawn, and dating back to the pre-drought year of 2009, when the program was started, the total exceeds 3.2 million square feet.

But the water savings also comes with a hit to residents’ wallets, amounting to an additional $1 on monthly water bills for the average customer, starting July 1, officials said.

The bump is due to the city’s passing on to customers part of a nearly 6 percent increase in the wholesale cost of water charged by the Sonoma County Water Agency. Santa Rosa water customers, as well as those in Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Sonoma, Cotati and those served by the Valley of the Moon Water District, are seeing rate increases of up to $2 due to the wholesale price increase.

Wholesale rates are rising 6 percent to 7 percent due to a loss in revenue from water conservation, water agency officials said. The system’s costs remain fixed in the face of reduced consumption, they said.

Santa Rosa water customers are also getting hit with the first in a five-year schedule of water rate increases approved by the council in December and intended to cover system costs, with no relation to the drought or water conservation.

That increase, also effective July 1, will add 54 cents to the average resident’s monthly water and sewer bill, bumping the total — including sewer rate hikes — from $125.26 to $128.31, a 2.4 percent increase.

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

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