Solvang City Council
Members of the Solvang City Council, at top from left, Robert Clarke, Claudia Orona, Mayor Charlie Uhrig and Mark Infanti talk Monday about water overuse penalties and other related issues. Not pictured but in attendance was Councilmman Jim Thomas. (City of Solvang photo)

Amid complaints from all types of water customers, the Solvang City Council voted to suspend penalties — some reportedly $1,000 a month — for not reducing use and to take steps toward adopting other conservation measures.

Council members voted unanimously Monday to provide immediate relief by suspending penalties through the end of the year. 

They also directed staff to craft an urgency ordinance to address development standards for commercial projects with an eye toward banning turf and encouraging drought-tolerate plants. It stops short of calls for a building moratorium that some residents had sought.

In addition, the council agreed to reassess the heavily criticized penalty structure for perceived and confirmed water use scofflaws.

During a staff report, council members heard that two recent audits traced heavy water use to outdoor irrigation such as watering lawns. For one customer, an hour-by-hour review determined that a customer’s landscaping accounted for 75% of the water use. 

“This is an issue that everyone needs to understand, that we don’t have enough water and we can’t afford to continue watering our landscape to the degree it’s been done to date,” Councilman Mark Infanti said.

He said a voluntary program seeking citywide cutbacks in water use failed, leading to the penalty program.

“Now we’re getting people’s attention, and I think this is working,” Infanti said. “There are some inadequacies or inequities in my mind about how it’s being done, and we need to talk about that.”

Assessments have shown that approximately one-half of the water customers in various categories have generated penalties because of a lack of cutbacks or inability to make further cuts.

“I’m just really concerned with the amount and percentage. I mean almost every one of these, almost 50% of the users, are in a penalty phase, and I don’t think that’s right,”  Mayor Charlie Uhrig said. “We need to do something different.”

“Agreed,” Councilman Robert Clarke said.

Councilman Jim Thomas said education should play a key role as the city moves forward.

“I used to have a really nice green lawn when I bought my house and it’s brown now. That’s the way it is. But there’s other people that still have green lawns,” Thomas said, suggesting that visits from city staff could help explain the need for conservation. “I don’t think enough people in the city understand what’s going on.”

Solvang water sources include wells and the State Water Project, but the drought has slashed deliveries from the State Water Project.

Costs to buy water from the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1 (ID1) have skyrocketed, climbing to $4,800 an acre foot, much higher than the previous purchase of $800 to $1,200 per acre foot, Utilities Director Jose Acosta said.

Earlier this year, the council adopted rules calling for a 20% reduction in water use compared with 2019 or face fines. In August, city water users had cut water use by 9% and 7% in September.

Several water customers said they had already taken steps to conserve water and couldn’t do any more. For instance, Stacey Otte-Demangate, executive director of fhe Wildling Museum of Art and Nature, said the facility turned off its irrigation system before 2019. The museum also has restrooms, including a waterless men’s urinal, for employees and visitors.

“We’re just about as minimal as we really could be as a business,” she said, calling the $1,000 monthly penalty “very, very hurtful.”

“We’re a small nonprofit,” she added.

Likewise, Lemos Feed & Pet Supply has one bathroom plus has added self-service dog-washing tubs, which will help reduce water use since it uses a trigger water to reduce water waste, according to Mike Lemos.

“I guess I’m here to ask for some grace from the consumption,” said Lemos, whose store has operated for 21 years in Solvang and toyed with closing permanently because of the COVID-19 impacts. “I’m just asking do what you can for us. The penalty phase of this thing is what we’re having a problem with.”

Some residents called for the city to encourage residents to use a Flume Smart Home Water Monitor, while one man called the city’s estimates for single-family home water use “arbitrary and ridiculous.”

The penalty program coincided with water rate hikes, which some customers said they understood and others criticized.

Councilwoman Claudia Orona noted that conservation efforts should continue despite the suspension of fines while the city assesses the penalty program.

“This is time for us to figure out how we can manage our resources better,” Orona said. “It doesn’t mean you can bring your lawn back.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at