April 17, 2014

Watering restrictions up for debate at Merced meeting

The Merced City Council plans a public hearing on Monday on proposed changes to watering rules in town. While cutting back the days and times landowners can water their lawns, the changes could also make fundraiser car washes obsolete.

Proposed restrictions that would tighten water use in Merced could also place strict limits upon traditional car wash fundraisers in parking lots, among other changes.

The new car wash rule, as well as a couple that deal with outdoor watering, will be up for discussion during a public hearing at the regular meeting of Merced City Council at 7 p.m. Monday at the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.

Under the proposed ordinance, car wash fundraisers could only take place at a facility with the ability to capture the water used to wash vehicles. Essentially, groups looking to raise funds would need to partner with a car wash company or gas station with a car wash.

Michael Wegley, the director of water resources in Merced, said car washes held in parking lots don’t regulate the amount of water used, and all of the liquids run into storm drains. That used water, which is mixed with soap, dirt, oil and whatever else comes off of the car, makes its way into ponds and creeks without being treated.

The more traditional, impromptu car wash fundraisers waste water and pollute bodies of water, he said. With time and education, Wegley said, he thinks Merced residents will warm up to the changes. “It’s going to be a change and it’s going to take some getting used to,” he said.

Wegley said Merced Public Works staff would be charged with speaking to violators of the ordinance, if it passes. Recurring offenders could see a fine, he said. The city has a citation system that ranges from $50 to $150.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a statewide reduction of water use of 20 percent by all water users. He made that announcement when he declared a drought in January.

Councilman Josh Pedrozo said he sees the new restrictions as a way to show unity with the agriculture industry and water regulators such as the Merced Irrigation District. “Agriculture is the lifeblood of Merced County, I don’t think that’s any surprise,” he said. “Merced, being the seat of the county – we need to show everybody we’re taking this issue serious.”

Pedrozo said he hopes the new restrictions, if passed, can show residents how serious the drought is in the state.

Lake McClure, where the MID stores water, stands at 256,125 acre-feet. That pales in comparison to what it holds at 1.02 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre with a foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.

Mercedians currently aren’t allowed to water outside vegetation on Mondays. Under a new ordinance, watering likely would be reduced from three days a week to two. Which days of the week a homeowner would be allowed to water is based on street address.

The new ordinance would also allow four fewer hours in the window when lawn sprinkling is allowed. The city has had water conservation measures in place since 1992.

Merced residents use an estimated 280 gallons of water per day, and experts generally assume about half of that goes to landscaping.

David Doll, a farm adviser from the University of California Cooperative Extension, said the watering restrictions are a good start and could help reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. The greatest conservation will come from residents fixing broken sprinklers and assessing if they allow their sprinklers to run too long, he said.

“It’s about more stewardship over our resources in order to reduce the impact on both the environment as well as on our wallets,” he said.

Doll, who specializes in master gardening among other subjects, said grass can use more water than most agricultural crops – almonds, walnuts, tomatoes – in a year. That is mainly because it is actively photosynthesizing all year.

He said lawns can withstand the water reduction and stay green, and that many people water excessively. Any water running into the gutter is wasted. He said lawns generally need between 5 and 15 minutes of sprinkling.

A simple test for excessive watering, he said, consists of pinching soil between the thumb and index finger. If the dirt crumbles and falls away, it needs water, but if it forms into a ribbon one-inch wide or longer, it can go another day or two without water.

To report a sprinkler in disrepair or for questions about watering and the proposed ordinance, call Merced’s Water Conservation Specialist Leah Brown at (209) 385-6800.

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