Visalia prepares to clamp down on outdoor watering

City will limit all outdoor watering to one day per month, ban misters, water slides and water features beginning in March 2021

VISALIA – Visalia’s groundwater has sunk by 7 feet since April, just one month into the summer season, and it’s not because people are home washing their hands more frequently and doing their dishes more often. The Visalia City Council took action last week to stave off a repeat of the rapid decline in water levels seen during the historic drought from 2011-2017.

At its July 20 meeting, the council unanimously approved moving the city from Stage 1, its least stringent level of its water conservation ordinance, to Stage 3, just one level short of declaring a water emergency.

“With depth to groundwater levels dropping again, usage rising, and following a low rainfall year, it is hard to justify the most lenient stage of the water conservation ordinance,” the staff report stated, “…it seems that only moving to Stage 2 at this point would be temporary, and that citizens would just be adjusting to that Stage and then asked to move again.”

The city has been in Stage 1 of its water ordinance since August 2017 after being in Stage 2 for the previous year and a half. Moving to Stage 3 would be a significant shift prohibiting any outdoor watering between December and February and limiting watering to just one day per week from March through November and overseeding is prohibited. Sports fields and golf courses will be allowed to seed and water more often as long as they can cut overall water use in half. Any watering by hand must be done with a nozzle with a shut off valve but washing vehicles, hard surfaces and buildings is prohibited. Misters, water slides and water features are also prohibited.

“While staff strongly believes that a more water-sensitive stage of the ordinance is appropriate, it is also recognized that these are unusual times and that citizens could use some additional time to adapt to the change,” the staff report read.

Staff recommended postponing the shift from Stage 1 to 3 until Sept. 1 to allow time to do community outreach and an educational campaign. The council felt the city needed more time to develop an educational message and strategy and decided to push back the effective date to March 1, 2021. The council also agreed that an “educational” approach should be taken for the first few months of implementation with staff having the option of issuing up to two warnings prior to issuing a citation. Fines are set up to $625 per violation. No warnings will be issued for violations considered “willful and egregious” such as draining a pool without a permit.

While the State is currently working on a long-term conservation framework, these measures are not expected to begin to take effect for several years. Meanwhile, 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 2017.

While there was a rise in the water table following a wet 2018-19 water year which had significant rainfall and opportunities for groundwater recharge, the staff report said the drop in the water table noted in June is only expected to increase through the summer and will most likely continue until there is significant rainfall.

“Given that groundwater levels usually drop even further later in the summer, the groundwater levels are expected to be significantly lower by the end of the year,” the staff report stated.

Visalia’s water consumption has continued to climb following a significant drop in 2014 to 2016 at the end of the drought (2011 to 2017) when the State put stringent mandates on this area. As soon as the restrictions were lifted and this area received some rainfall, people were anxious to return to “normal.”

“In reality, we really need to adjust to a new normal that includes greater conservation of a resource that is very limited in this area,” the staff report noted.

While the Council has been diligent in implementing progressive measures including groundwater recharge, water exchanges, and water reuse from the upgraded water treatment plant, Visalia’s usage has continued to climb, especially as State and Local restrictions have relaxed. California Water Service (CalWater), the private utility company the city contracts with, pumps 9.3 billion gallons of water per year and the city’s state-of-the-art reclamation facility only receives about $133 million gallons per year. In other words, about two-thirds of the city’s water use is for outdoor watering, such as swimming pools and yard irrigation which evaporates or is absorbed into the ground, even with more people staying at home during the pandemic and using more water for indoor needs.

“In general, Visalians are continuing to use more water for outdoor usage, especially during non-wet years,” the staff reported stated. “Thanks to changes in indoor water usage, such as low flow toilets and water saving washing machines, indoor use has only risen slightly, even with population increasing. However, outdoor water usage is rising now that restrictions have lifted.”

-This article was updated at 4:32 p.m. PST on July 29, 2020.

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