Statewide water restrictions could be on tap

A resident waters their yard during the restricted time of noon-7pm in Modesto Calif., on Thursday June 3, 2014.
A resident waters their yard during the restricted time of noon-7pm in Modesto Calif., on Thursday June 3, 2014. Modesto Bee

A push to force all Californians to use less water outdoors is not likely to affect most people in these parts, where cities already have conservation rules.

Water wasters unused to looking over a shoulder when watering lawns or washing cars, however – such as people with private wells – conceivably could become subject to $500 fines.

Faced with a withering drought, state regulators on Tuesday will consider unprecedented outdoor water restrictions because voluntary steps have not worked. For the first time in California history, all people could come under an emergency order outlawing sidewalk and driveway washing, hosing a vehicle without a shut-off nozzle, letting water run into streets and turning on fountains that don’t recirculate water.

“We’re not trying to spank people,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, in a call with reporters Wednesday. “We’re trying to get people’s attention to not wasting a precious resource.”

If approved as proposed, the rules would apply everywhere in California and violators could be slapped with $500-a-day fines – including rural residents who never have had to check whether their street address ends in an even or odd number. But someone would have to catch them; the rules allow any public employee empowered to enforce such laws to write tickets.

City dwellers would continue to follow conservation rules established where they live, officials said.

Eight of the nine cities in Stanislaus County require people to follow even-odd watering schedules year-round, and most prohibit outdoor watering in the heat of the day. The exception is Newman, where residents don’t have address-based restrictions and don’t have to conserve in the winter.

Fines proposed by the state are much steeper than here, where some cities haven’t identified dollar amounts and almost all issue warnings before writing tickets. Local penalties range from $20 for a first offense in Ceres to $250 for a third offense in Modesto.

Modesto water customers in other communities – Empire, Salida, Waterford, Hickman, Grayson, Del Rio, and small parts of Ceres and Turlock – follow Modesto’s rules.

Marcus indicated that local rules will trump the state’s.

Water managers in Modesto, Turlock and Ceres say local conservation programs have cut consumption at least 20 percent in recent years, as required by a previous law. Next week’s action should not change things much here, they said, except for a requirement that agencies with at least 3,000 customers submit monthly reports on water use.

For comparison, Modesto has 77,000 water customers, and Ceres has 11,500.

“This should have minimal effects on us,” said Juan Tejeda, Modesto water conservation specialist. The city deploys three employees responding to water wasting complaints; they issued more than 500 warnings in June, but no violations. Turlock hasn’t dinged anyone, either.

Ceres, the county’s third-largest city, appears to be most serious about saving water, having issued 302 warnings this year and 59 citations. Ceres offers a unique automated program that notifies people by email when a home appears to be using water in excess, suggesting a leak that needs fixing. But people must sign up, and only 1,108 have, said Jeremy Damas, deputy director of public works.

A few weeks ago, Turlock monitored water use, found 1,400 homes using water around the clock – maybe leaks? – and mailed courtesy notices to those owners.

Some people have complained about urban restrictions, noting that agriculture soaks up 75 percent of California’s available water.

Marcus said farmers are taking huge hits in the drought, fallowing more than 400,000 acres and putting perhaps thousands of people out of work this year.

Most regular people use more water outside homes than in, but indoor restrictions could be in order if the drought hangs on, she said.

In emergency directives earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown initially sought 20 percent reductions in water consumption. Californians cut back by only 5 percent through May, triggering next week’s proposal.

The effort is aimed at about 40 water agencies that have dragged their feet, and would require them to adopt conservation programs.

“Every community should be doing something about outdoor irrigation as opposed to just ignoring it,” Marcus said.

Before the drought, Modesto got about half of its supply from the Modesto Irrigation District, which treats snowmelt via the Tuolumne River before the city mixes it with groundwater and sends it to customers’ taps. This year, MID is delivering about 17 million gallons per day to the city, down from 30 million in an average year, and the city has had to increase well pumping.

Modesto officials have said they do not expect to implement further restrictions, but all bets will be off next year if we have another dry winter.