Petaluma leaders call on residents to cut water use by 20%

Petaluma officials say it’s time to conserve water. Here’s what to expect:|

Quit hosing down your driveway, try to refrain from watering your spring buds until after 8 p.m. and don’t expect water to appear at your table the next time you dine out – amid a historic drought, Petaluma leaders say it’s now time to conserve.

Petaluma this week launched the first stage of a four-tiered water shortage contingency plan, calling for a voluntary 20% reduction in water use across the city, a measure in line with recommendations from the county’s water agency.

The move comes just days after state and county leaders declared emergencies over a second consecutive year of below-average rainfall, and it represents the city’s first step to combat the drought ahead of predicted mandatory restrictions next month.

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“What people need to know is it’s worse than it was last time we went through this, if you look at the reservoir levels,” said Public Works and Utilities Director Jason Beatty, referencing the 2013-14 drought. “It’s pretty stark.”

The Russian River watershed, which supplies water to more than 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, is experiencing a historic drought following two-straight years of meager rainfall.

Capacity at the region’s reservoirs are already below 2013-14 drought levels, with Lake Sonoma at 61.4% of capacity and Lake Mendocino holding just 43% of its target water supply as of April 30, according to Sonoma Water.

This year’s water crisis has instead drawn comparisons to the devastating 1976-77 drought, which looms large in the memories of many longtime residents and local farmers.

Longtime Two Rock dairyman Don DeBernardi remembers 1976, but has worried that this year could be worse.

“We’re almost out of water. There’s no ground water here so we depend on the rain,” DeBernardi said in a March interview. “Some of my neighbors are hauling water already. We have two months to go then we will be pretty desperate and will have to start hauling, too.”

Without additional rainfall and aggressive water saving, Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino water levels could reach historically low levels by October 2021, according to Sonoma Water projections.

Petaluma is one of nine cities or water providers grappling with the need to reduce water consumption in the Russian River Watershed, a group that also includes Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Forestville and Windsor.

To meet its initial 20% reduction goal, Petaluma will require the city’s restaurants to serve water only upon request, and residents will be asked to refrain from using potable water to hose off driveways or sidewalks.

Residents are also encouraged to utilize landscape irrigation during the coolest hours of the day, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and to fix leaks to eliminate water waste.

“We know this is hard and we know this is just the beginning,” Mayor Teresa Barrett said at Monday’s council meeting. “But this is where we have to be, and I think Petaluma will be up to it.”

Petaluma last asked residents to reduce water use in 2015, said Chelsea Thompson, environmental services analyst with the city. Those recommendations lasted a year, and residents were able to cut back their water usage by 21%, surpassing a 16% target set by the state.

This year’s reduction goal is based on residents’ average use from 2018-20, according to city documents.

In the coming weeks, a more concerted public information campaign advising how to limit water waste will likely reach many residents’ doorsteps and inboxes. The city’s biggest water users should also expect to hear from officials soon, as they aim to spread the word among neighborhoods and businesses about the need to conserve.

As much as the new recommendations may sting, both local and county officials say residents should prepare for more severe restrictions in the coming weeks.

“Looking down the road, we’re expecting mandatory reductions coming out from the county and we’ll probably be implementing those in early June,” Beatty said. “Exactly where that lands and what percentage that is, we will see.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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