Last summer was a rough one for Don Engineer, the owner of Prestige LawnCare, a landscape maintenance company that services homes in the Sacramento region.
“Last year was really bad because of the restrictions and the fines,” Engineer said. “People were scared, so they stopped watering their grass and the grass died.”
But as dry skies and triple-digit heat make their annual return to the Sacramento region, business seems to be looking up for Engineer and his three employees. Communities across the region are relaxing or outright lifting the unprecedented outdoor watering restrictions enacted in 2015. Ten of the region’s 23 largest water districts have lifted their weekly watering limits. Others have relaxed standards or are in the process of easing restrictions.
The approach stands in stark contrast to last June, when the state issued mandatory conservation orders that in the Sacramento region required most communities to cut water usage at least 28 percent. West Sacramento initially limited landscape irrigation to one day a week. Many other jurisdictions held the line at two. Water cops patrolled neighborhoods in Sacramento and Roseville, issuing tickets and fines for irrigation that ran into the gutters or was otherwise deemed excessive. Hundreds of people called Sacramento’s special tip line to rat out their over-watering neighbors.
By summer’s end, many of the lush green lawns that have long defined area neighborhoods had turned splotchy and brown.
Fast forward to 2016 – with the statewide order only recently lifted – and Engineer said his customers have been requesting a lot of sprinkler-system tuneups.
“This year, it’s not as bad,” he said. “This year, they want to get their lawn back.”
California’s yearlong experiment with mandatory statewide conservation came to an end as of June 1. The previous June, acting on an emergency drought declaration from Gov. Jerry Brown, state regulators enacted rules requiring California’s 400 urban water agencies to cut water use by a cumulative 25 percent compared to 2013. Hot, dry regions such as Sacramento – with a history of heavy summer water use – were targeted for even higher reductions.
Last month, even as the south state remains locked in a fifth dry year, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to end the program, allowing districts to propose their own conservation targets based on local demand and the health of their water supplies. A return to average rain and snowfall in the north state has left northern reservoirs brimming and groundwater supplies strong, and regulators essentially decided it was no longer fair to hold all communities to a universal standard.
In the Sacramento region, agencies have responded largely by declaring the crisis over for their customers.
“Because we have a full supply, we don’t have a need for a conservation standard,” said Ross Branch, a spokesman for the Placer County Water Agency. Last summer, the agency was under orders to cut usage 32 percent, and limited outdoor watering to two days a week. This summer, it has set no limits on how many days a week customers can water.
San Juan, Roseville, Folsom, Sacramento Suburban and El Dorado Irrigation are among the other large agencies in the region that have lifted their weekly watering limits.
Sacramento’s water utility still has a two-days-a-week restriction, but officials are considering changing the order, said spokeswoman Rhea Serran. California American Water Company-Sacramento also remains on a two-day-a-week schedule, but is likely to move to a three-day schedule in the next month, said spokesman Evan Jacobs.
Even while easing restrictions, agency officials say they will continue to encourage customers to practice conservation and don’t expect to see a massive spike in water use. They said they believe customer habits have changed, and noted that last year’s restrictions prompted many people to replace their lawns with more drought-tolerant landscapes.
“I don’t expect we’ll jump back up to where we were in 2013,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority. “There are a lot of people who have changed their landscapes, and I think there are people who still aren’t watering as much. There aren’t as many green lawns. … I think some of that sticks even if the restrictions come off.”
Kathy Morrow, owner of River City Rain Sprinklers and Landscape, Inc. in Sacramento, echoed that assessment. Her customers may be doing more sprinkler tuneups than last year, she said, but they’ve not forgotten the lessons from the drought.
“I have had many customers who have said, ‘You know what? Now that I’m able to use a little more water, I think I’d like to do some drought-tolerant landscaping, and I’d really like to have a little patch of lawn, right here.’ Which is a great hybrid.”
For many environmentalists, the prospect of green lawns returning to Sacramento and other parts of hot, dry inland California marks a dangerous backslide.
“The leadership of the water districts need to be educating their customers about why we can’t be keeping lawns green through a hot summer,” said Adam Scow, California director of Food and Water Watch. “It is not a smart policy. It’s not a best use of our precious water resources.”
State water board Chair Felicia Marcus said the state continues to work on a long-term drought plan. She stressed that the order approved in May can be revised if local agencies use water unsustainably. She said agencies are saying their customers will continue to conserve and she’s comfortable giving them the benefit of the doubt.
“I think the public has really stepped up and understood the value of water, because they saw how much they were using outdoors,” she said.
In West Sacramento’s Southport neighborhood, where watering restrictions were among the region’s toughest last summer, many lawns are returning to green. One lawn still peppered with brown belongs to Olga Begmatov, who said she followed the city’s orders to water just once a week last year and is currently watering twice weekly. The city now “recommends” that residents not water more than three times a week.
Begmatov is not sure how much she will water this summer, but she said her lawn certainly won’t be soaked like it was before the drought. Like many of her neighbors, she said, her yard now features more drought-resistant landscaping.
“If it is possible to save some,” she said, “why not?”