In one of the strictest rationing plans yet imposed in California, Marin County residents must cut water use by up to 50% or face penalties that could strain household budgets in the affluent area.
The Marin Municipal Water District voted unanimously Wednesday to limit residential use to 50 gallons a day per person. The plan affects 168,000 customers in southern and central Marin, and includes a 30% rate increase.
Starting March 1, people who waste water will face penalties that could raise bimonthly bills by hundreds of dollars. A family of four that uses 22,440 gallons of water in a two-month period currently pays $72. Under the new plan, that family would pay $481 if it used the same amount.
"It is stressful," Mill Valley Mayor Kathleen Foote said of the latest restrictions. "Water rationing, no matter how delicately it is done, is very intrusive into people's lives and personal habits."
The latest rationing is the stiffest in Marin County since the drought of 1976 and 1977, and is by far the most extreme imposed in Northern California in the current water shortage. During the drought of the 1970s, people cut usage by half.
Marin is especially affected by drought because it depends solely on seven relatively small local reservoirs that are only a third full. The rest of the San Francisco Bay Area draws its water from sources in the Sierra Nevada, such as Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
Under the new plan, businesses will be limited to 45% of the water they used in 1986 and 1987, the most recent year without limits. Schools, hospitals and other institutions will be cut 50%. Individual cities must cut irrigation by 85%, which could turn parks brown.
Those who consistently use excessive amounts may be referred to the district attorney's office for prosecution and face a misdemeanor $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.
"If we continue without any restrictions, our reservoirs will go dry by the end of the year," said Ron Johnson, general manager of the Water District.
For many people in Marin, living with limited water is getting old. For the past two years, the drought has prompted officials to restrict new construction by imposing a moratorium on water hookups.
To deal with the shortage, the water district has been looking for new sources. One option may be to hook into the Sonoma County water system to the north. Another may be to tap the Russian River, although environmentalists are likely to oppose that.
"I live like I'm camping all the time," said Bernice Gilardi, a retired public school teacher in Larkspur. In the last drought, she had water delivered. But now she's older and can't lift the heavy jugs.
Because of her conservation efforts, Gilardi's water bill for November through January was a mere $16. She goes to Laundromats to do her wash. Like many of her neighbors, she saves shower and dish water to use on her plants.
"I can't cut it any more," she said.
Gilardi has 17 redwoods, five oaks, a large variety of flowers and orchids and an indoor fern garden.
"It is something that I have committed an awful lot of my life to," she said. For now, she plans to hire a landscaper to design a new sprinkler system and may hire a company to drill a well.
"We all have really tried to conserve," she said. "People are very angry that the board has not really acted to take care of this kind of thing."
Mary Herr, the Mill Valley city clerk, doubts the rationing will be a problem at her home. Her two children have been well indoctrinated by schools in conservation.
"These teachers drill it into these kids," she said. " When I turn on that water, my 7-year-old tells me to turn it off. He keeps me in line."
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