After a winter of season of record-low rainfall, Corte Madera business owner Paul Burrous knew water restrictions were imminent. That’s when he decided to invest in a water truck.
While it costs Burrous several thousand dollars a month to rent and insure, the 2,000-gallon truck allows his business, the Marin Wood Restoration and Painting Co., to continue one of its most demanded services, power-washing, even during what is likely to be the county’s worst drought on record.
The Marin Municipal Water District prohibits using potable water for power washing on decks and hard surfaces as part of a suite of restrictions it approved earlier this year.
After negotiating with the district, Burrous’ company was able to work around this by filling the water truck with recycled water he secures from the district and using it for power-washing jobs.
“Obviously my business is first and foremost but doing the right thing is important too,” Burrous said. “A lot of my clients are sensitive to it. They don’t want to waste the precious water.”
Burrous’ water truck is but one example of ways businesses and agencies are adapting to Marin’s worsening water supply issues.
With less than a year of water remaining in its seven reservoirs in the Mount Tamalpais watershed, the Marin Municipal Water District has approved mandatory use restrictions for its 191,000 central and southern Marin residents in April and May.
The rules seek to cut water use by 40% compared to average use during the three-year period of 2018-2020. Restrictions include limiting outdoor sprinkler use to two days per week, banning at-home car washing and other rules.
The same rules apply for the 4,000 businesses, industrial customers and government agencies in the district. Recognizing that certain types of businesses, such as golf courses and landscaping, rely more heavily on water use to sustain themselves, the district is working to develop alternative conservation plans that still meet the conservation target.
Mill Valley’s municipal golf course is one example. The district’s rules limit golf course watering to greens and tees only, but the utility left open the door for alternative options to reach 40% conservation. Using about 12 million gallons of water in 2020, the Mill Valley Golf Course makes up nearly half of the city’s entire outdoor irrigation and water use, said Tony Boyd, a city public works official.
To prevent the course’s fairways from dying out entirely and having to be replaced, the district is allowing the city to water them as long as it conserves by 40% at the city’s 42 irrigation meters at local parks, athletic fields and playgrounds, Boyd said.
“Our main thing is that we don’t have to replace entire fields at the end of the summer,” Boyd said. “Just try and sustain them is our main goal.”
Two other golf courses have agreed to similar alternative plans, and the district will be tracking their water use monthly to ensure compliance, said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, district communications manager.
“Some are reducing irrigation overall to the roughs, some are removing sprinkler heads,” she said.
Nearly 30 alternative conservation plans, also called variances, have been approved by the district for other businesses, Mariani-Belding said.
“Some are changing business practices to reduce water use overall, and others, including companies that deal with deck and hardscape pressure washing, are using recycled water instead,” Mariani-Belding said.
For Joanne Webster, chief executive of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, what is most concerning is not the water restrictions but a proposed suspension of new water service hookups. The Marin Municipal Water District plans to discuss the idea at its meeting on June 15, and the North Marin Water District has already approved a hookup suspension in its Novato service area.
After the pandemic, the top issue among Marin employers is filling vacant jobs, Webster said, particularly lower-income jobs. Part of that stems from Marin’s high cost of housing.
Limiting new housing production through a hookup suspension would be “devastating” to businesses and would only save a minimal amount of water compared to further restricting or banning lawn irrigation, Webster said.
The Marin Municipal Water District said a hookup moratorium would only save one one-thousandth of its annual potable water demand. For the North Marin Water District, the annual savings would be about 0.1%.
“For us, it’s lawns versus livelihoods of people,” Webster said. “We’re all going to have to do our part and there should be some incentive to rip up your high water use gardening and lawns.”
The Marin Municipal Water District recently tripled its turf replacement rebate from $1 to $3 per square foot along with offering other discounts and rebates.
At Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery and Mortuary in San Rafael, the 65 acres of grass is nearly all brown and dried. The cemetery was already under a three-day per week watering limit before the new restrictions.
“We have had to cut it down to almost nothing,” said Jack Thornton, the cemetery’s manager and funeral director.
Thornton said he gets calls almost daily asking why the lawns are so brown. While not aesthetically pleasing, the dry lawns are just a small worry compared to the potential of Marin depleting its water supply, Thornton said.
“We’d love to have the place nice and green but we just don’t want to waste water because people are going to need water to drink with,” Thornton said.
In the previous drought from 2012-2016, Bon Terra Landscapes Inc. co-owner Johnny Fort of Corte Madera said he has always tried to convey to customers how precious water is and promoted more drought tolerant landscaping over traditional lawns.
“We never really got the responses we thought we were going to get,” Fort said. “People continued to put in large lawns and even larger.”
But with the second major drought in less than a decade now underway, more people are coming around to the idea. One of Fort’s customers looking to install turf in the front and back yards in recent months decided to switch to synthetic turf as the water situation worsened.
While the drought so far has not affected the business, Fort and his wife and business partner Lisa Sechser said they have noticed more people are asking questions about alternative options to traditional green lawns.
“It’s really hard to talk people into spending money on something they don’t really want, but at some point in time what they want won’t be an option,” Fort said.