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Council declares water-use alert

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With a call for cooperation and a warning that things could get worse, the Sonoma City Council officially put the city in water conservation mode Monday night.

“Water conservation is an issue 365 days a year, every year,” said Mayor Tom Rouse before the council voted unanimously in favor of a “Stage 1 water shortage alert,” meaning a voluntary 15 percent reduction in water use by Sonoma residents.

Under the terms of the Stage 1 alert, water users are asked to limit sprinklers and irrigation to non-daytime hours, to inspect irrigation systems and repair leaks, to turn off water completely during rainy periods, to take advantage of incentive programs for replacing home appliances with water-efficient models, and other measures.

Public Works Director and City Engineer Dan Takasugi made opening remarks prior to the vote, during which he updated council members and the public on the current drought forcing Sonomans – and all Californians – to cut back on water.

Currently, he said, Lake Mendocino is a little over one-third of its total capacity, while Lake Sonoma, which supplies Sonoma with its drinking water, is just under two-thirds capacity. “Sunday’s rain, as welcome as it was, really didn’t change those levels,” he said.

More cutbacks could come, especially if significant rainfall fails to occur in the coming weeks. “When Lake Sonoma reaches 100,000 acre-feet, a mandatory 30 percent reduction kicks in” for customers using that water source, Takasugi said.

That cutback would be imposed by the Sonoma County Water Agency, which sells water to several contractors, Sonoma among them. The city receives about 95 percent of its water from the SCWA, with groundwater making up the rest.

Such reductions are codified by various government agencies, and they sometimes overlap. For example, the water agency has a voluntary 20 percent reduction in effect, the result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Jan. 17 declaration of a state of emergency due to the drought. Out of fairness, Takasugi said, the city should strive to reach that 20 percent goal.

Takasugi said the city would “reevaluate at the end of March,” adding that “we may need to go to mandatory conservation at that point.” Should the city decide to go to a Stage 2 alert, a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use would take effect. Should drought conditions persist, a Stage 3 alert would require a 40 percent reduction, and a Stage 4 alert would require a reduction of more than 40 percent.

In the meantime, the city government is enacting its own water-saving measures, such as deferring hydrant flushing – a regular maintenance activity – because, as Takasugi said, it would be “ill-advised to see two or three thousand gallons of water rushing down the gutter.”

In addition, the city is fixing water leaks and reducing landscape irrigation to “a minimum vegetation survival level.” And it’s curtailing the actions of commercial water trucks collecting Sonoma’s potable water – as much as 2.3 million gallons’ worth, Takasugi said – for sale outside the city.

Determining the amount of water Sonoma conserves is not an exact science, Takasugi said. Should mandatory conservation occur, city staff will be empowered to give out violation notices for failing to comply with water rules – and, potentially, fines of up to $300 could be issued.

Under questions from Councilmember Ken Brown regarding the difference between mandatory and voluntary compliance, Takasugi said, “We certainly don’t appreciate it if somebody is watering their green lawn at noon. But I don’t think it’s the city’s place to confront” such residents.

But one public speaker, Sonoma resident Robert Taylor, called on council members to be more proactive in managing what could be a “permanent crisis” due to climate change.

“I would urge the council to consider much more aggressive measures” to conserve water, he said.

Council members agreed that the situation is dire, and noted that calling for any kind of water conservation in February is itself an emergency move.

“That to me is an alarm right there,” said Councilmember Laurie Gallian.

“I share the concerns of the gentleman in the audience who just spoke,” said Councilmember Steve Barbose, referring to Taylor. He claimed that Lake Sonoma has just one year’s supply of water left – and he agreed with Rouse that, by the end of next month, Sonoma’s water situation could get a lot more serious.

“We are in what could be a crisis,” concurred Councilmember David Cook.

A report by city staff states, “Calendar year 2013 has been the driest year in 120 years of record keeping.”

The report also states that, “Without significant rainfall this spring and next winter,” Sonoma and other SCWA customers “will face painful water use restrictions in 2015.”

For more on water conservation rules and tips, visit the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership at savingwaterpartnership.org.