Santa Rosa City Council OKs mandatory 20% cut in water use
Santa Rosa city leaders have approved a mandatory 20% reduction in citywide water use, becoming Sonoma County’s latest city — and the largest north of the Golden Gate — to require conservation measures amid a punishing two-year drought that has imperiled water supplies.
The order, which went before the City Council late Tuesday, aims to achieve the savings target over last year’s use on a citywide basis. The action stops short of individual mandates — for now — and there are no fees for those who don’t meet the target.
The measure was approved in a 5-0 vote. Council members Victoria Fleming and Jack Tibbetts were absent.
Together, the city’s homes and businesses used 5.8 billion gallons in the fiscal year that ended last June.
The new rules are designed to curtail water waste and limit outdoor uses, including washing down hard surfaces such as walkways and patios.
“We need folks to implement these water reductions now,” said Jennifer Burke, director of Santa Rosa Water, the agency the supplies the city’s 180,000 residents, plus business, government and industrial customers. “We need our community to respond.”
The actions follow in the wake of a June 14 order from the State Water Board that directed Sonoma Water, the region’s wholesaler, to reduce its use of Russian River water by a fifth.
Cities that contract with Sonoma Water and act as retailers are now having to make a similar reduction.
Santa Rosa first asked residents for a voluntary 20% reduction on May 18.
Tuesday’s action takes Santa Rosa into Stage 3 of its eight-stage water shortage plan, which charts increasingly tighter restrictions on indoor and outdoor water use and increasing penalties for water wasters.
Authorities are, for now, requiring residents to curtail water waste from leaking pipes, faucets and toilets, along with lawn or garden runoff due to excessive watering or poorly aimed sprinklers.
Washing down sidewalks, driveways and patios with drinking water will be banned as would all landscape irrigation outside the hours of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Restaurant diners seeking water for the table, or hotel guests looking to have linens laundered during their stay will have to ask for those services. Under the new rules, those businesses must cease providing such water-consuming services automatically.
All of the waste prohibitions are enforceable and violations could be met with fines. More likely, for repeat violators, is a water shutoff until repairs are made or other conditions met, according to Burke.
City officials said they prefer to work with customers to bring them back into compliance.
“We can go down that road,” of fee-based enforcement, Burke said. “Our preference is to inform, educate and notify folks and give them time to fix it, and that’s usually what happens.”
The city’s plan calls for a fee increase on customers to cover the lost revenue from reduced water deliveries. The charge is a nearly universal one imposed by water suppliers in times of drought.
The city will not be implementing that fee increase for now, however, Burke said, given the economic impact of the pandemic and the fact that Santa Rosa Water has sufficient reserve funds to keep it fiscally stable without the fee increase for now.
Water rationing for homes and commercial, industrial and institutional water users is not slated to begin until Stage 5 of the water shortage plan, which calls for a 30% citywide reduction in use. At that point, the city begins charging excess use penalties on any use above those allotments.
How deep the city gets into its plan during this drought depends on a number of factors ranging from state orders to the actions of Sonoma Water and the success of conservation efforts. The duration of the dry season, the intensity of heat this summer and fall and the amount of rain next winter are the ultimate deciding factors.
Santa Rosa is a slight step behind several other local cities in implementing mandatory restrictions. Petaluma and Sonoma, which also get their main supplies from Sonoma Water, ordered citywide cuts last week. Healdsburg and Cloverdale, which rely on flows in the diminished upper Russian River — sustained by shrinking Lake Mendocino — instituted restrictions in late April. Rohnert Park made water conservation mandatory in May.
“We’ve been talking for months about the urgency,” Mayor Chris Rogers said. The city began alerting residents about coming water shortages in December, water officials said.
“Santa Rosa has actually been fantastic historically at meeting the call around our water restrictions and droughts,” Rogers said.
The city recently unveiled a new website, where residents can track their household water use by the gallon and by the hour. The data tracking can let customers identify unusual water releases — like ten gallons at three in the morning, for example — that might indicate a leak or mistimed sprinkler.
The city is offering rebates for replacing leaking or inefficient washing machines and toilets, as well as putting in low water landscapes. Information about those tools is available at srcity.org/savewater.
The city’s “Water Waste Patrols” are active, with officials searching citywide for signs of runoff into the street or sprinklers and irrigation pipes running outside the allowed hours. A city hot line is also in place allowing residents to report water wastes they see.
City officials said they were not focusing on any specific sectors as they seek to drop overall water use.
Farmers have taken a big whack already, however. The city sells recycled wastewater to 64 agricultural users for irrigation. Those users took a 60% cut to their water allocations this year.
Residential users are the largest piece of the city’s drinking water base, officials said. “The biggest use that we see and the biggest way that folks can help achieve (reductions) is to really focus on outdoor water use and cut down their water use,” Burke said.
“Just irrigation as a whole,” Burke said. “That’s going to be the biggest way to get us through this drought.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to note that agricultural users took a 60% cut to their water allocations this year.
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88