SAN JOSE -- Complying with new state rules aimed at cutting water use during California's historic drought, the San Jose City Council is poised to declare a citywide water shortage, ask all residents to cut use by 20 percent and place new limits on watering lawns and landscaping.
But like many other large Bay Area urban communities, the city does not plan to hire "water cops" or issue fines for people who ignore the rules -- at least not for now.
"We are working to make sure the rules are enforced and our community does what is required," said Kerrie Romanow, director of the San Jose's Environmental Services Department. "At this point we don't feel that needs to include monetary fines."
If the City Council approves the new rules at its Aug. 26 meeting, as expected, it will be illegal to water any lawns or landscaping in San Jose every day between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. All private property, along with government property such as schools and parks, is affected.
Residents using recycled wastewater for irrigation, such as large businesses and parks, would be exempt, however. So would people watering yards and plants with buckets filled with water collected from their showers.
San Jose's roughly 1 million residents also would be prohibited from watering landscaping so much that water runs into the street, sidewalks or neighboring property. And they would be banned from washing down sidewalks and driveways, washing cars without shut-off nozzles on their hoses, or operating decorative fountains unless they have recirculating water.
The rules would take effect immediately for all city residents, regardless of who provides their water, and continue until April 25, 2015.
California is laboring under its worst drought since at least 1976-77, and by some accounts in a century. The state is in its third year of below-normal rainfall, with creeks drying up, major reservoirs at half full or less, water tables falling and wildfire danger at extreme highs.
San Jose's proposed rules come one month after the state Water Resources Control Board ordered every water provider in the state with more than 3,000 customers to place mandatory rules to limit water wasting and limit landscape watering, allowing fines of up to $500 for violators.
If water providers do not put in place such rules, they could be subject to fines of up to $10,000 a day.
San Jose's water situation can be confusing to many observers.
Most residents receive their water and monthly bills from a private company, San Jose Water Co. About 130,000 people in the North San Jose and Evergreen neighborhoods receive water from a city department, the San Jose Municipal Water system. Another 95,000 people in Almaden Valley and other parts of South San Jose receive water from Great Oaks Water Co., a private firm.
The new rules apply to all of their customers.
Ironically, San Jose has had nearly all of the rules already in place since 2009, when the City Council made them permanent at the tail end of the last drought. Although the ban on daytime watering has been little noticed, it affected irrigation systems and sprinklers, allowing daytime watering for people using hoses with shut-off nozzles. Under the new rules, all such daytime watering will be banned. But watering with shower water in buckets is OK because that is considered non-potable water. Yet the rules have been largely unknown -- particularly the ban on daytime watering.
"We're limiting our watering and taking shorter showers" said Phan Huynh, a San Jose resident, "but I didn't know you couldn't water during the daytime."
Nowhere on the San Jose city website are the watering limits clearly spelled out. The city's Municipal Water system has not sent notices in bills explaining them to customers or taken out advertising. Neither website mentions that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the main wholesale water provider for the county, asked for a 20 percent reduction in January and February.
"Most people are unaware that watering during the day is actually already restricted in San Jose," said Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "We're hoping this vote will be a good reminder for people who aren't aware of that."
No fines for violators
If people see violations of the rules, they should call the water district's hotline, at 408-630-2000, said the city's Romanow. The water district is hiring 10 enforcement people, who will be in place by mid-September, to respond to reports of violations and ask offenders to follow the rules.
But the water district does not have the power to fine offenders. Under the state rules, that's left up to the cities, private companies and other "retail providers" who send customers bills. Although some cities like Sacramento, Pleasanton and Santa Cruz are issuing fines to water wasters , most are not, for a variety of reasons, including the loss of revenue from reduced water sales, political headaches and lack of staff to enforce the rules.
"They are all reluctant to go to that level," Grimes said. "I think they don't like to be the bad cop. They'd rather stick to education and outreach."
San Jose officials technically could fine scofflaws $160, under existing city code rules that apply to issues like failure to cut high weeds. But in the past seven years, nobody has been fined by the city for water violations, city officials say.
Romanow said that the San Jose Municipal Water system has already cut water use 14 percent between Feb. 1 and July 31, compared with the same period last year. She said she hopes increased public awareness will get that to 20 percent. But if the drought drags on into next year and people aren't responding, she said, city officials will look at more stringent measures.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.