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City to enforce new water regulations


On a particularly steamy Friday afternoon, Suzanne Clarke descended the stairs of her 5th Street Victorian abode, a hefty red bucket of water tightly clasped in her hands.

“I just got out of the shower,” Clarke said, gesturing with the sudsy pail. “We’ll use this to water the trees out front.”

As a Sonoma County Master Gardener, Clarke was quick to address the sustainability of her landscape as California’s drought progressed this year. Her crab grass has been replaced by sheets of mulch, and her plants are all native and able to survive without any irrigation, except for the water she recycles from her bathroom.

Conserving water is part of Clarke’s daily life; she’s even installing an 1,100-gallon cistern underneath her backyard to catch and use whatever rain water may come.

“It’s an investment in the future,” Clarke said. “I do believe it’s going to rain again, but it may not rain as much.”

It’s an example that water officials are hoping others will follow. In response to California’s severe drought, the state recently approved mandatory emergency regulations intended to reduce outdoor urban water use. Passed on July 15 by the State Water Resources Control Board, the additional restrictions will push water agencies and residents to bolster water conservation efforts or face possible fines.

The new statewide regulations are expected to go into effect in early August, and will prohibit Californians from washing driveways and sidewalks with water, causing excess runoff by over-watering outdoor landscapes, using a hose without a shut-off nozzle to wash cars, and using potable water in a fountain or other decoration, unless the water is recycled. These emergency measures will remain in effect for 270 days, unless the State Water Board decides to extend them due to ongoing drought conditions.

Petaluma Public Works Director Dan St. John said most of the restrictions are already in place in Petaluma, as the city is currently in the first stage of its own Water Shortage Contingency Plan. The only statewide regulation that will be new to Petalumans is the restriction on decorative fountains and water features.

“We have existing prohibitions that pretty much match what the state is asking us to adopt,” St. John said.

In March, the City of Petaluma launched the first stage of its contingency plan by asking residents to voluntarily cut their water usage by 20 percent. Since then, St. John said Petaluma residents are heeding the call because water use has dropped around 20 percent compared to the same time last year, so for now, the city does not plan to seek mandatory reductions.

Those who repeatedly fail to follow the regulations could eventually face fines, although only after they are educated on ways to conserve. St. John said when residents call the city to report water waste, inspectors are sent to offer advice to the property owner, such as suggesting a free water audit. He added that no fines have been levied for water waste to date.

“We rely on the public to let us know what they see,” St. John said. “Employees patching roads and fixing water lines are our eyes and ears, but they can only see so much.”

Currently, if a resident doesn’t reduce water waste after the first warning, St. John said subsequent fines of $150 and $300 can be issued. The City Attorney’s Office is exploring how the city could implement the state’s allowance of up to $500 fines for such infractions. St. John plans to make a presentation about the new regulations, along with recommendations on enforcement, during the city council’s Sept. 8 meeting.

“We don’t run around fining people; that’s not how you get compliance,” St. John said. “You get compliance by educating people and making sure they’re aware of what the regulations are, why they exist and what opportunities we can provide to help them save a little money on their water bill and save a little water. That’s always our focus.”

To avoid wasting water and accruing fines, residents like Suzanne Clarke are implementing measures like planting drought resistant vegetation and mulching lawns, the latter of which Clarke did through a rebate program of the Sonoma Marin Water Saving Partnership. St. John said such partnerships are important in supporting communities and providing a consistent message — record low rainfall means every drop counts.

To report water waste, call the city’s water conservation line at 778-4507 or email conservation@ci.petaluma.ca.us.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@argus courier.com)