healdsburg drought sign

As the drought wears on and lawns continue to brown in Healdsburg, where water restrictions are the most stringent, some residents are left wondering whether the city can issue a moratorium on new water hookups, however, the idea is more complicated than it seems.

At the June 21 Healdsburg City Council Meeting, Councilmember Skylaer Palacios, as well as some Healdsburg residents, asked if water hookups could be halted for new developments and housing.

The topic was also broached in a letter to the editor to SoCoNews.

In a letter to the editor from Brigette Mansell, Mansell asked the city to direct the city attorney to research and compose an emergency moratorium on water hookups for new and future development.

“I implore you to halt all new water hook ups in the city of Healdsburg until we have a viable plan to provide basic water for our city. This is prudent, not unrealistic,” Mansell wrote in the letter to the editor.

During the June 21 meeting, a resident who identified herself as Mary McDaniel also asked the council to consider some sort of moratorium.

“It is a tricky topic. We have projects that are in various stages of the development process and I think that would impact the feasibility to some degree,” Healdsburg City Manager Jeff Kay said when asked about the possibility of a moratorium on new water hookups.

Kay said if the city wanted to place a water moratorium on projects that are already in the works, the city would likely have to make a finding that a hookup prohibition would be absolutely necessary in order to protect public health.

“If you look at the big projects that are in the pipeline — the Saggio Hills/Montage project, the Mill District, which is under construction and the North Village — all of those are approved projects by the city and they have approved development agreements and various stages of vested rights,” Kay said. “But for projects like that, we’d effectively have to make a finding that it was absolutely necessary to do that to protect public health and I think that is a very high bar to pass.”

He said they would need to clear a “very high legal bar,” a statement echoed by city attorney Samantha Zutler during the June 21 council meeting.

“Most of the new developments, certainly the larger projects, have already been entitled and are subject to a development agreement. It would be challenging for the city to impair those developments by not allowing them to hook up to water. If we were to take measures like that, we’d want to spend some time figuring out those measures,” Zutler said.

Kay said it would also be difficult in terms of looking at it from a housing perspective.

“In our obligations with the state to meet our housing goals, I think it would be hard to argue that we get a pass from doing our part to address the housing crisis just so we can preserve (water),” Kay said.

During the June meeting, Zutler said that if the city were to consider a moratorium, they’d also have to look at if they would want to discourage market rate housing and put in more housing regulations in addition to the city’s Growth Management Ordinance, which already limits the amount of housing development that can occur.

There’s also the question of if a water hookup moratorium would even make a big enough difference in water savings.

“Certainly not in the short term,” Kay said. “There’s nothing expected to be hooked up in the next few months, certainly not this year. I do appreciate people thinking about this in the long term, but a new development at this time is not predicted to move the needle a ton in terms of our water usage.

Additionally, new developments are required to follow certain water efficient building codes.

“New projects are required to be highly efficient. You’ll see in all of our approvals principles of an LID, a low impact development, and there is a state and a local water efficient landscaping ordinance which is a requirement for all of them,” Healdsburg Utility Department Director Terry Crowley said during the June meeting.

Whether someone submits plans to the city building department for a home kitchen remodel, the construction of an accessory dwelling unit, or for a large housing development, the plans must follow three main codes that are embodied in the Healdsburg municipal code, according to Luke Sims, the city’s interim community development director.

“It applies to new development in Healdsburg and in certain circumstances some of these codes also apply to a person who may be making a major remodel or are doing a kitchen expansion if they are a commercial use,” Sims said. “Every city in California, Healdsburg included, must meet the California Green Building Standards and they also must meet the requirements of the California plumbing code and each local jurisdiction includes them when they adopt local building codes. They lay out the things related to potable water … and it limits and restricts how much water gallons per minute obtained from a shower head, from a sink, from a bathroom sink and from the flushing of a toilet, so all of those things are regulated by the state.”

In other words, new developments and additions and homes have to use water efficient fixtures and when the building department receives plans they review them to ensure the plans meet the codes.

After a permit is issued and the buildout is complete, a city building inspector visits the site and inspects the building fixtures to make sure everything they installed and constructed is up to code.

A similar process is used for the landscaping codes, which lay out water budgets specific to each parcel and dictates how much water can be used, how it's used and what plants can be propagated.

“Without a doubt, California is one of the most farsighted states in terms of looking ahead and putting in place standards that promote and require water efficient buildings,” Sims said.

Kay said he thinks it is appropriate for the city to look at future projects in the context of the city’s water supply.

“It may be appropriate to consider placing even higher conservation requirements on new projects given the specifics of our water situation, but there is nothing coming down the chute in the very near term as far as major development proposals,” he said.

He added that so far, Healdsburg is doing better in its water conservation efforts.

“We’re doing such an amazing job with conservation right now and I’m really impressed and appreciative of that,” Kay said.

As of Sunday, June 20, the seven-day running average in water reduction percentage was in the 30% range.

“We’ve been running seven-day averages of our usage and we were in the high 30s in terms of our percentage of reduction from the last few years in water usage,” Kay said at the June 21 city council meeting.

On July 2, the city announced that in that past week the city had achieved a 44% reduction in water use.

“Compared to 2020, we saved 7 million gallons over the last seven days. Our community has really stepped up to meet the challenge. This accomplishment helps extend Healdsburg’s limited water supply into the fall and potentially prevent further water restrictions later this summer,” the city wrote in a statement that was posted to their Facebook page.

“With sacrifices and conservation efforts, we can make drastic reductions in our water usage,” Kay said.

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