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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposed ordinance would ban outdoor watering in Spokane during peak summer hours

Mike Fairburn of Living Water Lawn and Tree Care sprays weed control and crane fly preventative on Friday in the Indian Trail neighborhood. Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review   (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Restrictions on watering lawns at certain times over the summer into early fall could become law in Spokane starting in June.

The Spokane City Council is set to vote on an ordinance Monday to establish new conservation measures limiting water use citywide.

If approved, the ordinance would prohibit watering outdoor vegetation from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from June 1 to Oct. 1. Watering would also be limited to four days per week on each property, aligning with a resolution the council adopted last June, with Mayor Nadine Woodward’s support, that encourages residents and businesses to limit watering to every other day.

The city has long encouraged people to avoid watering during the hottest times of the day due to evaporation.

“If we can do that as a community, we will really have made some strides,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who is championing the ordinance alongside Council President Breean Beggs.

U.S. Geological Survey data shows people in Spokane use an average of 202 gallons of water per person on a daily basis, more per capita than 97% of other communities nationwide.

Two years ago, the City Council adopted a water conservation plan to reduce usage by 5% over the current decade. Cutting back, proponents have argued, will help protect the Spokane River and the city’s water supply, the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

City officials have said users consume around five to six times more water in the summer than the winter.

“Ultimately, I think people do want to do the right thing. They do not want to waste and they don’t want to bear the cost of additional infrastructure,” Kinnear said. “By just doing two things collectively as a community, we can save money for ourselves.”

The ordinance, which would take effect 30 days after the council’s vote unless there’s a mayoral veto, does not call for any enforcement measures or fines at the onset.

The legislation outlines a period between Dec. 1, 2023, and May 1, 2024, that the council can consult with the Public Works and Utilities Department about potential fines, surcharges or other enforcement options, such as potentially changing the water rate structure to charge more to larger users, Beggs said. Even if fines were put in place, the ordinance would require a warning before any could be applied.

Beggs said the direction of those discussions would depend on how the city responds to the restrictions.

“Most people follow the law. Not all, but most people do,” he said. “And then the second thing is for the people who won’t, you have to figure out how much is it going to cost to provide enforcement if you want to spend money doing that versus how many people already changed their minds.”

Other rules would also kick in next year.

Starting June 1, 2023, the mayor or City Council would be able to implement harder watering limits any time between June 1 and Oct. 1 that Spokane River flows are predicted to fall below 1,000 cubic feet per second. In addition to the watering limits, properties would be limited to two hours of daily outdoor watering along with a prohibition on using water to wash sidewalks, driveways, decks and other hardscape elements.

The prohibitions were developed from recommendations from the city’s Water Resource Collaboration Group, a group formed in 2020 after the adoption of the water conservation plan.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees that we overwater our landscaping in our community,” said Marlene Feist, director of public works. “We’re building water systems for a couple months out of the year and the rest of the time, we have significant capacity in our water systems. If we want to maintain affordability for our community, we have to start thinking differently about how we use water.”

The ordinance also includes exceptions.

Namely, Spokane Parks and Recreation would be exempt as needed to water trees and parks with nonautomated irrigation systems, preserve newly planted landscape, mitigate fire risk and operate pools, splash pads, public golf courses and other sports program facilities.

Parks Director Garrett Jones, describing water conservation as one of the department’s ongoing priorities, said there are quite a number of irrigation systems used by city parks that only allow for manual daytime watering that could stand improvement.

“We’re strong proponents of water conservation,” he said, “and just having that flexibility as we continue to invest in those facilities.”

In addition, the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department could allow “reasonable” exemptions for watering vegetable gardens and trees, mitigating wildfire risk or to preserve newly planted landscape.

Feist said she doesn’t believe exemptions will be handed out on an individual basis. Rather, they’re designed as “common sense” exceptions to the rule, she said.

“I think the goal here isn’t about trying to get out of something or trying to find a way around an ordinance. What we’re trying to do here is create a culture and a community effort to reduce water use,” Feist said. “It isn’t that we’re going to run around the city and provide pieces of paper that say you’re exempt.”

The proposed water conservation ordinance has seen at least a few drafts in the last couple of months.

Another councilman will formally present his draft Monday.

Councilman Michael Cathcart unveiled his version in a release Friday. Rather than imposed watering limits during certain time periods, the ordinance would incentivize users for reductions in the form of water bill discounts.

If the water used over a year, from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, is down at least 20% from the year before, the ratepayer would be entitled to 25% off existing water rates for the proceeding year. This would scale up to 45% if usage was reduced by at least 40%.

As proposed, Cathcart said the ratepayer would receive the discount for a maximum of five years as long as the usage reduction remains as compared to the base year. That base year would then reset every five years.

In a statement, Cathcart described the current draft of the ordinance as a “heavy-handed approach.”

“This alternative ordinance is a reasonable and achievable opportunity to encourage less water use and assist citizens in reducing their water costs while saving our local government from substantial costs and inequitable enforcement measures related to water,” he said. “We cannot afford to spend additional dollars on this kind of enforcement, especially with other priorities in our community that we already cannot afford.”

Mike Fairburn, who co-founded Living Water Lawn and Tree Care with his wife, Lisa, said he would rather see the city support infrastructure needs through property taxes than usage restrictions on water.

Fairburn, who has been in landscape management for more than 30 years, cited the benefits of turf grass, which – according to the National Park Service – help reduce water runoff, prevent erosion, lower temperatures and provides other boons. Implementing the watering restrictions would threaten the city’s stock of turf grass, particularly given Spokane’s climate, he said.

The Parks exemptions, meanwhile, feel like a double standard, Fairburn added.

“We’re not southern California sucking northern California dry. We’re not Las Vegas. We’re a place that’s sitting on an unbelievable amount of water. It turns out that it’s an infrastructure thing,” he said. “It’s like ringing the doorbell with a cannon. It’s just inappropriate action.”

Feist said the community has to “redefine what we think turf needs in terms of water.”

“If you start your watering now on an every-other-day setting this time of year … once you do, you’re going to train that grass to be used to receiving water every other day instead of every day,” she said. “It’ll grow a little deeper root system and then, when it does get hot in August, you don’t have to switch that watering schedule because that’s what your landscape is used to.

“Every other day is proven all across the country. You just have to be able to be consistent with your watering and your pattern, and it will respond to that.”