Monday, May 4, 2009 | Coming this summer to an inland neighborhood near you: Brown lawns.

Mayor Jerry Sanders unveiled a plan Monday to designate specific lawn watering days for all residents and businesses, a step one horticulture expert said would “absolutely” cause brown and dying lawns across the city this summer. The risk would be higher farther inland.

Sanders’ plan would allow residents in odd-numbered houses to water their lawns on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even-numbered houses would be permitted to irrigate Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Businesses, condos, apartments and homeowners associations would be allowed to water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“Today, we’re poised at the beginning of a new era in San Diego’s water history,” Sanders said.

The plan heads to City Council for consideration and possible approval Tuesday afternoon. It comes as the city faces mandatory water cuts from its suppliers for the first time since the early 1990s.

If approved, regulations would begin June 1 permitting residents to water for 10 minutes on each specified day and only between the hours of 6 p.m. and 10 a.m., when less water is lost to evaporation.

That won’t be enough to keep many lawns green, said Don Schultz, an instructor in the ornamental horticulture department at Cuyamaca College. Schultz said on average, lawns in San Diego need about 20 minutes of water three times a week to stay green. That depends on where residents live, the efficiency of their sprinklers and their lawn’s soil type.

“To apply half of what I’d consider the optimal water probably wouldn’t keep it green,” Schultz said.

The city of San Diego’s lawn-watering calculator recommends watering grass during the summer between 35-40 minutes weekly along the coast and between 48-50 minutes farther inland, where the climate is drier and warmer.

The 10-minute, three-times-weekly baseline was recommended by the San Diego County Water Authority to water districts across the county. John Liarakos, an authority spokesman, said three 10-minute cycles weekly should be enough to keep lawns green.

“If it’s done properly, if they’re doing it after dark, before early morning, it should be adequate,” Liarakos said.

Under the proposal, the city’s Water Department would spend $750,000 to hire 10 code enforcement staff — water cops — to investigate complaints of waste and ensure compliance. It will rely on neighbors to report waste. Alex Ruiz, the department’s assistant director, said the city would take a “progressive approach” to enforcement. While it could fine residents between $100 and $1,000 for violating the lawn-watering rules, the city will give residents at least two warnings before fining them.

Residents with efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, would be exempt. So would golf courses’ greens and tees.

The county water authority is restricting deliveries to San Diego and other local cities by 8 percent, as it copes with dry weather, low reservoir levels and Northern California pumping restrictions. If the city fails to meet that target — residents would need to improve on the 5 percent they voluntarily conserved last year — it will face financial penalties. The city has no means to pass those financial penalties on to its customers if they use too much.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye, who joined Sanders at a Monday press conference, said she believed city residents would respond. “I have a lot of faith in the public,” she said. “I believe they’ll actually take this to heart.”

Sanders had pushed earlier this year for a plan that would’ve established water budgets for each household based on their historical consumption — a plan criticized for its lack of fairness.

The city has turned away from that plan as the year’s water-supply picture has improved. Sanders said the city now has time to evaluate other options.

“This gives us an opportunity to review what we did, what’s out there,” Sanders said. “This is a great time to look at all the alternatives as we move forward.”

The city’s current plan has no guarantee of success. The state Department of Water Resources warned in a 2008 report that designated lawn-watering days don’t always work. “Some residents water on the designated days regardless of whether the landscape needs it,” the report states. “Others over irrigate their landscapes in the hope the irrigation will last longer. This overuse cannot be controlled by patrols.”

The report also cautions that confining lawn watering to nighttime hours, when residents are sleeping, can allow sprinkler malfunctions to go unnoticed.

San Diego’s Water Department will report to a City Council committee monthly on the success of lawn-watering days. Ruiz said the city should know how successful the effort has been by the fall. Water use is heaviest during the summer.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified one of the lawn-watering days for odd-numbered houses. We regret the error.

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