Visalia to tighten water restrictions in March

Visalia City Council votes to move city into Stage 2 water restrictions effective March 1, limiting sprinklers to two days per week March through November

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council’s last meeting was a fitting end to 2020 bringing news of an impending drought and the possibility the city’s groundwater reaching a new low.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, Visalia’s water resource manager Andrew Munn told the council he was recommending the city move into Stage 2 of its water conservation ordinance on March 1, 2021 and to move into Stage 3 if the aquifer drops to a historic low. Munn said the current water season has seen about an inch of rainfall (1.1 inches) through Dec. 15, when average rainfall is normally almost 4 inches (3.85 inches).

Under Stage 2, Visalians will only be allowed to run their sprinklers two days per week March through November and not at all December through February. Overseeding of lawns, ornamental lakes or ponds and temporary water slides are prohibited. Sports fields and golf courses may deviate from the watering schedule to maintain play areas but must present a plan to the city manager to reduce overall use by 20%. Similarly, large landscape areas, such as parks, schools and cemeteries, may deviate from restrictions but must present a plan to reduce overall use by 30%. New permanent plantings are exempt from water restrictions for the first 21 days but must be approved by the Community Development Department.

Munn said moving into more restrictive water usage tiers is not new for Visalia. From March 2014 to April 2016, during the historic statewide drought, the city was in Stage 4, it’s most restrictive tier. The council moved the city into Stage 2 in May 2016 and down to Stage 1 in August 2017, where it remains today. The only prohibitions in Stage 1 are for using water to clean hard or paved surfaces, such as sidewalks and driveways.

“Given the dropping water level and the relatively recent Groundwater Sustainability requirements from the State, it seems clear that there will continue to be a need for a paradigm shift in the community regarding the outdoor use of water,” Munn said.

Visalia’s groundwater has dramatically fallen since 1948, the first year the city began tracking depth to groundwater. In April of 1990, the water table was just 40 feet below ground level. It has dropped each decade measuring 72 feet in 2000, 116 feet in 2010, and 134 feet this June, following another below average rainfall season, the ninth in the last 11 years. The water table reached an all-time low of 142 feet below ground level in 2016 following the historic drought from 2011 to 2016. California Water Service (CalWater), the private utility company the city contracts with, currently has the groundwater level at 134 feet below the surface.

Munn estimated there is a 70% chance groundwater levels will drop to 143 feet at some point in 2021.

“If we don’t receive sufficient rainfall then it’s more than likely there’s potential for that to occur in late summer,” Munn said.

Mayor Steve Nelsen and Councilmember Greg Collins represent the city on the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which along with the city of Tulare and the Tulare Irrigation District are responsible for ensuring the aquifer below the two cities puts in as much water as it takes out by 2040. Both met with staff to develop the recommendation to move into Stage 2 in March with a trigger to move to Stage 3 should groundwater levels continue to recede. Collins, who is a city planner by trade, said urban uses only account for about 8% of water consumption in the area with the vast majority going to support agriculture.

“You can live without your lawn,” said Collins, a longtime advocate of drought tolerant landscapes. “But if one farmer has to fallow half of his property that is half of his income. That’s serious money and a serious impact on the farming community.”

The March 1 effective date is consistent with discussions the council had over the summer. In July, staff recommended jumping from Stage 1 to Stage 3 in September, but the council pushed the date back to March 1, 2021 to give the city more time to develop an educational campaign to inform the public of the changes and when they would take effect. Munn recommended the resolution include a trigger that the city would automatically move into Stage 3 after 60 days from Cal Water’s report of a drop below the historic threshold.

“In the current state of affairs, when our citizens are grappling with unique issues during this pandemic, we need more time to adapt to changes that are more stringent water conservation measures may impose,” Munn said. “Moving into Stage 2 rather than moving into Stage 3 will allow citizens more time to make that transition to less water intensive landscapes.”

CalWater pumps about 9.3 billion gallons of water per year for the city, about two-thirds of which is for outdoor watering, such as swimming pools and yard irrigation which evaporates or is absorbed into the ground. Outdoor water use in 2020 is on par with 2018, which was the highest year since California enacted statewide water measures in 2014. Munn said outdoor water usage only fell in 2017 and 2019 following wet winters. Indoor use has remained relatively constant since 2013.

Assistant city manager Leslie Caviglia said residents are still able to water by hand or use drip irrigation to protect trees and shrubs but residents may have to rethink their grass.

“It’s the lawns that we’re actually looking at here that have the greatest impact and will need the greatest change over the next two years as we enter into the new state standards,” Caviglia said.

Vice Mayor Phil Cox and councilmembers Brian Poochigian and Brett Taylor said they understood the need for water conservation restrictions but were not in favor of an automatic triggering of Stage 3 measures. Taylor said he had personally lost a significant amount of trees and landscape during the drought from 2014-2016 because, like many residents, all of his outdoor watering is done on a timer because he does not have time to water by hand.

“I think people need to understand that we’ve always said from every stage we’ve been in that you can protect your trees and you can drip irrigate,” Nelsen said. “I think with the educational component, people need to heed that and understand that and do what is needed to conserve outdoor watering.”

Collins made the motion to accept the recommendation as is, and it was seconded by Nelsen. Taylor proposed an amendment requiring a move into Stage 3 to come back to the council for a vote. The amended motion was passed unanimously.

If the water table drops to 143 feet, a historic low, staff will return to council with a recommendation to move into Stage 3 of the city’s water conservation measures. Under Stage 3, sprinklers are only allowed one day per week March through November and are prohibited December through February. Sports fields and golf courses must reduce overall water use by 50% and large landscape areas by 60%. Additionally, misters are prohibited and washing commercial vehicles and equipment is only permitted on the weekend with the exception of commercial car washes.

Violators at any stage will be fined $635 per day until the violation ceases. The first violation may be waived by attending a city-approved water conversation class. No warnings will be issued for violations considered “willful and egregious” such as draining a pool without a permit.

Maile Melkonian, chair of the Visalia Environmental Committee, said their recommendation is to go to directly to Stage 3 on March 1, 2021.

“It’s an inconvenient truth that we have a water problem,” Melkonian said. “It might be better just to go into stage three from the get go and just have everybody not confused about it.”

She also agreed with staff recommendations to offer financial incentives to homeowners who agree to transition to water conserving landscapes and coordinate the program with Cal Water and other agencies. Melkonian suggested bringing back a program incentivizing homeowners to convert their lawns to artificial turf. The program was so well received it exhausted all of its funding.

“We had that a few years back and there were a lot of conversions,” she said.

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