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Santa Barbara City Council Considers Ban on Watering Lawns in Face of Ongoing Drought

The proposition received a mostly cool reception from the City Council as officials look for ways to avoid water shortages anticipated next summer

Councilman Randy Rowse said that a lawn-watering moratorium isn’t necessary given residents’ impressive conservation efforts. “The only thing green in my neighborhood is pretty much considered medicinal,” he said. Click to view larger
Councilman Randy Rowse said that a lawn-watering moratorium isn’t necessary given residents’ impressive conservation efforts. “The only thing green in my neighborhood is pretty much considered medicinal,” he said. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Despite all the great strides Santa Barbara has made in conserving water during the worst drought on state record, city water officials are still projecting a water shortfall for the summer of 2017.

From August to October of next year, the city is projected to be 300 acre-feet short of water, barring any interruptions to current and planned water supplies, said Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager, at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Water resources staff recommend making up the difference with a moratorium on watering lawns, which Haggmark said could go into effect as soon as this winter — in time for people get used to it before the trying months of next summer.

“No other measures have been identified with comparable savings potential,” he said.

The measure was received with great hesitancy from most of the City Council members, however, who primarily expressed concern over the increased enforcement needs.

In a worst-case scenario, the ban, which would have exceptions, would save 500 acre-feet a year, and in the best case, 1,200 acre-feet per year, Haggmark said. City staff’s goal, he added, is to also save an extra 500 acre-feet, as contingency, in addition to the 300 acre-foot number. 

“It puts the city in the best possible position going into year six” of the drought, he said.

“If we get rainfall this winter and it improves our situation, we can revisit (a moratorium) any Tuesday to roll it back.”

Even as the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is expected to start potable water production in January and supplementary water purchases and allocations continue to flow in, groundwater levels are near record lows, and Lake Cachuma, which supplies a significant amount of the South Coast’s water, is at 7.5-percent capacity, according to Haggmark.

In May 2015, the council declared a Stage 3 drought, and upped the city’s conservation target to 25 percent. Last April, the council increased that target to 35 percent.

In August, the city’s conservation rate hit 42 percent, compared to the water demand in 2013, Haggmark said. Since the Stage 3 drought was declared, Santa Barbara has saved an average of 36 percent.

“Given the track record we’ve seen from this community, I’m thinking we’re going to see closer to 1,000 (acre-feet savings) from them — which would be fantastic in allowing us more flexibility in dealing with the drought,” Haggmark told the council.

The residential, institutional and commercial sectors would each have their own exceptions to the proposed lawn-watering moratorium.

Residents whose lawns are irrigated by drip lines for trees and shrubs are fine, as are residents who irrigate certified “water wise” grasses that require less watering.

City planner Renee Brooke and water resources manager Joshua Haggmark explain Santa Barbara’s anticipated water shortage during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Click to view larger
City planner Renee Brooke and water resources manager Joshua Haggmark explain Santa Barbara’s anticipated water shortage during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Open spaces and parks within publicly owned and operated land would be exempted, as are lawns where school, daycare and after-school kids play.

In the commercial sector, grass directly related to business activities, like ceremonial event spaces, would be exempt after an application process.

A more coordinated enforcement effort would be required, city staff noted, with the first violation resulting in an education-oriented warning, followed by fines for each subsequent violation.

The measure isn’t needed, though, Councilman Gregg Hart insisted, when residents have been doing a great job conserving water when they’re asked to.

“I think you start to cause problems with morale when you have water police, and you have neighbors looking across the fence and saying, ‘They’re not doing it right’,” he said.

Councilman Randy Rowse concurred, saying, “The only thing green in my neighborhood is pretty much considered medicinal.”

Though the city’s average conservation rate over the past 12 months is comparable to the goal targeted by the moratorium, Haggmark said, it masks the fact that summer conservation rates dip far below that average.  

Simply asking residents to step up conservation efforts might not be enough to get the same water savings results a moratorium would, he said. 

Staff also addressed another common proposal for saving water: restricting it for new developments in the city, which city planner Renee Brooke told the council wouldn’t be practical.

New developments in Santa Barbara have accounted for an average of 27 acre-feet per year over the past 10 years, she said. The city's demand in a normal year was about 14,600 acre-feet, and the new target demand is 9,500 acre-feet per year for water use. 

In addition to providing too little savings, she said, such a restriction could have significant economic impacts on the community.

Given the city’s delicate water situation, however, the city needs to save as much water as it can, Councilman Bendy White insisted.

“Our margins of error are gone,” he said.

Councilwoman Cathy Murillo argued that such restrictions can stifle the development of much-needed affordable housing in the city.

Though Santa Barbarans’ conservation efforts are regularly lauded by city officials, the lower water use means less revenue for the city.

Water resources staff floated the idea of adopting a drought impact fee that would be assessed equally on all units of water consumed. The details of such a fee, Haggmark said, would have to be studied, and would be subject to public noticing and a public hearing.

In August, the council voted to raise water rates for the city’s 2016-2017 fiscal year.

City staff will be fleshing out more concrete plans for a lawn-watering moratorium and a drought impact fee program for the council’s consideration in a month.​

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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