Western Washington’s largest cities are ramping up efforts to avoid a water shortage as an unusually hot summer sizzles on.
As the risk of a water shortage in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett continues to grow, officials are asking people to cut their water use by 10 percent.
The potential for a water shortage is related to record-setting hot summer weather, the region’s unusually dry May-through-July period, higher than normal water use by customers, and what’s expected to be a dry fall, officials said.
The reduction request is the second stage of planning for a shortage. Last month, officials asked people to avoid wasting water.
If conditions worsen, officials for each water system will decide whether to move to a third stage of shortage planning: requiring customers to cut their water use.
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At that point, they could take steps such as adding surcharges to water bills and banning watering at specific times, or altogether.
Seattle operates a water-supply system for 1.3 million people in the Emerald City and 25 other King County municipalities and water districts, including Bellevue and most of the Eastside.
Tacoma’s system serves about 316,000 people there and in University Place, Ruston and unincorporated areas of Pierce and King counties, while Everett’s system supplies 80 percent of the homes and businesses in Snohomish County.
The last time Seattle officials sought a voluntary reduction in water use was in 2005, and the last time they imposed water-use restrictions was in 1992, said Alex Chen, drinking-water planning director for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU).
“Seattle customers know it is important to manage their water use during these dry conditions,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement. “Today we are asking residents and businesses to continue to reduce water use both indoors and outdoors.”
Grass going brown
Kelly O’Rourke, water-conservation planner for SPU, said the agency hasn’t tracked the effect on water use of last month’s public advisory. But officials will closely monitor the outcome of Tuesday’s reduction request, she said.
In the past, when Seattle officials have asked people to voluntarily reduce their consumption, “our customers have actually over-responded,” O’Rourke said.
Claudia Frere-Anderson, a spokeswoman for a big-time water user — the University of Washington — said it has been letting grass areas go brown this summer and will come up with a plan to use even less water after reviewing the city’s request.
Marie McDonald, a 42-year-old Capitol Hill apartment-dweller strolling Tuesday afternoon past the lush gardens that surround some of her neighborhood’s grand old mansions, said she wouldn’t have much trouble cutting back on water.
“Shorter showers, less baths,” she said. “Things like that.”
Her visiting mother, 69-year-old Tacoma homeowner Judy McDonald, didn’t warm to the announcement, however.
“I’m not sure how I can manage that,” she said. “I guess I can make my showers shorter, but I water my flowers now and I don’t plan to quit. I don’t want them to die.”
That’s exactly what Ronen Levari said he’s been hearing from a lot of homeowners lately. Levari has run Green Garden Landscaping since 1994.
He said most Seattle homeowners let their lawns go dormant already. It’s mostly people with impressive yards in affluent enclaves like Magnolia and Laurelhurst who water throughout the summer, and many of them will ignore the city’s request, he said.
“Somebody who spends $50,000 to install a garden won’t want to risk that investment,” Levari said. “They won’t comply.”
For clients determined to save their shrubs and flowers, Levari recommends drip irrigation systems as a water-saving alternative to conventional sprinklers.
Installations of drip systems by his company have increased 40 to 50 percent in recent years, as have plantings of drought-tolerant flora, he said.
10 percent goal
Seattle, Tacoma and Everett officials will publish a first update on whether customers are meeting the 10 percent goal during the week of Aug. 24.
Officials for each system are making operational changes and activating supplemental water supplies, they said.
Chen said Seattle is dipping into wells near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and making early preparations to pump water up from the bottom of reservoirs if need be.
SPU is working with Seattle Parks and Recreation to reduce irrigation in some areas, and some city agencies are holding off on washing their vehicles.
“We are confident our customers will be able to reduce their water use by 10 percent,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said in a statement. “We are asking for this reduction to ensure that we have enough water for both people and fish.”
Bob Everitt, a regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted that fish are being stranded across the state because of low water levels.
“It’s been an unprecedented year for low stream flows,” he said. “We would greatly appreciate any reductions in water usage that would save water for more in-stream flow.”
Seattle officials kept more rainwater than usual in the system’s reservoirs this past winter and spring because they knew less snowpack in the mountains would mean less snowmelt running into the reservoirs for the summer, Chen said. Then customers responded to record summer temperatures by using more water than usual.
The water level in the Chester Morse Lake reservoir in eastern King County is nearly four feet lower than normal, according to SPU.
“We saw very hot and dry conditions in May, June and July, and our water demand is pretty correlated to the weather,” Chen said. “We had demand 20 to 30 percent higher than normal. Now the weather has moderated a bit, but we’re still seeing water use 10 to 20 percent higher than what would we would expect with normal weather patterns.”