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MUSD grounds feeling pressure to conserve water
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The pressure on John Lopez has never felt greater.

The state’s drought emergency has thrust his position with the Manteca Unified School District into the spotlight and subjected his department to scrutiny by local watchdogs.

Lopez is the Supervisor of Grounds and Custodians, a nine-man crew charged with maintaining the athletic fields, lawns and other greenery at the district’s 30 school sites.

In Lopez’s line of work, water is a temperamental issue. Always has been. Manteca Unified ranks among the top-three water users in the city. His team monitors the amount of water used around the district and routinely checks the efficiency of its various irrigation systems.

Broken sprinkler heads and valves, as well as standing water command their attention. 

But rarely has water been a source of contention and frustration the way it has been this winter and early spring.

“People are concerned with the drought. I understand that. Any standing water is not good. Anything in the gutters is not good. Anything puddling up is not good. We’re trying,” said Lopez, now in his 17th year with the district and second as supervisor.

 “We have 30 schools we have to watch and numerous valves and sprinkler heads to keep track of.”

The district has taken measures to conserve water. The custodial staff has adopted a low-flow system for its restrooms and Lopez says the grounds department has plans to cut water usage back by 25-to-30 percent.

Lopez wishes he could shut the water off altogether, but he’s in no position. Mother Nature hasn’t been so kind the last few years.

During a normal winter season – “with normal rains,” Lopez said – the district stops watering at its school sites over a five-month period, from November to March. 

However, a series of short, mostly dry winters has taken its toll on school sites in Manteca, Lathrop and Weston Ranch, forcing Lopez to turn the sprinklers back on.

It’s tricky balance, he says, maintaining the health of the district’s athletic fields and greenery, while conserving as much water as possible.

“You got a lot of eyes watching you,” Lopez said. “But with the sports fields, these athletic departments have put a lot of money into the fields with fertilizers and feeds. Everyone wants the best-looking and safest fields. We just try to maintain them and keep them safe.”

The district currently waters once a week, and the irrigation systems at the 30 sites are set to a timer.

“These last two or three winters haven’t been long, they’ve been hit and miss,” Lopez said. “So we had to turn the water back on early to keep the school sites somewhat presentable.”

Lopez understands the confusion and outrage this may cause in the community, especially when a busted valve creates a pool of standing water. 

Or the sprinklers are left on during a storm, as was the case Wednesday evening at East Union High. 

Jeremiah Welsh was shocked to discover the district was watering after dark – and in a driving rain, no less. 

The Manteca resident was on his way to pick up his wife from work at approximately 8:30 p.m. when his attention was diverted to the lawn at East Union.

“We’re in a drought and these people are wasting water,” Welsh said. “We’re closing down Woodward Reservoir. My plants are dying. I haven’t washed my car. I’m not even flushing the toilet when I pee. But these people are watering their lawns in a heavy downpour?”

Lopez acknowledged Wednesday’s watering lapse. “This is my first time dealing with (a drought),” he added, “so it’s going to be a learning process.”

Education will be his crutch as the drought plays out. Lopez has attended a city meeting on water conservation and plans to adhere closely to the city and state’s future water restrictions.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said.