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DeBrum: Drought is serious
Mayor wants new landscape rules in 90 days
Roughly 60 percent of all water used in Manteca is used outdoors primarily to irrigate landscaping. - photo by Photo Contributed

By year’s end Manteca could add another 500 new single family homes.

And each one of them will have water guzzling front yard lawns as mandated by city ordinance.

Mayor Steve DeBrum thinks that’s downright crazy given the drought has gotten so bad the state is suspending mandated minimum water releases needed to maintain quality river environments out of fear that reservoirs such as New Melones will dry up this summer.

DeBrum on Tuesday asked staff to speed up changes to allow developers to use drought resistant landscaping. Currently, developers must plant 45 percent of the front yard so it is “green” or has a traditional lawn before they can get an occupancy permit to get new homes they build out of escrow. Several builders have wanted to switch to more drought resistant landscaping but were told by city staff that Manteca’s ordnance prohibited them from doing so.

“We (the city) have to do our share,” DeBrum said. “The drought is serious.”

On Thursday, DeBrum — when asked about the time frame he had in mind for an ordinance to be before the council to allow drought resistant landscaping for new homes — he said “90 days at the outside.”

If staff managed to meet that schedule and the council adopted it, there would be another 45 days before it could legally go into effect. That would be sometime after the first day of summer. Meanwhile, at least 250 more homes with water guzzling lawns will have been added in the middle of the fourth year of a severe drought.

DeBrum said not rethinking landscaping for new homes sooner than later just puts more stress on water supplies for existing residents.

DeBrum joins Councilman Richard Silverman in asking that landscaping changes for new homes to conserve water take on a bigger urgency at city hall. Silverman at a budget review session two weeks ago queried Community Development Director Fredric Clark about whether developers were getting on board with more drought tolerant landscaping. Clark responded several wanted to but city rules prevented them from doing so.

“We tell people to please, please save water,” Silverman said afterwards. “The public has gotten the message. (But then we make it) impossible to do so. Talk about contradictions.”

The mayor agreed that the city needs to take a leadership role and lead the charge to conserve water.

Public Works Director Mark Houghton has noted that data shows discharge going from homes to the wastewater treatment plant has steadily declined even with growth but water use over the past decade is up significantly since new homes means more landscaping which is the biggest consumer of water. During 2014 Manteca residents heeded city calls to reduce water use and cut consumption levels to 15 percent of 2013 levels although they far exceed 2004 consumption.

Houghton estimated landscaping — primarily lawns — accounts for 40 percent of all water used in the city.

The public works director said at the start of this year that his department hoped to accomplish further water use reductions through new rules that encourage more drought resistant landscaping and essentially less green plant and grass options that don’t require as much water.

“We need to rethink landscaping,” Houghton said a month ago. “We don’t want an ugly city. We need efficient landscaping.”

That underscores another problem the city has — people letting lawns and other landscaping die creating dust and fire hazards as well as creating blight. City Manager Karen McLaughlin last year said there were some people using the drought as an excuse not to keep up yard maintenance. She has repeatedly stressed the need to conserve water but at the same time noted there needs to be a balance.

Many garden and lawn experts point out that people tend to overwater their lawns. Often times the problem can be traced back to issues with timers on automatic irrigation systems and homeowners having difficulty in trying to reset them. In the past the city has had workers help residents struggling to program sprinklers as a free service.

Despite Manteca now receiving the first measureable rain in more than a month, the outlook for this summer will require the city cutback water use from the South County Water Surface Treatment Plant to 20 percent of 2013 levels even though 700 homes have since been added to Manteca.