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Leadership drought in curbing water use in Manteca

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POSTED July 30, 2014 12:34 a.m.

Manteca is leaving no stone unturned as it studies the long-term financial risks and economic viability of the Great Wolf Resort proposal to develop a 500-room resort on 30 acres of city-owned land.

That contrasts sharply with the city’s approach to a substantially more critical civic issue — water.

Instead of pulling all resources together to develop a 30-year water conservation outlook and repeatedly questioning all solutions and calculations with 101 scenarios, Manteca’s water security strategy comes down to three things: Wishing, hoping, and keeping their collective fingers crossed.

Manteca is not alone in such an approach to arguably the most critical element for civilization. But then again, if you are a Manteca resident you have a high expectation that your city leaders aren’t going to leave you high and dry because they adopted a wait-and-see attitude on water conservation.

One doesn’t have to be a hydrologist to understand that as California grows — even without the natural cycle of droughts — we are going to have water supply problems.

True, Manteca can always pump more water from the aquifer as the city grows but sooner or later that strategy is going to hit bedrock. Water levels were dropping in non-drought years. It is clear we are taking down underground water sources faster than they’re being replenished. University of California Center for Hydraulic modeling notes the aquifers supplying the Central Valley have declined more than 50 million acre feet since 1962. Wet cycles bounce underground water up but then normal years coupled with dry years plunge the water levels even farther. The bottom line: The more we pump, the less water there will be for future years and future generations.

So what should the city do?

First, there are two elected leaders who have a better grip on the situation than most.

Councilman Steve DeBrum makes his living working with dairy farmers. His travels give him firsthand knowledge of the drought’s spreading impact and what it’s doing to the critical resource below us — underground water tables.

Mayor Willie Weatherford as a former police chief knows how incredibly difficult it is to enforce municipal regulations whether it involves water conservation or where to place one’s Totgers.

Both have talked a good game about water conservation. But here’s the rub. Even though the council as a whole has made it clear they are concerned about water, they have not told the city staff in exact words what they want done.

City Manager Karen McLaughlin has made it clear that without any direct marching orders that she’s hesitant about devoting a lot of staff time to water conservation proposals that the council ultimately may not want or support. Yes, it takes time and energy to put in place rules and regulations to run a city.

Manteca residents — at least in June anyway — have reduced water use by 20.4 percent.

And even if they continue to do so throughout the duration of the drought and beyond, adding additional users via new homes and businesses will add even more stress to the water supply.

Doing things that take active enforcement is difficult, costly and often ineffective.

That’s why this council would best serve the city’s current 72,000 residents and the tens of thousands more they are planning for in the coming years by making water conservation as painless as possible.

The most effective and painless way to reduce future water use is for Manteca to take the initiative and require front yards of new homes to have landscaping that uses significantly less water than traditional lawns. Outdoor water use constitutes between 50 and 60 percent of a typical home’s water use in the Central Valley. Experts say close to two thirds of that water use goes to grass. Based on the needs of non-native grass it is the biggest water user and least effective to water among almost all landscaping you can deploy.

For a council that takes pot shots at Sacramento, simply saying the city is applying to tougher state standards for landscaping is a cop-out.

Manteca needs to be pro-active. There needs to be front yard standards for new homes that basically ban using grass unless native grasses — or those that can thrive in our climate with minimal water — are used.

It’s a no-brainer. And it has the added plus of putting in landscaping that will cost residents less to water meaning there will be less brown yards.

It also will reduce the future need to add expensive water wells.

This council has no problem taking steps so that future homes pick up more of the cost of services they need such as paying for electricity for street lights near their home or covering the routine maintenance of their neighborhood park.

So why not require them to have front yard landscaping that reduces water use?

Manteca already is suffering through a drought.

We can’t afford to suffer from a leadership drought when it comes to water as well.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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