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Petaluma inches toward mandatory water cuts

As Petaluma braces for mandatory water cuts under the specter of a potentially unprecedented drought year, city officials are dusting off a water-saving campaign that harkens back to the last drought several years ago.

Street banners, signs plastering downtown windows and consistent emails and mailers from the city of Petaluma are likely to resurface as a prominent fixture of daily life in the coming weeks, as the city revives the methods and resources that marked the 2014 drought response.

But as residents grapple with the overlapping public health emergency and prepare for a potentially explosive fire season, local leaders have been stern in their warnings of the drought’s severity – and are hopeful a public outreach blitz will help persuade more residents to take the crisis seriously.

The Petaluma City Council next week is expected to approve a mandatory citywide cut of water use by 25%, strengthening what has previously been a 20% voluntary reduction implemented May 3.

Interim Public Works & Utilities Director Gina Benedetti-Petnic said it’s critical people realize the extent of the local drought emergency, which Gov. Gavin Newsom officially declared April 7.

“Anyone who is tracking this can see the big differences we’re seeing now, that it’s already much worse than it was in the last drought,” Benedetti-Petnic said. “Maybe this will be a one-off, a one-year event. But if it goes on as the last drought did, we’re all very concerned what that could mean. This is a serious drought emergency.”

Nearly all of Sonoma County is now in an “exceptional” drought, the worst of five categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while nearly all of the state is experiencing some level of drought.

The county is weathering a second consecutive dry year, on the heels of last year’s third-driest water year in the past 127 years, according to Sonoma Water. In Santa Rosa, rainfall is at 39% of average as of May 28, as water levels in Sonoma and Mendocino lakes fall perilously. This week, the county water agency received permission to immediately cut stream flows in the lower Russian River by more than half, further deepening cuts among its city contractors.

The City Council’s vote Monday will implement an updated water shortage contingency plan to rely on more recent water use trends between 2018 and 2020, and require residents begin making the same kind of sacrifices as in 2014.

If the cuts take effect, residents should prepare for a ban on operating ornamental water fountains and features, washing cars anywhere other than commercial facilities, and filling new swimming pools and spas.

Restrictions on irrigation during the daylight hours and a directive that restaurants serve water only upon request are already in place, as is a city website with a list of things people can do at home to save water.

Yet as the city looks to tap some of the programs they say were successful in encouraging residents to use less water, Benedetti-Petnic says this year’s drought may present some new problems.

Struggling under a second consecutive year of dry conditions, she says many agricultural water users that rely on surface water are in tougher spots than they were in 2014. And unlike last drought, many Petalumans are now more water-conscious, which could make it more difficult to make a dent in overall use, city officials say.

Council member Mike Healy says this concept, known as demand hardening, could make it harder for the city to achieve future water savings.

“Twenty years ago, when a drought came along the city could ask everyone to conserve an additional 20% and it was no big deal to achieve that,” Healy said last week. “Now, after people have pulled out their lawns and done so many other water conserving measures on a permanent basis, the easy steps have mostly already been taken.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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