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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Should Spokane residents cut lawn watering to every other day? Some city leaders think so

A sprinkler spits out water in a Spokane yard in the evening. The City is asking residents to conserve water amid a national chlorine shortage.   (RAJAH BOSE)

It’s been a dry spring, but the city is asking residents to think twice about breaking out the lawn sprinkler.

The Spokane City Council is expected to contemplate a resolution in the coming weeks that would formally encourage residents to water their lawns only every other day.

Even if the resolution is adopted, the city’s water regulators won’t be putting sprinkler scofflaws in handcuffs. Instead, the city would simply encourage residents to water their lawns less, on odd or even days depending on their address.

There is broad agreement among city leaders that Spokane needs to reduce the amount of water its average resident uses, as the city ranked in the 96th percentile of per-capita water use nationally, according to 2015 United States Geological Survey data.

What remains to be answered is what level of reduction the city should aim for – and the most effective way to achieve it.

The benefit of reduced water use is both environmental and financial, according to its proponents. Cutting back will protect the Spokane River and Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer that the city relies on for its water supply, but it will also help the city avoid costly infrastructure upgrades necessary to distribute water to a continually growing city.

Less water also translates into deeper roots for grass and other landscaping, according to city officials, making them more resilient during the dry summer months.

“I think it’s really important to emphasize that aside from keeping our landscaping stronger and keeping our river flowing, just switching to that every other day really reduces the future water rates – those water towers are super expensive to build,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said Monday.

The city would roll out the education effort as part of its Water Wise program, which encourages conservation through a slate of available rebates for improvements like low-flow toilets and sprinkler heads installed by Spokane residents and businesses.

The issue was discussed during a meeting of the council’s Public Infrastructure and Environmental Sustainability Committee. Monday’s conversation comes as Spokane was considered in a moderate drought, according to the most recently available data from the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Last month was the second-driest March ever on record for Spokane, according to Valerie Thaler, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Spokane.

After clouds spit a bit of rain this weekend – 0.11 inches at Spokane International Airport – Spokane’s precipitation totaled 0.2 inches so far this month, well short of the 1.09 inches it sees on average.

The city also is considering action just as city residents start to water their lawns.

In 2008, then-Mayor Mary Verner introduced a proposal to prohibit residents from using sprinklers between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., when the summer sun tends to evaporate water before it sinks into the ground. The proposal would have also limited sprinkler use to every other day.

The city would have largely relied on voluntary compliance with the new law, but planned to levy fines of up to $125 on frequent violators.

Her proposal was met with a fire hose of opposition.

By the next spring, Verner had backed off, promising “our strategy is educate, inform, encourage” instead of regulating with a heavy hand.

Verner had based her proposal on rules already implemented in nearby Post Falls, which bans watering between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the summer months and recommends watering every other.

Nearly 20 years after the Idaho city implemented its water regulations, they remain in effect – and relatively uncontroversial, according to Post Falls Public Works Director John Beacham.

“When we put the noon to 6 (p.m.) ban in place, water usage dropped significantly,” Beacham told The Spokesman-Review.

The impact of the every-other-day recommendation is a bit harder to gauge, likely because it is just that – a recommendation, Beacham said.

“We stop short of turning water off or fining people off, usually,” Beacham said. “We don’t really enforce the odd-even thing, because it is a recommendation and I think because it’s a little bit harder to grasp for people.”

The Water Resource Collaboration Group, which was formed following the city’s adoption of its new water conservation plan in 2020, set a goal of cutting the city’s water consumption by 25% earlier this year.

Among its numerous recommendations was an every-other-day watering schedule.

During the summer, contributions diminish from Lake Coeur d’Alene into the Spokane River, which in turn relies more on the aquifer below to maintain a steady flow, explained Jerry White, Jr., executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper.

“We now know that basically city water consumption during the summertime – when peak demand is the highest for irrigation – does compete with the river for flow right at the precise moment that river needs it,” White said.

Even though the aquifer is massive, White said “the river and the consumer both compete for that top few inches of the aquifer.” In 2015, data showed that Spokane water users were having a measurable impact on water flow, White said.