A Downtown Berkeley Association employee powerwashes the sidewalk at the corner of Shattuck and Center. Photo: Isabelle Gaston
A Downtown Berkeley Association employee powerwashes the sidewalk at the corner of Shattuck and Center. Photo: Isabelle Gaston

This week the state Water Resources Control Board will consider emergency restrictions on water use that would require the city of Berkeley to impose fines for certain types of outdoor water use.

If approved, the Water Board’s drought measures would require Berkeley to levy fines of up to $500 for excessive water use while  cleaning sidewalks, watering plants, cleaning cars, or operating outdoor fountains.

This will be good news to some Berkeley residents, who have noticed some businesses using large amounts of water around town. Isabelle Gaston, president of the Northeast Berkeley Association, emailed Councilman Jesse Arreguín recently about the Downtown Berkeley Association’s use of power-washers to clean the sidewalks in the downtown neighborhood.

“One can see in the photos the large pools of water accumulating on the sidewalks,” wrote Gaston in her email. “I would think a good sweeping would be sufficient given the severity of our water shortage.”

This year has been one of the driest in California’s on record. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January, calling on Californians and state agencies to work to reduce the state’s water use by 20 percent. Statewide water consumption reduced only 5 percent by May, far short of the Governor’s goal.

With the potential emergency drought measures looming, Berkeley City Council passed an item last week asking staff to review and analyze a recommendation from the Public Works Commission and the Community Environmental Advisory Commission to set a goal of reducing municipal water use by 20 percent by next year.

Though municipal use accounts for only 2 percent of the city’s total water consumption, a report from the Community Environmental Advisory Commission and the Public Works Commission reads: “We believe the City of Berkeley should lead the conservation effort by example.”

Berkeley’s total water use in 2013 was 4.1 billion gallons, 15 percent lower than in 2000. However, the city’s water consumption has increased every year since 2010, according to a report by the city Office of Energy & Sustainable Development.

If passed, the statewide measures would put pressure on private Berkeley organizations and individuals to change the way they consume water. One such organization is the Downtown Berkeley Association, which uses water to power-wash downtown sidewalks and maintain the planters and hanging baskets it has installed as part of a downtown beautification initiative.

In an email exchange last week Gaston also questioned the choice of flowers in the hanging planters downtown.

“The hanging baskets downtown are not succulents, but annuals that require significant amounts of water. Although they are quite lovely, I think it is unwise and reflects a profound ignorance about the severity of our drought and the existence of climate change.”

The Downtown Berkeley Association maintains 180 of these baskets in the downtown area, according to their website.

Berkeley City Manager Christine Daniel responded to Gaston’s email, writing that the Downtown Berkeley Association has taken steps to reduce water use in light of the drought. Daniel wrote that the DBA has taken the following measures:

1. Reclamation of 25-30% of water using sandbags and reclamation system

2. Less frequent cleaning schedule

3. Using more drought resistant succulents in landscaping

4.  Increasing training regarding water conservation

“We’re trying to manage the district for the merchants and the property owners, and at the same time be sensitive to water conservation,” said DBA CEO John Caner. “It’s a balance.”

These practices of the DBA could soon be prohibited under state law. If the Water Control Board approves the proposed restrictions, outdoor power-washing and some kinds of plant watering will be among the practices forbidden.

The regulations, if approved, would take effect Aug. 1, and would require local water agencies to enforce restrictions on outdoor water use. Water consumption in violation of these restrictions could be met with fines of up to $500 per day.

The proposed regulations would prohibit “the direct application of water to any hard surface for washing,” putting an end to the DBA’s power-washing practices.

“We’ve taken certain measures to cut back our water use, but we’ll certainly abide by any changes in state regulation,” said Caner.

One of the DBA's hanging flowerpots on Shattuck. Photo: Charles Siler
One of the DBA’s hanging flower baskets on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Charles Siler
One of the DBA’s hanging flower baskets on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Charles Siler

The regulations would also prohibit “watering of outdoor landscapes that cause runoff to adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots or structures.”

Gaston says she has seen the flower baskets dripping water onto the sidewalk and road, which would make them technically forbidden under the emergency regulations.

Caner denied that the flower baskets drip onto the sidewalk, saying that he doesn’t think they are wasteful enough to merit fines if the emergency measures pass.

“We’re now doing it so there’s almost no drip. We used to flood them, last year, but now… occasionally there might be a drip, but we’re avoiding runoff into the street.”

Caner defended the baskets, arguing that their aesthetic contribution to the street is worth the water use.

“From a water consumption point of view I think that’s relatively minor. From a visual perspective I think that’s a big bang for your buck, from both a financial point of view and a water point of view.”

The Downtown Berkeley Association recently installed what Caner called a “pilot program” of 32 hanging baskets containing succulents, which need less water, on Telegraph.

The full terms of the proposed restrictions, which will be debated July 15, can be read on the Water Resources Control Board website.

If approved, the emergency drought measures would also put into effect the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Water Shortage Contingency plan. This plan would place additional restrictions on both non-municipal and municipal water use.

“Giving up cleaning of the sidewalks with the power washing will be hard,” said Caner, “but we need to be good citizens.”

Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans. He can be reached at cody.siler@gmail.com.

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