Friday, October 9 , 2015, 1:17 pm | Fair 88º

Santa Barbara Council Delves Into Discussion on Water-Use Regulations During Drought

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

The usual bubbling cascade of water beneath the leaping dolphins atop the city fountain at the base of Stearns Wharf has been dry for weeks.  

The statue is suspended, sans wave, above a now dry concrete fountain, a move that the City of Santa Barbara says is a practical and symbolic one as it works to conserve water in the midst of a fierce drought.

It has been asking residents to do the same, but when conservation numbers came up short, a more aggressive set of regulations was set forward.

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to amend portions of the municipal code to be more flexible during times of water shortage but they'll be working out the details — including a semi-controversial request to ask people to turn off their own ornamental fountains — next week.

The city ordinance hasn't been updated since the late 1980s, in the midst of the area's last large drought. Bill Ferguson, a project manager for the City of Santa Barbara, briefed the council on what they'll be asking of people now that the city is officially moving into a stage two drought.

Hoses must be equipped with an automatic shut-off nozzle, and washing of pavement and other hard surfaces by hose will be generally prohibited.

"In a time like this, we need to limit that type of use," Ferguson said.

Irrigation will be limited to evening and early morning hours, and vehicles and boats must be washed at commercial facilities that recycle the water or by hose with a shut-off nozzle, according to the regulations.

Pools and spas should be covered when not in use, and there will be no draining of pools by more than one-third unless authorized.

In restaurants and hotels, water should only be served upon request, and gyms, pools and other businesses that provide showers must post drought notices and promote limitations of shower use.

Most controversial of the new regulations was prohibition of water in ornamental water features and fountains, with an exception for fountains and features that contain fish or turtles.

One speaker raised concerns about prohibiting bird baths, since birds and wildlife often use the fountains as a water source. Ornamental fountains evaporate a lot of water, staff said, adding that the amount of water used is higher than what an irrigated lawn would consume.

In addition, fountains are a celebration of water's abundance, said Joshua Haggmark, the city's water resources manager.

"There's a lot of elements about a fountain that make it inappropriate in a drought," he said, adding that the city has turned off its water fountains.

In terms of enforcement, a series of events could occur, beginning with a warning and possibly progressing to a $250 fine, a flow restrictor as well as a water shutoff. Field staff from the city would respond to reports of violations.

"We will not be doing any patrolling; this is something that is primarily complaint driven," Haggmark said. "We're asking for extraordinary conservation measures. … Change your behavior for the duration of this drought."

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss was dubious that a small fountain would actually cause much water to evaporate, and asked if staff could craft an ordinance that would allow smaller fountains to remain operating.

Councilman Gregg Hart also said he was conflicted about the regulations. The city would prohibit fountains but "on the other hand we're allowing people to wash their cars," he said, adding that the city was making a value judgment.

Councilman Bendy White said that earlier drought rate hikes were more sudden but that the city is currently phasing in rate increases, meaning "more of a gentle nudge than a slap in the face."

The city has seen only a 5 percent reduction in water in the last month, which Mayor Helene Schneider called "alarming."

"We do have a situation that needs to be taken seriously," Ferguson said.

The city will return to discuss the specifics of the ordinance next week.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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