Water cuts: It’s honor system

After weeks of an epic dry spell, the cities of Sacramento and Folsom ordered residential and business customers alike to cut water consumption by at least 20 percent starting earlier this month. But even though the cities intend to police the operation of lawn sprinklers to some extent, any water used behind closed doors – no matter how big the customer – is essentially on the honor system.

Water consumption that won’t be watched ranges from flushing toilets to the use by major beverage bottlers of tens of millions of gallons from the public supply. Most commercial water customers are billed based on metered usage, but the metering data won’t be used for enforcement purposes, city officials said.

“Part of the reason we’re not using the meters as a method of enforcement is we’re not looking to put folks out of business,” said Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the city of Sacramento’s Department of Utilities. “But if we can help encourage them to find different ways to use water, maybe they can find other savings elsewhere (such as converting to low-flow toilets). Maybe it’s not 20 percent, but at least we’re trying to help contribute to the solution.”

The city’s latest publicly released usage data – from 2010 – shows the city itself was by far the largest water user. Other top 20 consumers include hospitals, schools, power generators, Sacramento County and the state of California. Some commercial customers, including a 7UP bottling plant and the HP Hood dairy, also made the cut.

The city refused to release more current data, citing a state law intended to protect customers’ privacy.

In Folsom, water resources director Marcus Yasutake said it would be too time-consuming to review all the accounts of water users in the city to determine who’s complying with the new regulations. The city largely relies on fast-shrinking Folsom Lake for its water supply and has ordered a 20 percent water cut citywide.

All residential and business water customers in Folsom are metered, but the city won’t use that information to issue warning and fines, he said. It would be unfair to focus only on major water users without examining every residential account as well, Yasutake said.

“We are fully metered. But we’re not going to go to each individual bill. There’s 19,000-plus accounts to sift through. (Examining) every bill would be tedious.”

Instead, the city will be checking mainly on who waters lawns the right way, including businesses and homeowners, and may hire additional inspectors to do the job, he said.

Folsom’s current restrictions limit landscape watering to two designated days per week and prohibit washing parking lots, streets, driveways or sidewalks.

The city also will host a “water summit” to show major water users, including homeowners associations, how to cut down on lawn watering to meet the new mandates, Yasutake said.

Outside of Folsom and the city of Sacramento, other water districts in the area are relying on voluntary measures to reduce water use.

Some water-dependent businesses already have taken action to cut consumption. At Harv’s Car Wash in midtown Sacramento, CEO Aaron Zeff said the company is investing in the latest technology to reclaim and reuse wash water.

At Frank Fat’s restaurant in downtown Sacramento, table-top signs tell customers that water will be served only on request. Servers will repeat the message and ask patrons if they would like water, said Jerry Fat, CEO and president of Fat’s four restaurants in Sacramento, Folsom and Roseville.

Most restaurants serve water as a matter of course, but not everyone drinks it. “You get an automatic glass of water, and it just sits there,” he said.

It might not sound like a measure that would produce big water savings, but think of the hundreds of restaurants in Sacramento and it adds up, Fat said.

“That’s a lot of water that goes down the drain,” not to mention the ice, he said.

The restaurants are also asking cooks to use less water, telling dishwashers to run only full loads and requesting landscapers to water sparingly, he said.

“Kind of like everybody else is doing, we’re trying to do our part,” Fat said.

Businesses in midtown Sacramento’s Handle District of shops and restaurants have adopted a similar set of voluntary cutbacks. Customers will be asked if they want water, and dishwashers will be encouraged not to do partial loads, according to a news release issued Monday.

“This can be a tricky balance because food preparation relies heavily on water,” said Noah Zonca, chef and co-owner of Capital Dime restaurant, in the written statement. “Further, we need to address sanitation and sterilization. Despite those important considerations, we believe we can reduce our usage by 25 percent.”

At Green Acres Nursery & Supply in Folsom, employees turned off the overhead sprinklers and are now watering plants by hand, a more targeted method. It’s also labor intensive and more costly, said Ashley Gill, who runs Green Acres with her father and brother.

There are six employees who hand-water now, and more may be hired as the weather heats up, she said.

The family moved from Las Vegas in 2003 and started Green Acres, which has branches in Sacramento, Roseville and Folsom, Gill said. Coming from a desert environment, where her father, Mark Gill, also worked in the nursery business, the family is aware of the need to use water sparingly, she said.

“When you live in a desert, you know water is a precious resource.”

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