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City adopts water overuse fine system

Gone are the days when a Californian could carelessly water grass or freely hose down spider webs outside the house. The state's four-year shortage of rain and snowfall has cities like Ceres scrambling to meet the state's emergency drought water conservation plan - or face a potential fine of $10,000 per day for noncompliance.

Last week the city of Ceres took historic measures to enact a structure of fines if a household uses more water than a monthly use target established by the city of Ceres and guided by the state.

The targets were based on 60 gallons per person per day per household.

The city expects a household of four persons to keep their water use under 7,000 gallons per month during January, February, March, October, November and December; and no more than 27,000 gallons per month in April, May, June, July, August and September. The fine schedule is designed to keep residents under the usage levels. Those who exceed the "target" by 10 percent would get a warning. However, those who exceed by 25 percent face a $25 fine; exceeding by 75 percent, a $75 fine; and exceeding by 150 percent, a $150 fine.

The target may be adjusted for household which have more than four persons or who have larger lots. Any homeowner may speak to the city Public Works Department about raising use targets, as resident Bob Gobel learned last week. Gobel complained to the City Council on June 8 that there is a wide disparity between the 7,000 and 27,000 gallon numbers - calling them "lopsided" - and suggested the city average the figure out to 17,000 per month throughout the year. Gobel suggested that he would be paying fines between October and March.

"I've looked through my bills and I've never hit that 7,000-gallon mark," complained Gobel.

"The policy does have adjustment for family size," explained City Manager Toby Wells. He added that the city's public works will "gladly come out and do verification and make the adjustments."

Wells told Gobel that the wide difference in the summer and non-summer numbers is due to outdoor watering to keep landscaping alive in hot months.

Watering adjustments will also be considered for those who have more than 4,000 square feet of irrigated area. The state has determined that five gallons per month can keep each square foot of turf alive.

Mayor Chris Vierra explained to Gobel that Ceres is one of over 200 cities that is having to drastically cut back on water consumption because of Gov. Brown's emergency declaration. He said there is "not a lot of leeway" given to the city and noted "the last thing I want is to be looking at blight with everyone's lawns that are dead or they're paving it over. There has to be a balance there."

Unlike larger neighbors of Modesto and Turlock, Ceres is a unique position to hold citizens accountable as to how much water is used on any particular hour or day. In 2011, the city spent over $4.3 million to install a state-of-the-art automated water metering reading system. Radio transmitted signals relay usage numbers from meters regularly during the day, enabling city staff - and the residents - to monitor use.

Only about 15 percent of all Ceres household have even signed up to use the web portal.

Those who don't use the internet can call the city to have reports hand delivered showing water use.

News outlets recently reported that Ceres only had a one percent reduction in water use when comparing April 2014 to April 2015.

"That's not quite all true but that's how the media portrayed it," said Jeremy Damas, the city of Ceres' Deputy Public Works Director.

City officials insist that Ceres has cut back water use by 45 to 49 percent when compared to peak use in 2007. The state ignored the city's prior water conservation measures, and determined that Ceres must conserve another 28 percent. To do so requires a lot of sacrifice, time and money.

"The problem with that with cities like ourselves," said City Manager Toby Wells, "is we started really in earnest on conservation measures in 2010 so we've seen some very significant reductions in our water use over time."

Ceres bought meters in 2010 but water didn't switch over from a flat rate to metered rate until January 2011. The meters were in response to a demand from the state that meters on newer homes be installed by 2025. Mayor Chris Vierra complained that cities like Ceres "go ahead of schedule, we get penalized - that doesn't make a lot of sense."

Damas said the state Water Resources Control Board will "start knocking on our door after June's numbers get reported and say, ‘how come you don't have enough reduction?' and ‘this is what you need to do.' "

"It's a hard feat for us to get to that additional 28 percent reduction," said Damas.

He and his staff offer to go to homes and help owners figure out ways to cut back on water. The city provides water aerators and low-flow shower heads. The city is also offering rebates for installation of water efficiency clothes and dish washers as well as subsidizing turf removal.

"I'm really emphasizing education," said Damas. "Since June 1 we've started two-days-a-week watering. We've talked to a lot of residents because a lot of residents are not doing that. So right now we're spending a lot of time on Thursdays and Fridays - no water days - just talking to residents.

Those with an even-numbered address may only water plants and grass on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Those with odd-numbered addresses may only water on Wednesdays and Sundays. Outdoor watering is not allowed between noon and 7 p.m.

Thirteen of the 15 city parks are being irrigated with non-potable water. Irrigation of medians has been reduced to Tuesdays and Saturdays on five-minute intervals, Damas said. Parks are set for watering two days a week, with some, like Independence Park, running three days a week.