Russian River at memorial beach

Low levels — With the Russian River watershed, which spans Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, facing a drought emergency declaration, the city of Healdsburg will soon consider the implementation of a three-stage water shortage contingency plan, which would start with voluntary conservation and would increase with mandatory conservation down the road.

Healdsburg’s utility department will come before the Healdsburg City Council on May 3 with a recommendation to implement the city’s three-stage water shortage contingency plan, a plan that starts with voluntary water reduction and increases to mandatory measures as needed.

“We are intending to go to city council on May 3 with a recommendation … recommending moving into one of the stages,” said Felicia Smith, the city’s utility conservation analyst. “We actually had been anticipating in early April going to our council with or without a proclamation from our governor because we knew it was coming. By signing this proclamation, it really elevates this message and this way municipalities can go to their councils and have this validation.”

On April 21, standing on a parched portion of Lake Mendocino, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for the Russian River watershed, which spans Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, most of Sonoma County is in a severe drought category and a silver of the county is in extreme drought. The Sonoma County region has only received about 30% of typical precipitation, according to the city.

Healdsburg pulls its water from the Russian River, Dry Creek and has water rights to Lake Mendocino, which is about 40% below its usual capacity.

“Our water supply has a shortage,” Smith said. “We looked at a breakdown of who’s using the water in Healdsburg. 70% goes to our residential customers, 20% goes to commercial and 10% is the other — industrial and city water accounts like our parks and all of our city facilities are 2%.”

Smith continued, “Certainly in every facet every drop counts, but we kind of know what our big buckets are, our residential and commercial customers are 90% of our total water usage.”

Smith said it’s important that everyone understands that we are in a drought.

“Right now, our primary focus is communicating community wide that we are in a drought and the mantra for essentially the remainder of the year and certainly the summer months is ‘use less water,’” she said.

If the water shortage contingency plan is approved by council, then the city can move into action and implement stage one of the emergency plan.

“Stage one is basically a voluntary 10% (water usage) reduction and it starts to encourage people to set their irrigation from dusk till dawn and really highlights prohibitions on excessive water waste. For instance, don’t hose down your sidewalks, driveways and hardscapes, sweep instead. Don’t wash your personal vehicle in your driveway without a nozzle on your hose. They are really common sense items,” Smith said.

Stage two moves into mandatory conservation and further restricts when you can and cannot irrigate. It also stipulates that use of potable water for dust control, compaction, and other construction purposes will be prohibited.

According to the plan in the city’s utility municipal code, “Only recycled water may be used for dust control, compaction and other construction purposes as allowed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board or other governing bodies.”

Under this stage the city will not approve building permits for new swimming pools unless the owner agrees to obtain pool water from another source other than the city’s potable water system.

Additionally, water use for any nonresidential use shall be limited to 80% of the water used by the customer during the corresponding billing period in the prior year.

And, “the City Council may, by resolution, prohibit other activities and water uses upon the recommendation of the City Manager or City engineer that such additional measures are necessary to achieve an overall system-wide reduction of 20 percent in water usage,” according to the code.

Under stage three, the city council may, by resolution, issue mandatory stage three conservation. In this stage any activities in stage one or two are prohibited and irrigation of any lawn, day or night, is prohibited.

“All day and night-time irrigation sprinkling unless only a hand-held nozzle is used. This prohibition shall not apply to drip irrigation systems for established perennial plants and trees using manual or automatic time-controlled water application,” the plan states.

Water saving tips for residents

So what can residents do now ahead of mandatory conservation?

“Do not install water intensive plants or lawns, they will not survive this summer, do not install a pool and do not hose down hardscapes, it is just a poor use of our drinking water. Things that residents can do is drastically reduce the duration and frequency of their irrigation and watering schedules. So much of our residential summertime water use goes to irrigation and landscaping,” Smith said.

She said a good conservation tip is to add up to three inches of compost and or composted wood chips or mulch five to 30 feet away from a structure.

“Adding compost or mulch to your garden beds will help improve moisture retention and reduce evaporation so it really kind of holds the water in that you’re able to apply,” she said.

Indoors, folks can go “yellow mellow,” with their toilets and try to only flush or replace their toilets if it’s five years or older.

“Indoors our biggest water users are our toilets. If your toilet is five years or older it’s probably using about 1.6 gallons per flush. The new models use 1.28 and some are as efficient as .8 and toilets are fairly inexpensive,” Smith said.     

One toilet update hack is to add a plastic toilet tank bank, which will reduce the amount of water that fills up in the toilet bowl.

“We do also ask people to start assessing the age of their clothes washers, they’re kind of the next bucket so to speak of water hogs, especially older models. If there’s any opportunity to upgrade to a high efficiency front loader from a top loader then that’s encouraged,” Smith said.

The city of Healdsburg does offer rebate programs for higher efficiency toilets and clothes washers as well as updates to irrigation systems.

The rebate breakdown is as follows:

●      Lawn conversion - $1/sq ft

●      Irrigation system upgrades such as a smart irrigation controller – $100 each

●      Low Flow Toilets - $110

●      Clothes washers – up to $125

●      Greywater System - $60

“We have toilet and clothes washer rebates. Our lawn conversion offers a $1 per square foot. If you get a smart irrigation controller, which can be really practical and user friendly, then you can adjust your watering times from your phone,” Smith said.

For a list of all of the city water savings rebate programs, click here

A note on fire season

When asked if Smith had anything else she wanted to add about conservation and the drought season she had this to say:

“People are on heightened alert about fire season and you’re simultaneously being told to reduce the amount of water you use on your irrigation, so we’ve been historically encouraging people to make their front yards more fire resistant by planting hardy native plants and creating fire breaks in their landscape and I think a common misconception is that having a traditional lush lawn is a fire break, but it is not. I just wanted to draw the synergies that you can fire safe your yard and reduce water usage and these things can actually work in tandem really nicely,” Smith said.

Fire resistant and drought tolerant plantings including plants like French lavender, sage and California Fuchsia. For a complete list of fire-resistant plants, visit CalFire’s website here.

City conservation efforts

The city is currently working with its parks department to cut back on irrigation in parks citywide and the city already has a recycled water program in place.

“In terms of city operations, we are looking primarily at our parks department. They are reducing the frequency and duration of irrigation and trying to better dial in that schedule and to water as little as possible. That will really be the bulk of the city’s savings,” Smith said. “We have a pretty robust recycled water program, most of which is going to nearby agricultural customers in and around the Dry Creek that’s by our wastewater treatment plant.”

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