Riverbank considers easing watering restrictions

In trouble with the state for failing to conserve enough water during the drought, Riverbank has stopped watering some public areas such as this roundabout at Homewood Way and Crawford Road.
In trouble with the state for failing to conserve enough water during the drought, Riverbank has stopped watering some public areas such as this roundabout at Homewood Way and Crawford Road.

City leaders are expected to ease harsh restrictions on outdoor watering, even though Riverbank remains among California’s trouble spots for failing to conserve enough in the drought.

If the City Council agrees on Tuesday, people will be allowed to water two days a week rather than one, and will be able to water before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m. rather than before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.

The new rules also would allow people to ask for permission to temporarily ignore watering rules for new plantings, concrete work or power-washing to prepare for painting. Others could request a permanent “hardship exemption” for unspecified “extreme extenuating circumstances.” And people with microspray or drip systems would be exempt.

A rules change has been expected because the tough rainy-season restrictions are set to expire Saturday. They were adopted in November, when it became clear that Riverbank was having more trouble than most California cities in meeting conservation targets.

That hasn’t changed, despite Riverbank’s strict rules and threats of fines ranging from $100 for a first violation to $500 for a fifth.

Ordered to reduce water consumption to 32 percent less than 2013 levels, Riverbank by February had saved less than 8 percent since the state began keeping track in June. Riverbank used nearly 52 percent more water in January this year than in January 2013, even with the strict new rules, which many despise. They include a ban on sprinklers – all watering must be done by hand, and you can’t leave a hose unattended – and time restrictions that essentially forced people to water in the dark before days got longer.

“What about elderly and disabled people?” said Dean Barnes, 76, who has back arthritis. “If I have to hold a hose for two or three hours, it might be impossible. Sometimes my back gives me such pain, I can hardly move.”

Beverly Sinclair, 75, removed four trees to save water. She sets her alarm for 6 a.m. so she can hand-water before the 9 a.m. “water curfew,” because waiting until after 9 p.m. isn’t doable. An 80-year-old neighbor was fined, she said, when sprinklers set by the landscaper went on at the wrong time.

Other cities have had more luck with watering restrictions.

Modesto, for example, was ordered to conserve 36 percent and has cut nearly 28 percent, missing its goal by 8.2 percent compared with Riverbank’s 24 percent gap. Oakdale has saved 7 percent more than ordered, and Newman barely is in the black as well, while Ceres’ and Turlock’s gaps between targets and conservation stood at 4 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively, by February.

“We have failed,” Riverbank Mayor Richard O’Brien said in his Feb. 24 State of the City address. “Many have reduced their landscape water consumption, but there are others that just don’t get it.”

State water enforcers in December slapped Riverbank with an official “Conservation Order,” threatening the city with $500-per-day fines while violations continue. The order requires that Riverbank employ a “water cop” to issue fines, upgrade its 20-year-old billing system by July and replace 7,000 water meters by the end of the year.

The $4.1 million replacement effort is in full swing. New smart meters will enable easier detection of leaks and don’t require manual reading, freeing crews to work on other projects. And the new billing system, expected to be up and running later this year, will show customers their usage in gallons rather than harder-to-understand cubic feet, the city’s website says.

City Hall will explore using treated wastewater for agriculture or other nonpotable use, O’Brien said in the February speech. “We do not want the state water board in our daily lives,” he said, “nor do we want to pay fines that will further increase our water rates.”

If Riverbank council members approve proposed changes Tuesday, addresses with odd numbers could water on Wednesdays and Sundays, and those with even numbers, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, both before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m. The ban on watering within two days of rain would continue, and the warm-weather schedule would expire Oct. 31; a winter schedule would reduce watering to one day a week from Nov. 1 through March 31.

People could wash one vehicle a week using hoses with shut-off nozzles, and could wash walkways and other surfaces to remove health hazards such as bird droppings.

For more information on Riverbank’s water meter replacement effort, visit

Tuesday’s City Council meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the chamber at 6707 Third St., Riverbank.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390