Visalia City Council voted to extend the Stage 4 watering restrictions during their regular meeting, March 16th. They also voted to modify the city’s watering schedule. The watering restrictions were set to expire April 17, in the hope of a normal rain year. Because of the limited amount of rainfall this year and that the state is in its fourth year of drought, the council agreed to extend and modify the Water Conservation Ordinance. The vote was 4-1 with Council Member Warren Gubler voting no. Gubler did not agree with raising the fines for noncompliance and said, he felt that the current watering restrictions were strict enough. City staff will bring the item back to Council for a final vote at the next meeting on Monday, April 6.
The following is an edited version of the staff report to the city council, which outlines the background and their recommendations:
The drought is continuing for a fourth historic year. Staff recommends that the City Council continue the Stage 4 outdoor irrigation restrictions and consider modifications to the ordinance.
Council should pass a resolution by April 17 to continue Stage 4. Staff is recommending some minor changes to the ordinance based on citizen suggestions and for better enforcement. Staffis providing suggestions of other changes Council could consider if it wishes to increaserestrictions..
Generally, the Stage 4 regulations have worked well. It was a challenging January and February though, with no rain and unseasonably warm weather and no watering allowed. Some Visalians found it hard to comply with the ordinance. Following are some minor changes recommended by staff for Council’s consideration:
Washing down driveways, sidewalks, or other paved surfaces is prohibited unless needed for public health and safety. Some businesses such as fast-food restaurants have a regular health and safety need to wash down. Staff proposes requiring use of a low-flow high-pressure washer for this purpose. Such pressure washers use 2 or 3 gallons per minute (gpm) compared with 10 to 20 gpm for a hose and are much more effective requiring less operating time and less water use. Many businesses already use pressure washers.
Prohibit washing of buildings with a hose. Allow washing with a pressure washer for preparation for painting or if preparing the house or business to put up for sale.
Prohibit use of temporary water slides, or alternatively, require that they be used only where the water drains to grass or a landscaped area and that the water only be on when in use.
Prohibit watering during the rain. Currently there are no guidelines to watering in the event there is rain. Suggested guidelines is no watering for 48 hours after rain.
Prohibit all overseeding. Presently, the ordinance prohibits overseeding with annual ryegrass. This has been confusing because other grasses are also used for annual overseeding.
Stage 4 provides for issuance of new plant establishment permits to allow watering outside of the ordinance schedule for 21 days. Staff recommends that new plant establishment permits only be issued for limited turf areas or perhaps only for warm-season grass (i.e., no fescue or other cool season grasses).
Allow watering once during mid-February to enable application of pre-emergent weed control. Presently, no watering is allowed in February. Landscape professionals have informed staff that pre-emergent weed control should be applied in February and needs to be watered in.
Modify the “Large Landscape” and “Sports Field” exceptions to require annual renewal and proof of conservation. Presently, the ordinance allows the City Manager to issue exceptions if the applicant provides an alternative watering schedule that reduces overall water use by 20% for Sports Fields or 30% for Large Landscapes. Compliance with the alternative watering schedule is on the honor system. While most applicants appear to be following their approved schedule, some appear not to be. Staff recommends that the ordinance be modified to require applicants on an annual basis to provide proof of reduction either through water bills or by electric bills if on private wells.
Staff also recommends establishment of a “Water Conservation School.” This would be akin to traffic school in that first-time citation recipients could elect to attend Water Conservation School and the $100 fine would be waived. Staff envisions this as an approximately 2-hour class that would be held perhaps quarterly depending upon demand. It would focus on teaching attendees the reasons why conservation is important, where our water comes from, groundwater overdraft, the drought, the water conservation ordinance, water conservation tips and tricks, etc.
Should Council desire to place further restrictions on the watering schedule, staff is providing three alternatives for consideration. However, Council should recognize that any further watering restrictions likely will cause significant damage to landscapes including loss of cool-season lawns such as fescue and to some shrubs and trees.
Staff is not recommending changes to current watering schedules due to the risk imposed to resident’s investments into their landscaping. The City has expended considerable effort informing the public about the Stage 4 schedule, which is complex. Even with these efforts, there is still some confusion about the schedule. Staff would advise Council that changes to the schedule will likely increase confusion with the public, however, staff will work hard to minimize confusion through a sustained outreach effort.
