Sacramento council votes to enact severe water rationing

Faced with historically low water levels on the American River and a long-range forecast providing little relief, the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to enact severe water rationing on residents and businesses, while also boosting enforcement efforts against water scofflaws.

The council approved what city officials described as a “stage 2 water shortage plan,” requiring those who live and work in Sacramento to reduce their water use by between 20 percent and 30 percent.

Amid a sharp increase in the number of resident complaints against those violating winter outdoor watering restrictions, the city also plans to dispatch a task force of monitors to patrol city streets and enforce those rules. To assist in that effort, city officials said they would launch a $200,000 public outreach campaign to persuade city residents and businesses to cut back on water consumption.

“We’re the river city and yet here we are having to make very difficult decisions,” said Councilman Allen Warren.

Tracking the city’s precise water use could be difficult in the short term. With less than half the homes in the city using water meters, officials said they would not use those devices to track consumption and penalize metered homeowners and businesses that do not cut water use by 20 percent.

“It’s not our intent to treat those with meters differently than those without,” said Dave Brent, the director of the city’s Department of Utilities.

Instead, Brent said the city will increase its efforts to enforce winter outdoor watering restrictions that prohibit outside irrigation during the week. The city will also enforce regulations that also ban the use of water to wash sidewalks and driveways, demand that parks and cemeteries reduce watering and require residents washing automobiles at home to use buckets, not hoses.

Repeat offenders could face fines up to $1,000.

The city has three water waste inspectors who respond to calls of violators and patrol city streets looking for homes and businesses that are violating outdoor watering restrictions.

In the coming weeks, city utilities officials said they plan to add 15 workers to those regular patrols. Utilities officials will also organize volunteer corps and neighborhood associations “not to deputize those folks to write tickets, but to be our eyes and ears,” Brent said.

Brent said the city would form a task force of its own to ensure that city facilities such as parks adhere to the cutbacks. And city crews using sonar devices will search for underground water leaks.

Even before moving forward with the new strategy Tuesday, the city had seen an increase in the number of anonymous tips it is receiving from residents turning in their neighbors for illegal outdoor watering. At this point last year, the city had received 14 of those reports. As of Monday, that number stood at 305.

The boost, city officials said, is likely the result of a well-publicized drought gripping much of Northern California.

The American River’s flow out of Folsom Dam is at its lowest point since 1993, putting it in “crisis mode,” Brent said. Folsom Lake is so depleted, remnants of a Gold Rush-era mining town buried by water for years have emerged in the barren lakebed.

The city is taking most of its water out of the American River as a water intake facility on the Sacramento River is upgraded. That work is scheduled to be completed in several weeks, Brent said.

Sacramento joined other municipalities around the region enacting tough water-saving measures.

The San Juan Water District last week approved a measure asking all of its customers to stop all outdoor watering – a request that will likely become a mandatory order next month if the drought continues. The district serves more than 265,000 people in Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Fair Oaks, Folsom, Roseville and Granite Bay.

If drought conditions continue, Sacramento would likely require residents to curtail outdoor watering into the spring and possibly summer. Lawn watering is normally allowed three times a week during daylight saving time; this year, that cycle could be cut to two times a week, Brent said.

“We have to prepare to have a dry summer where we don’t water as luxuriantly as we’ve been able to do in the past,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a Sacramento-based environmental group. “We’re all going to have to step up our game and be more careful than we’ve ever been.”

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