Responding to a statewide call for water conservation at a time of severe drought, Palo Alto is preparing to ban the use of potable water in fountains and on driveways.
The prohibition, which the City Council is set to consider on Aug. 4, was proposed in response to a July 15 decision by the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt emergency regulations. The regulations call for water suppliers to initiate contingency plans that include restrictions like the ones Palo Alto is now considering.
The statewide emergency regulations, which take effect Aug. 1, prohibit all Californians from "using potable water for activities such as driveway washing, irrigation that results in runoff, or in decorative fountains (with certain limited exceptions)," a report from the Utilities Department states. The state also requires water suppliers to restrict outdoor irrigation. Violations could result in penalties of up to $500 per day for individuals and larger fines for water agencies that don't implement the restrictions.
The state board's July proclamation followed several executive orders by Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at urging conservation. In January, Brown declared a state of emergency and proclaimed that the state is experiencing record dry conditions, with 2014 projected to be the driest year on record. He called on all Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. In April, Brown issued another order directing the state board to adopt emergency regulations that would address the water shortages.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, nearly 80 percent of the state was under "extreme" drought conditions at the end of June, the state's resolution notes.
So far, Palo Alto has achieved water conservation through carrots rather than sticks. The city's water usage between February and June this year was 17 percent lower than during the same period in 2013. The department's initiatives to encourage conservation include doubling of rebates for outdoor irrigation efficiency; "home water reports" that compare residents' usage; water metering that offers real-time data; and landscape water "budgets" for customers with large irrigation operations, according to the report.
The new ban on using potable water in fountains, driveways or sidewalks will kick off the second of four stages in the city's Water Shortage Contingency Plan (with four addressing the most severe conditions). Stage II aims for a reduction of 10 to 20 percent in water supply, through a stepped-up outreach effort and "adoption of some additional water use restrictions."
Stage III includes higher water rates and penalties for violations of water-usage restrictions. Stage IV would introduce "allocations of water for each customer." Neither of these steps is currently being considered.
Despite the prolonged drought, Palo Alto has not been forced to make any mandatory cuts to its water use. The city draws its water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has not declared a water-shortage emergency and has not required cutbacks from its customers. So far, the commission has requested a voluntary 10 percent reduction in water consumption, a goal that wholesale customers like Palo Alto are set to meet.
Palo Alto's Utilities Director Valerie Fong said the city is still working out the details of the new bans and will return at a later date with a plan for enforcing the restrictions. Right now, she said, the goal is to establish the foundation for the new rules.
"In the process of implementing these requirements, we'll have to determine what the consequences should be for failing to follow them," Fong said.