Petaluma enters Stage 4 water emergency amid drought concerns
The Petaluma City Council this week declared a drought emergency, ratcheting up restrictions on residents’ water use in the city’s latest effort to conserve the region’s dwindling water resources.
In a 6-1 vote late Monday night, the council approved a resolution for the Stage 4 emergency. The move calls for a 30% mandatory water reduction goal for city water customers, up from the previous goal of 25%.
The new rules prohibit the installation of new landscapes and the replanting of existing landscapes that require water, and it limits watering for existing landscaping to 4-8 a.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays, among other changes. Fines of up to $1,000 loom for residents who continue to flout water-saving rules.
“On my street I literally have one neighbor who ripped out their lawn and put down bark, and I have another neighbor who put down a green lawn, all in the last three months,” Petaluma Vice mayor Brian Barnacle said. “And I love the signs around town, seeing the “Brown is the New Green” and that sort of thing. I’m all for penalizing people who have a lush, green lawn right now.”
The prescribed actions are part of the City’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan, adopted five years ago in response to California’s rising drought concerns and decreasing groundwater supply.
Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, the primary water source for 600,000 Californians in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, are seeing some of their lowest levels on record. As of Sept. 9, Lake Mendocino’s water level was at just 26% of the target level, while Lake Sonoma sits at 46.5% capacity.
As record-breaking dry conditions have worsened throughout the spring and summer months, there has been greater urgency to decrease water use in Petaluma and throughout Sonoma County.
After initially falling short of water reduction goals of 25% set June 21, city officials reported Monday that Petaluma achieved a water reduction of nearly 26% in July, compared to the 2018-20 average for the same month.
Meanwhile, in August the citywide reduction of Sonoma Water supply topped 31%. City officials credited Petaluma’s use of local wells along Frates and Stony Point roads, which eased pressure on other supply streams during summer months.
“One of the things that I think is important is for institutions in our city, like (Santa Rosa Junior College), to not use water unnecessarily. They’re really just sending the wrong message to the community,” said Barnacle. “It’s about leadership, not just about water usage right now. And we’ve done a good job in doing that citywide, taking a strong leadership position in that.”
Monday’s council action marks the latest development in a months-long response to the ongoing drought.
Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s drought declaration for Sonoma and Mendocino counties April 21, and a local emergency declaration by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors less than a week later, the Petaluma City Council gave the green light for Stage 1 restrictions to take effect May 3. Those included requiring restaurants to serve water only upon customer request, prohibiting water use to hose down pavements and encouraging irrigation only between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily.
The council’s decision Monday also paves the way for even greater curtailments, giving pre-authorization to City Manager Peggy Flynn to declare a Stage 5 or Stage 6 emergency in future weeks, if necessary, a controversial step some worried was too drastic.
Councilmember Mike Healy, who issued the sole “no” vote, said he feels the city should take other measures first, pointing to other cities that have yet to take such strong action.
“The city of Healdsburg, which is in a much worse situation than we are, is offering recycled water to residents who want it. They actually send a truck around to fill tanks that people can buy and put in their yards so they don’t lose their landscaping. And all of the Marin agencies are doing the same thing,” Healy said. “So I think that before we authorize Stage 5 or Stage 6, that should be an option here as well.”
City staff said such a move would be complicated, requiring more discussion and planning.
Councilmember Dave King, while supporting the move into a Stage 4 water reduction measure, was also wary about proceeding into the higher-tiered emergency declarations.
“At that point, you’re talking about no irrigation at all,” King said. “And I realize that we are in a drought crisis, but that could start to impact trees, which is something we should have a discussion on. Trees that get no water die.”
Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus Courier. She can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5208.