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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council adopts ordinance to ban watering lawns during peak hours in summer, fall; Woodward disapproves

A sprinkler spits out water in a Spokane yard in the evening in 2008.  (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

The Spokane City Council approved new rules Monday that would prohibit people from watering their lawns at peak hours of the day from the summer into the fall.

The City Council ordinance would prohibit watering outdoor vegetation from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from June 1 to Oct. 1. Watering would be limited to four days per week.

Starting next year, the ordinance also would allow the mayor and City Council to institute harder watering limits any time between June 1 and Oct. 1 when Spokane River flows are predicted to fall below 1,000 cubic feet per second. These emergency rules would limit properties to watering twice per week, two hours per day, and prohibit using water to wash sidewalks, driveways, decks and other hardscape elements.

Cutting back, proponents have said, will help protect the Spokane River ecosystem and the city’s water supply, the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

“It’s a combination of water conservation and drought (response),” said Kara Odegard, the City Council’s manager of sustainability initiatives. “The idea is if we practice these conservation measures that are very simple and commonsense, that are being done across the rest of the aquifer, then hopefully we’ll have less drought response needed.”

The legislation was passed without Mayor Nadine Woodward’s support, who expressed her disapproval in a letter Monday to the City Council.

In the letter Woodward said she understands and supports “the need for more robust water conservation efforts in our City.” Woodward said she is concerned with the “punitive nature” of the ordinance, which may enact surcharges for violations in the future.

“My position has been, and will continue to be, to offer incentives where we can rather than penalties,” Woodward wrote.

For at least the next 18 months, there will be no penalties tied to any violations of the new rules, as city lawmakers say they first are focused on educating the public on the changes.

The ordinance outlines a period of time, from Dec. 1, 2023, to May 1, 2024, when city council members and the Public Works and Utilities Department can explore potential surcharges or other enforcement options.

The legislation also outlines as-needed exemptions for Spokane Parks and Recreation, for reasons including maintenance of recreational facilities and mitigating wildfire risk, as well as exceptions for people watering vegetable gardens and trees, mitigating fire risk and preserving newly planted landscaping.

One critique from opponents to the ordinance is how the city would rely on citizens for enforcement, with codes staff responding to neighbor complaints.

“We should not foster a system in which we encourage conflict within our community,” Woodward wrote. “Families are still struggling to financially recover from the pandemic, neighbors are only just starting to gather in-person again – penalizing water usage and turning neighbors against each other will do more harm than good.”

The legislation is scheduled to take effect in 30 days. Per the City Charter, the council formally has five days to present the ordinance to the mayor, who would then have 10 days to sign it or veto.

The council could override a mayoral veto with five votes. Monday’s legislation passed with a 5-2 vote.

The vote was at least a few years in the making, with the ordinance based on recommendations provided by the city’s Water Resource Collaboration Group, which was formed in 2020 after the city adopted a water conservation plan aiming to reduce usage by 5% over the decade.

Washington State University Professor Michael Neff said he does not believe the restrictions would “have a major negative impact on how people’s lawns look.”

Neff, a professor in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science who oversees the university’s grass breeding and turf management program, described Spokane’s new rules as “very reasonable.”

Homeowner lawns are largely made up of blends of different species of grasses. Speaking to every-other-day watering, Neff said different types will do better with less water.

“There’s also the soil type, the soil acidity, whether it’s more clay or more sandy,” he said. “It’s basically ecology in the sense that the population will change in that the grasses that are happiest under those growth conditions are the dominant grasses in the lawn.”

For his part, Neff said Spokane’s new rules align with how he and his colleagues water their lawns. Neff’s irrigation system starts up around 6 a.m. and turns off roughly two hours later, spending no longer than 10 minutes on a particular spot during the process.

“Most of these grasses, when they start to feel thirsty, they’ll just slow down their growth,” he said.

Watering in the middle of the day results in higher rates of “evapotranspiration,” which is what happens when water evaporates and moves from soil and plants and out into the air, Neff said. If it’s hot enough, watering in the middle of the day might see water evaporate before it even hits the ground, he said.

“If it’s hot and windy, a lot of the water that you’re going to be trying to put on your lawn just evaporates away,” Neff said. “The best practice for watering lawns is to do it in the early morning before it gets hot, and often, in the early morning, it’s not as windy.

“Lawns do not need to be watered every single day,” he added. “I really don’t see this as a real big problem in damaging turf in this area.”

Monday’s meeting saw nearly 40 people speak during a public comment period on the ordinance, with a majority in favor of the measures.

The council vote took place afterward, with councilmen Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle opposed.

Cathcart, with Bingle’s support, put forward a replacement ordinance that, instead of watering restrictions, proposed water bill discounts based on year-to-year usage reductions.

“If the urgency is that we need to save water today, then we should do something that’s going to save water today,” Cathcart said. “I had proposed a plan that was focused on incentives that would start fairly immediately, and we could actually start to see people try to pursue a cost savings through their reductions as a means of seeing this water usage go down. … It’s not a heavy hand.”

Council President Breean Beggs said, “One reason incentives right now are going to be challenging to do just by themselves is if you don’t change the norm, the amount of money is kind of a small amount and you’re not going to really get there. The only way you really get there is if the vast majority of people water in this way.”