While a majority of Visalians are following the watering schedule, a sizable minority is not.
During January and February when no watering is allowed other than by hand, approximately 22% of water was still used for irrigation. Presently, the Natural Resource Conservation Division has three part-time Water Conservation Education Coordinators that enforce the ordinance, as well as provide public education and outreach. Part-time staff members are limited to 20 hours per week, so these three staff provides a total of 60 hours per week with only one staff on duty at a time. Staff an additional part-time Water Conservation Education Coordinator to provide increased enforcement and education if it appears costs can be recovered through enforcement revenues.
The state is in a fourth year of historic drought. Last year, the City Council modified the Water Conservation Ordinance and enacted Stage 4 in response to the third year of drought. Effective April 17, 2014, Stage 4 reduced outdoor irrigation depending upon the month. June through September remained at three days per week. Council enacted Stage 4 for a one-year period and it will roll back to Stage 3 on April 17, 2015, unless reauthorized by Council by resolution.
In addition to enacting Stage 4, Council appropriated $25,000 from the General Fund for a drought outreach/water conservation campaign. The City leveraged these funds by partnering with Cal Water on several joint drought-outreach/water conservation efforts.
The combination of the Stage 4 regulations and expanded outreach has been effective in reducing Visalia’s water use.
Total Cal Water pumping in 2014 was 29,686 AF, the first time pumping was below 30,000 AF since 2001. Approximately 3,540 acre-feet (AF) less water was used from April 2014 through January 2015 compared with 2013, a 12% reduction.
Unfortunately, the drought is continuing into a fourth year. While the recent rain showers helped landscapes a bit, they did not put measureable snow in the Sierras. The Sierra snow-water content is at only 22% of normal for this time of year. This is considerably less than last year when snow-water content was at 36%.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that there would be no deliveries of Central Valley Project water to farmers for a second historic year in a row. There have been 946 reported private well failures in Tulare County including some in the City of Visalia.
Fortunately, Visalia has significant groundwater supplies and Cal Water reports that it does not anticipate shortages or well failures. However, Visalia’s groundwater occurs within a large interconnected regional aquifer system. Pumping in Visalia affects other areas and vice versa.
City Council Votes
Whereas the city staff recommended that the council not amend the watering schedule, Council Member Greg Collins brought up the fact that the state mandated watering schedule only allows two watering days per week. Visalia allows three, in June, July, August and September. Collins also suggested a more punitive tier billing system.
Mayor Steve Nelson objected to changing the tier system because it would penalize large families.
Collins motivation for charging higher rates for bigger water users was to discourage the irrigation of landscaping. It was revealed that 65% of the city’s water is used on landscaping.
Cal Water, the company that runs Visalia’s water system, is the one in charge of creating the different tiers and that it cannot be amended until 2016.
Right now, Kim Loab, Natural Resource Conservation manager, said that the tiers are not different enough to discourage big users. Councilmember Gubler reminded the council that Visalia just put up a valiant fight last year to keep water rates down and hopes that the council does not go in the other direction.
Councilman Collins was also concerned that the public was not getting the message. He said that when he drove around neighborhoods that people were watering for longer than allowed and not on the correct days.
Mayor Nelson suggested that the city needed to do more to educate the public and to increase the fines for noncompliance.
Gubler disagreed and pointed out that Visalians have been conserving water since the 1990’s and successfully cut an additional 10% on top of these conservation efforts.
He also said that the 180 fines levied by the code enforcer showed that Visalians were complying with the ordinance. For those reasons, Gubler was not in favor of changing the watering schedule or increasing the fines.
Right now, Visalia’s code enforcer issues a warning to those businesses or residents out of compliance.
The second violation is a $100 fine, third – $200 and the fourth is a $500 fine. Loeb said that only a few $500 fines were levied against out of state commercial landlords.
At the end of the discussion Collins moved that the watering schedule be amended to eliminate the watering days in December, that the fines be raised by 25% and to accept all the ordinance changes outlined in the staff report.
The motion passed 4-1 with Gubler voting no. The staff will be presenting an updated version of the watering schedule and ordinance for the council’s review at the next meeting.