The City Council voted on Aug. 4 in favor of prohibiting the use of potable water in fountains, on sidewalks and in driveways. The restrictions are in response to a State Water Resources Control Board decision that urban water suppliers such as Palo Alto must restrict outdoor irrigation due to the drought.
But the city will have its work cut out for itself to find and repair its own leaking infrastructure. In recent weeks, residents have been calling the city to report water waste on city properties as well as at businesses and residences, according to staff.
That city waste appears to be occurring throughout Palo Alto. On Cambridge Avenue, 42 planter boxes on the north side of the Lot 5 parking garage received a liberal watering every morning this week, with water running down the concrete walls and flowing over the sidewalk and into the street. An 18-inch-wide stream made its way down the gutter and into a nearby storm drain.
Mushrooms sprouted in some of 27 empty planter boxes on the parking garage's north side. On the south side, most planters contained dead shrubs that also appeared well-watered, with pools collecting on the adjacent roadway.
Water waste on city and school properties, as residents have reported to the Weekly and posted on Palo Alto Online's Town Square, include water from sprinklers on the Meadow Drive side of Mitchell Park flowing into the street on Tuesday night and a broken water line at Greer Park the same day, flooding Colorado Avenue. Irrigation at Johnson Park in the Downtown North neighborhood has watered the sidewalk, and some residents have questioned the continuous water flows in city fountains and playground water features.
Catherine Elvert, spokeswoman for Palo Alto Utilities, said the department receives between 10 and 12 complaints per week about offending residences, businesses, churches and city properties. To combat its own inefficiencies, the city is convening drought-response teams that include staff from parks, public works and other departments. The city plans to increase water reuse, she said. A Santa Clara Valley Water District grant to upgrade city facility meters will help locate leaks.
Irrigation in parks and of city trees could also be curtailed, she added.
The city is developing a mobile-device application for residents to report water waste, and the department plans to hire a water-waste coordinator to handle all calls and field the reports, she said.
The city is already taking steps to watch its water use. In Mitchell Park, the water feature in the children's playground is only on from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. now due to the drought, a sign noted.
And underground water being pumped out of land that will be used to build basements will be recycled for use by the city's street sweepers, for dust control at construction sites and for other projects that can use nonpotable water. City Senior Engineer Mike Nafziger estimated the city saved 6,000 gallons during the first two days of a pilot program that stored the water for use by the street sweeper.
In the future, the city could make the underground water available to residents. The city is requiring the construction of a water tank for projects that require dewatering as a condition of approval, he said.
While the city is working on its conservation plans, its oversight of water use by the Palo Alto Unified School District is less clear when it comes to the state restrictions, Elvert said.
A photograph from one Weekly reader showed a school-district employee hosing down the pavement at Palo Alto High School on July 31. Rebecca Navarro, school district energy specialist and manager of energy conservation, said district maintenance is looking for places to curtail power washing. But the district's first obligation is to the health and safety of students, and some areas might still require power washing to remain safe.
The district's transportation department usually washes school buses during the summer to prepare for the school year, but that practice has been put on hold, she said. The supervisor is looking for green alternatives to hand washing the buses, including having them efficiently cleaned off site. But safety concerns will also come first.
"We can't have dirty windows that would affect the drivers' visibility," she said.
The district has taken several aggressive initiatives to reduce its water use in the past year. A partnership with local nonprofit organization Acterra through the Sustainable Schools Committee resulted in replacing some water-sucking lawns with drought-tolerant native plants. El Carmelo, Addison and Walter Hays elementary schools have replaced their lawns; Nixon and other schools will also be targeted. The replacement reaped educational benefits, she said. Students participated in the project and learned about native ecosystems.
The district also worked with the city on an expensive program to add low-flow aerators to all hand-washing sinks district-wide. As a result, the district reduced water use from that source by 50 percent in six months, she said. Nixon and Escondido elementary schools remain the only outliers — they are on the Stanford University water system — but Stanford plans to add the devices at those schools, she said.
The district has automated irrigation systems that can be adjusted remotely, and maintenance workers routinely check to eliminate pavement watering, she said.
"We've had a practice in place for a long time to do watering in the evenings when the sun isn't out to evaporate it," she said.
Elvert said that residents and businesses who are wasting water are receiving door hangers informing them of the municipal code, and city employees have been tagging some homes, she said.
Staff will soon bring a plan for citations and fines before the City Council for approval. Some exceptions will be made for businesses, such as restaurants, that hose pavement to keep surfaces clean under health and safety codes, she said.
But city fountains remain flowing for now. The city initially discussed requiring fountains to be turned off, but some shopping-district businesses objected because the fountains have aesthetic appeal, she said. The drought-response team will discuss whether to allow some fountains to be left on for a short period.
Stanford University, meanwhile, is also laying down the law, asking faculty and staff living on campus to water lawns or turf no more than two days a week. Effective Aug. 1, lawns at even-numbered addresses can only be watered Tuesday and Saturday nights, and on Wednesday and Sunday nights for odd-numbered addresses, between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.