Modesto Strives to Get Water Customers to Conserve

By Kevin Valine; The Modesto Bee

Modesto is asking everyone to conserve water as the state bakes under a third straight year of drought.

And in case folks have not gotten the message, the city is helping them. Since May, three city employees have been making sure the city’s roughly 77,000 water customers follow water restrictions, such as not watering lawns or washing cars from noon to 7 p.m.

The employees drive throughout the city, and surrounding communities served by Modesto, responding to complaints about water wasters, canvassing neighborhoods to check for compliance and investigating when they spot something suspicious, such as water from a broken sprinkler flooding a gutter.

The three issued 536 notices of violation June 1 to 24. The number of violations issued in May was not available.

City officials emphasized that the effort is not punitive, but focused on education and getting customers to comply. There is no fine for the first violation. A second violation can result in a $50 fine; a third violation is $200; a fourth violation is $250. City officials say they have not issued any fines, but may issue a $50 fine to an apartment complex.

“We want to make sure people adhere to the rules and hopefully reduce their water use,” Water Systems Manager Dave Savidge said.

On a recent weekday, Water Conservation Specialist Juan Tejeda checked in with a woman who had complained that her neighbors had partially flooded her backyard because they had left their sprinklers on overnight.

Karen Brown said this was not the first time her west Modesto neighbors had flooded her yard. She said she has tried to talk with them, but to no avail. Tejeda spoke with Brown and took pictures of the standing water in her backyard before knocking on the neighbors’ door. The woman who answered said it was a mistake and would not happen again.

Tejeda issued her a notice of violation and gave her information about Modesto’s water restrictions.

In some cases, Tejeda will turn off the water to the irrigation system of the home or business if he can’t make contact with the offender. He also will leave a notice for the home or business to call the city to resolve the violation and get the water restored.

His other stops that day included checking with the residents of two homes to see if they had corrected problems that had resulted in violating the city’s water restrictions. One problem was a broken sprinkler, and the other a sprinkler system set to water on the wrong day.

Tejeda said his job often involves letting homeowners, shopping centers and apartment complexes know their sprinkler systems have been set to water on the wrong day or are malfunctioning. “We know there are a lot of people in Modesto who care about conservation and we want to thank them for that,” he said.

Modesto is feeling the effects of the drought. It gets a significant amount of its water from the Modesto Irrigation District, with the rest coming from its roughly 100 wells. In early May, MID cut its annual water allocation to the city by 43 percent, which is the same reduction MID imposed on its other customers. MID gets its water from the Tuolumne River.

Modesto had been getting on average 30 million gallons of water per day from MID. It’s now getting on average 17 million gallons per day. Modesto used about 59 million gallons of water per day on average for 2013. Daily water use for the first six months of this year averaged 48 million gallons. But Modesto is heading into its peak season for water use.

Savidge said he believes the city can go until May, when MID sets its next annual water allocation, without imposing further water restrictions. But he expects the city to impose more restrictions if the drought continues into a fourth year.

The city has been under stage 1 water restrictions from its drought contingency plan since 2003. They call for reducing water use 10 percent to 20 percent and include such measures as limiting the days and times when residents can water their lawns. City officials have said water use has dropped 20 percent since 2003.

Savidge said the reduction has come about through conservation efforts; replacing older, leaking water mains with new ones; and getting more residential customers on water meters. He said about three-quarters of the city’s residential users are on meters and the city expects to be at 100 percent by 2022. Commercial water users are on meters.

The city’s stage 2 water restrictions call for reducing water use by as much as 15 percent more.

More about the stage 1 restrictions, water conservation tips, information about rebates for the purchase of high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers, and other resources is available at Customers can call (209) 342-2246 to report water restriction violations.