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Q: Are we allowed to fill above-ground pools? I bought mine at the end of last year. It’s 18 feet in diameter by 4 feet deep. – S. Smith, Citrus Heights

A: Your pool is OK to fill under current water restrictions for your area. But if you’re going to fill it for the summer, do it now, because restrictions could get tougher.

“Most agencies are not restricting pool-filling right now,” said Amy Talbot of the Regional Water Authority, the umbrella agency that represents water providers in Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties. “They do in later stages (of drought restrictions).”

The same drought rules apply to above-ground and in-ground pools.

Q: I left the lid open during our recent rain and collected 8 inches of water in our green-waste container! I’ve also added water from our shower with a 5-gallon bucket as we’ve been collecting it since last summer; it takes 3 gallons before it gets hot. I keep the lid on the 90-gallon green-waste container. Do you see any problems with doing this? The green-waste material is minimum this time of year, and we water our landscaped plants and potted plants with this water. – Darrell Kaff, Roseville

A: Congratulations on your water collection efforts! The biggest issue right now is keeping mosquitoes out of your saved water.

Just closing the lid is not enough (although it’s important). Even with a lid, those critters still can get inside to breed. You should take some additional precautions such as placing a fine-mesh screen over the water in the container or adding a mosquito larvicide that won’t harm you or your plants.

Mosquitoes lay and hatch their eggs in standing water. Recent warm weather has pushed mosquito mamas into overdrive, according to the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District. Your water container could be the home of thousands of mosquito larvae. With West Nile Virus still a threat, this becomes more than a nuisance; it’s a health and safety issue.

Most times when I use an automatic-flush toilet in a commercial building, it flushes two to three times. Do automatic-flush toilets waste or save water? – Ed Zajac, Orangevale

Your experience is common, and it seems these devices do not save water. According to several studies, they may actually use significantly more than old-school manual valves.

John Koeller, a Yorba Linda-based engineer and water-efficiency expert, said the primary benefit of automatic- or sensor-flush plumbing fixtures is improved hygiene, not water savings. Koeller is a partner in an organization called MaP Testing, which for years has conducted independent testing of various plumbing fixtures.

In 2010, Koeller and a colleague studied sensor-flush toilets in the real setting of a Florida office building. After months of monitoring, they found that sensor-flush toilets actually increased water consumption by 45 percent compared to manual-flush toilets. The cause was so-called “phantom flushing,” or multiple false flushes produced by over-active motion sensors on the toilets.

Q: As a gardener of fruits and vegetables, I want to know how I can get the most bang for my bucket of water. Which of the commonly grown spring/summer plants – such as tomatoes, zucchini, beans – yields the most produce per volume of water? If you had limited water to use on a garden of edibles, what would you select to grow this summer of drought? – Melanie Loo, Sacramento

A: Grow beans. They have built-in drought resistance.

In fact, several summer favorites do pretty well with restricted water. Beans native to the Southwest or other areas with hot summers and little rain can do well this summer in Sacramento. Tepary beans, for example, thrive in the Arizona desert.

Black-eyed peas need hot temperatures to produce good crops and like less water, not more. Lima beans can get by on limited water, too. Snap beans and pole beans need only short growing seasons and will set crops with little water.

Q: Our roots are firmly planted in old East Sacramento, where many new trees have been planted when mature, sickly Modesto ash trees were lost. Can our younger trees survive the summer months with once-weekly deep-root watering? And should an older, somewhat sickly tree providing shade be removed to conserve water? – Heidi Boyd, Sacramento

A: Once-weekly deep watering will be important to those trees’ health. And yes, they will survive, even thrive with that approach.

“Deep” watering is key, says Sacramento certified arborist Matt Morgan of Davey Tree Expert Co.

“The top 12 inches of soil is where the roots are,” Morgan said. “Most people run their sprinklers for 7, 8 minutes; that only reaches the top two inches of soil. You need the water to go deeper.”

Q: Most times when I use an automatic-flush toilet in a commercial building, it flushes two to three times. Do automatic-flush toilets waste or save water? – Ed Zajac, Orangevale

A: Your experience is common and it seems these devices do not save water, according to several studies, and may actually use significantly more than old-school manual valves.

John Koeller, a Yorba Linda-based engineer and water efficiency expert, said the primary benefit of automatic- or sensor-flush plumbing fixtures is improved hygiene, not water savings. Koeller is a partner in an organization called MaP Testing, which for years has conducted independent testing of various plumbing fixtures.

In 2010, Koeller and a colleague studied sensor-flush toilets in the real setting of a Florida office building. After months of monitoring, they found that sensor-flush toilets actually increased water consumption by 45 percent compared to manual-flush toilets. The cause was so-called “phantom flushing,” or multiple false flushes produced by over-active motion sensors on the toilets.

Q: We have large old sycamore trees lining our street. I have been told these trees do not have “tap roots” and depend on getting large amounts of water from roots in the top few feet of soil. My tree’s roots spread out under my entire front lawn. I am guessing these kinds of trees used to grow near rivers because they got extra water from intermittent flooding, in addition to the annual rainfall. Don’t these trees depend on significant amounts of supplemental landscape irrigation, particularly during droughts, to stay alive?

If people replace their lawns with cement, gravel and semi-desert plants to reduce the need for landscape irrigation, do they also risk killing the urban forest that Sacramento depends on to cool our homes and streets, clean our air, prevent urban “heat islands,” etc.?

It makes obvious sense to irrigate at night, when less water is lost to evaporation, and to irrigate carefully, so water is not wasted running into streets and storm drains. But how much can we safely reduce watering in yards where large trees grow?

– Robert Meagher, Sacramento

Q: I read a comment from a neighbor on nextdoor.com that collection of rainfall in barrels is illegal in the City of Sacramento. Is that true? If so, why? – Raquel Beckett, Sacramento

A: That is a common misconception. Under current city code, rain collection by homeowners and residential rain barrels are legal in the City of Sacramento, according to Jessica Hess of the city’s Department of Utilities.

The issue is if that rain collection becomes a “nuisance,” attracting mosquitoes. If the barrel is kept bug-free via fine-mesh screens or other mosquito blockers, it’s OK.

You can learn more about rain barrels and rain collection at the upcoming Elk Grove Greener Gardens DIY Expo on April 26. The free event will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Miwok Park on Village Tree Drive in Elk Grove. For details, click here. In addition to the expo, the event features a free self-guided tour of homes with water-wise landscaping.

Q: If I remember correctly, past water restrictions (in the city of Sacramento) allowed the watering of new landscaping on “no watering” days and drip systems were also exempt. Was/is that still true? – Raquel Beckett, Sacramento

Q: Do the city's watering restrictions apply to watering vegetable beds? – Jordan Lang, Sacramento

A: Within the city of Sacramento, drip irrigation systems can be used whenever you want. The present rules that limit landscape watering to only two days a week (based on an odd or even address) apply to sprinkler systems and hand watering, not drip irrigation, said Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the city Utilities Department.

Also, new plantings (whether a new lawn, shrubs, decorative planters or garden beds) can be watered daily for as many as 21 consecutive days to help them get established. Afterward, the other rules apply.

Q: I’ve been saving water in our “green” poly trash can. I suspect we have about 40 gallons worth. Now, I have mosquitoes. What can you suggest?

Darrell Kaff, Roseville

Mosquitoes tend to gravitate to any standing water, no matter how small. And now is the time of year when mosquitoes come out of hibernation and start breeding. But there are ways to save water and help prevent mosquitoes, too.

“Given the drought, saving water is certainly a good idea — if done properly,” said Luz Rodriguez of the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District. “However, it becomes imperative that homeowners take the proper precautions to ensure they are not producing mosquitoes. In hot weather, mosquitoes can go from an egg to an adult in as little as 7 to 10 days, posing a health threat for diseases such as West Nile virus.”

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Olivia/
Olivia’s letter to Scoopy.

Q: I have a question for you. Is it always raining in some part of the world every day? – Olivia, age 10, Rocklin

A: Olivia’s question was answered by National Weather Service meteorologist Brent MacAloney, who writes:

Yes. Thanks to the Earth’s water cycle, it is always raining in some part of the world every day. Rain is a form of precipitation, much like snow. As the precipitation falls from the atmosphere, the Earth collects it in soil, plants and bodies of water. As the sun heats the Earth, a portion of this precipitation will evaporate or transpire into the form of water vapor. The water vapor will then rise from the ground into the atmosphere, where it will condense due to cooler temperatures.

This condensation process will turn the water vapor into small cloud droplets. As additional amounts of water vapor condense, the cloud droplets will combine with each other until the point at which they can no longer be supported in the atmosphere. At this point, it begins to rain or precipitate, thus beginning the whole water cycle process again. This water cycle is constantly working in the Earth’s atmosphere, all over the world. So at any given point, it is raining somewhere on the Earth due to the water cycle.

Friday, March 21 2014
What makes this a drought?

Q: Why are we considered to be in a drought, at least in the Sierra foothills, when our rainfall totals are at nearly 50 percent of “normal” for the precipitation year? – Phil Zink, Colfax, CA

A: The state Department of Water Resources doesn’t list a series of thresholds that, once crossed, mean we are in a drought. Instead, state officials consider drought a gradual phenomenon that affects different people in different locations in different ways.

When Gov. Jerry Brown declared the state to be in a drought earlier this year, he noted that, “California’s largest water reservoirs have very low water levels for this time of year; California’s major river systems ... have significantly reduced surface water flow and groundwater levels throughout the state have dropped significantly.”

If drought is simply several consecutive years without much rain or snow, then the current predicament qualifies. Snowpack in the Central Sierra is at 32 percent of normal, roughly where it was at this time of year in 1977, the driest water year on record.

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