SLO issuing more warnings for irrigation violations

Marcus Henderson of the San Luis Obispo Public Utilities Department returns to his car after leaving a warning at a home off Tank Farm Road whose sprinklers were sending runoff into the gutter.
Marcus Henderson of the San Luis Obispo Public Utilities Department returns to his car after leaving a warning at a home off Tank Farm Road whose sprinklers were sending runoff into the gutter. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A thin band of water snaked down the gutter from a home in southeastern San Luis Obispo to the storm drain at the end of the street one recent Wednesday morning.

Marcus Henderson, a San Luis Obispo utilities services technician, stopped his city vehicle at the end of Calle Del Caminos and filled out a door hanger — the city’s first official warning of a water waste violation at this home.

“When it reaches the storm drain, then I really have to address it,” Henderson said. Henderson walked up the driveway, affixed the warning to the front door, and climbed back into the SUV before driving slowly down the street, searching for more problems.

Early-morning “water patrols” have become routine for Henderson and a few of his colleagues in the Public Utilities Department as the city seeks to meet state mandates to cut residential water use during California’s unprecedented four-year drought.

While the San Luis Obispo City Council only recently declared a drought emergency, urging residents to conserve more water, the utilities staff has been actively enforcing existing water-waste prohibitions for some time.

They’ve stepped up outreach efforts in light of Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 1 order that mandated a 25 percent reduction in water use. Some communities throughout the state received specific targets — San Luis Obispo must cut its water use 12 percent compared to 2013.

To meet that target, city utilities staff are urging residents to cut back even more during the summer months, when outdoor irrigation generally increases to keep lawns lush.

The plea to conserve is voluntary for residents and business owners who use city water. But the city also has some mandatory drought restrictions in place, as required by the state Water Resources Control Board.

The restrictions include a specific schedule for watering outside — even-numbered addresses can water Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, while odd-numbered homes have Monday, Wednesday and Friday — and prohibits irrigating to the point at which water runs off the property.

In July, the watering restrictions will be cut to two days a week.

Complaints of water waste can be submitted online or over voice mail. The city has logged dozens of such complaints over the past two months.

Utilities staff follow up on those reports during their normal workday. During early morning water patrols, city staff also looks for possibly unreported problems.

In April, city staff logged 130 reports of violations, either as complaints submitted by the public or spotted by employees during their patrols.

In May, that number fell to 60, according to Ron Munds, a utilities services manager. The decline was attributed to a drop in patrols, while city staff was busy putting together a drought response strategy and organizing a community water forum.

All 190 homes were warned of water-waste violations. City utilities staff follow up by phone to make sure the homeowner received the warning and to see if they have any questions about the problem.

If the first warning doesn’t do the trick, city staff can send a follow-up letter directing the property owner to correct the problem. After that, fines can result, starting at $100 and escalating to $500. To date, the city hasn’t sent any letters or issued any fines, Munds said. “We’re not really looking to fine anyone,” Henderson said. “We want to get public outreach and education as much as possible.”

Looking for runoff

There, he circled around with an eye out for specific violations: water runoff and outside irrigation on restricted days.

Water waste isn’t the only problem with runoff that goes down the storm drain. Storm drains send water to San Luis Creek, and potable water, which has been treated with chlorine, is harmful to wildlife that the creek sustains.

It doesn’t take long before Henderson spots a problem — an even-numbered house on Sunflower Way with one sprinkler head spraying water onto the sidewalk.

Henderson filled out a short form noting the problem and hung it on the front door of the home with his business card attached.

Back in the SUV, he enters the address and the problem into a tablet, which uploads to a database that Henderson can also access at the office.

Sometimes, he said, an owner has no idea that a sprinkler head is broken because the system kicks on so early.

“In an area like this, they aren’t all setting their own sprinklers,” he said. “They need to be aware of what their landscaper is doing.”

Over the next hour, he spotted seven more violations, all water runoff problems. At one house on Goldenrod Lane, the water ran from the lawn into the gutter and more than half a block down the street.

“That’s been on for awhile,” Henderson said. “That needs to be addressed. If it’s going into the gutter, it’s not doing them any good either.”

Residents adjusting

A relative who answered the door at the Calle Del Caminos home said the owner was on vacation but was aware of the problem and intends to address it.

A drive around the neighborhood shows some green lawns, but many others that are browning. Some property owners have replaced their lawns with artificial turf or drought-tolerant plants, or appear to be in the process of tearing out their grass to install something else.

“I’m glad I don’t have a lawn anymore,” said Sunflower Way resident Frank Yost, who had drought-tolerant plants installed on a drip system in his front yard a few weeks ago. He and his wife stopped watering their lawn a few months ago, in anticipation of the change. Yost said he expected his water use to increase a bit until the plants were established, then taper off.

“In the long run, we’ll be watering less and we’ll have a better looking front yard,” he said. Henderson said he’s seen fewer violations on his early morning drives than when the patrols first started a few months ago. Then, he averaged 15 to 20 door hangers per patrol.

“For the most part, people don’t want to waste water,” he said. “They know the city is in a drought, and they don’t want to be responsible for wasting water.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune