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Ceres watering rules trump new state law
Water quality is the issue in Ceres, not quantity
don pedro
The boat ramp at Don Pedro Reservoir is more exposed than ever in the current drought. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

New state regulations on urban water use mean virtually no change from existing Ceres water use policy. That's because Ceres already has had similar water restrictions in place.

On July 15 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved an emergency regulation that calls for water agencies and their residents to increase water conservation or face stiff fines in answer to the drought that has gripped the state. The regulations only apply to cities without existing watering restrictions.

"We've got a lot of neighboring calling in on each other, wanting to see that $500 fine get put into place," said Jeremy Damas, the city of Ceres' Deputy Public Works Director. "What I tell them is we already have all of our restrictions in place. We'll send our water conservationist out to go look and if they're abusing the rules, we'll give them a ticket. They adhere to our current rules. We're not giving out $500 fines. If we had nothing in place we would have to enforce what the state passes."

Ceres already has implemented the conservation measures that the state board enacted. They include banning:

• Washing down of driveways and sidewalks;

• Outdoor watering that causes excessive runoff;

• Use of an open hose without a shut-off nozzle;

• Use of potable water in fountains and/or decorative water features unless it uses recirculated water.

According to Damas, the city's own water conservation program already enforces those regulations and more and has issued 443 warnings about water wasting practices and issued 65 citations resulting in $2,060 in fines this year as of mid-July.

The city of Ceres also meets the state mandate that water agencies to activate their water shortage contingency plan to a level where outdoor watering restrictions are mandatory.

For years Ceres has had an off-even water rationing system. Ceres residents may irrigate their yards and trees and plants only three days per week based on odd and even addresses, and may only do watering midnight to noon or 7 p.m. to midnight. No outdoor watering can take place on Mondays.

The city has also enacted a drought strategic plan that calls for limited outdoor watering in the event of a stage 2 and no outdoor watering for a stage 3 level.

The state is asking all city water systems to enhance their programs to fix leaks, detect water losses and find ways to encourage conservation.

As of mid-year, the city has issued 352 courtesy notices advising residents of residential leaks on their property and contacted 88 residences where water use was unusually high.

The city also has processed rebates for 73 residents who bought and installed low-flow toilets and 10 high-efficiency washing machines.

All residents of Ceres have a chance to monitor their water use by creating an account using the city's web portal. The website allows residents to be notified if water use spikes due to a leak or high consumption. Water use data may be viewed online as frequently as an hourly basis, if desired. Currently only 1,115 residents - or 10 percent of households - make use of the web portal.

"We've helped residents stop leaks of 12 to 15 gallons per minute," said Damas. "An open garden hose is about 12 gallons per minute and they might have a broken faucet that they don't even know about."

Because of steps taken years ago - including the installation of water meters that are read electronically - Ceres has seen a decrease in water consumption by 22 percent. Damas said Ceres residents have done well in conserving water since peak use hit 262 gallons per capita per day in 2007. Today, that number has dropped to 154.

While some wells are going dry in the region, Ceres aquifers appear to holding steady. Recently Damas informed the City Council that the average groundwater level in June for the past 10 years was at 75 feet below the surface. By June 2014, the level rose to 67 feet.

Also, the past 10-year average for the amount of water produced in Ceres during June was 372 million gallons. This past June that number had dropped to 306 million gallons.

"This signifies the water we are saving is raising the water level, however is not increasing our water levels at the same rate as the usage is decreasing," said Damas.

City Manager Toby Wells told the council in April that while he is not especially concerned about the quantity of water available for Ceres pumps, he is concerned about water quality which could force some wells out of production. That's because less water in the groundwater table means less blending of the stratas. Additionally, the city has to keep a watchful eye on some of its wells because of excessive arsenic levels. All of Ceres wells, in fact, have arsenic issues, Damas noted, with 11 of the 14 having arsenic levels at 50 percent of the maximum allowable contaminant drinking level. Damas said the city is looking at wellhead treatment options as well as exploring new well sites should water quality diminish.

"One of the wells that we were really concerned with (arsenic) over on Sixth Street, it actually dropped one part per billion."

Ceres and other cities located within the Turlock Irrigation Districts are waiting with bated breath to see what happens to the groundwater table now that TID has scaled back water allotments from 38 inches for the season to 20 inches. Damas said the groundwater table is recharged by flood irrigation of neighboring orchards.

"Once this water table starts dropping and you're pumping from deeper levels, because of the impacts from TID and/or the drought, and that calls into question what's the quality like in those areas?"

Ceres has 11,500 service connections that serve 45,000 residents. The council recently awarded a contract to Zim Industries to drill two test holes for possible wells.

Damas is optimistic that things will turn around with a wet fall and winter.

"They're all saying el Nino. They're saying in November it's going to start raining and we're going to get three years' worth of water all at the same time. It's going to be hard to overcome this drought we're in now. TID cuts back their allotments to the farmers and the farmers flood irrigate. That flooding irrigation seeps down through the soil and replenishes. When they go cut their allotment in half ... there is a replenishment value that's not happening now. If there were to be an El Nino this year, we're going to see the effects of this for a very long time. You don't recover from a serious drought with one good year of rain."

However, a wet year will improve the water picture and likely fill the reservoirs, he said.

Some wells on the east side of the county are running dry due to large farms pumping water.