Public bathrooms could be closed and public gardens left to dry out if drought intensifies

The garden might be a little browner. Otherwise, life in a drought-ravaged San Francisco is mostly the same as it ever was.

That’s about to change.

Restaurants and businesses are now on notice to stop the nightly ritual of hosing down sidewalks and floor mats, and lawns and cars must be left to brown and be dirty, with fines of up to $500 for violators.

City officials still aren’t sure who has the authority to levy fines, or if neighbors will be expected to monitor each other’s water use and report scofflaws to authorities (nor is the exact “authority” in charge clear, either). But, that’s just the beginning.

If the current California drought – already the worst dry spell in a generation – continues or worsens, The City could see its public bathrooms closed, water for public gardens and community farms shut off, and streets left to fester in filth.

These worst-case scenarios sound far-fetched and better suited for a disaster zone than one of the county’s richest and most expensive cities.

Yet they are being pondered by city officials — should water use restrictions be increased significantly after another dry winter — according to documents and interviews.


The state is now in its seventh month of an official drought emergency, after three straight very dry years (including, according to some metrics, the driest water-year on record).

Mayor Ed Lee in February asked everyone in The City – city workers, visitors, and homes and businesses – to reduce their water consumption by ten percent.

Gov. Jerry Brown went one step further, urging all Californians to cut water use by 20 percent.

Instead, the state consumed more water, the State Water Resources Control Board announced last week.

In San Francisco, water was been cut by more than 10 million gallons a day this summer following a free-flowing spring that led officials to warn of the possibility of mandatory use restrictions, with attendant penalties and fines.

But fueled by an 8 percent increase in Southern California, where the majority of the state’s 38 million people live, the state used 1 percent more water in the first half of 2014 despite significant reductions in the Bay Area and in The City.


In response, regulators on Tuesday approved fines of up to $500 for urban water users who spray down sidewalks, wash cars without a shutoff nozzle-equipped hose and water gardens so excessively to cause runoff.

There were fears that those restrictions would extend to The City’s street cleaners, like the Department of Public Works crews who last year steam-cleaned human waste off of city streets 8,000 times.

However, The City asked for, and received, an exemption to keep washing streets for “public health” considerations, said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages the water supply.

By Aug. 1, the SFPUC hopes to figure out if it has the authority to issue fines to water scofflaws. Repeated warnings will likely precede any fine, Jue said.

The City does have a supply of recycled wastewater available at its treatment plant in the Bayview neighborhood. Recycled water can be used without triggering use restrictions, Jue said, and that water’s currently being used in the Department of Public Works’s largest 9,000-gallon “flusher” trucks.

State health law, however, prevents recycled water from being used to clear sidewalks of filth.

DPW hit its 10 percent reduction goal this year. But “if the drought worsens, we are likely to see a dirtier City,” said Rachel Gordon, an agency spokeswoman. “We hope it doesn’t get to that point.”


Worse-case scenarios would significantly change life in The City, possibly to the detriment of public health.

The City’s biggest municipal water users – the airport, Rec and Park, the Housing Authority and the PUC – haven’t yet met their ten percent reduction targets. Rec and Park, tasked with maintain The City’s varied and complicated green inventory, has cut water use only one percent.

In a June memo to Recreation and Park Department general manager Phil Ginsburg, park staffers outlined the measures that could be taken if water use restrictions became 20, 30 or even 50 percent.

Water could be cut off to Alemany Farm and community gardens, bathrooms could be shut down, and large, expensive areas of lawns – including just-planted turf in Civic Center and Marina Green – could be left to die.

Those are all worst-case scenarios still far away from reality, Ginsburg told The San Francisco Examiner. But with every dry day and every sprayed sidewalk, they become realer.

“We’re all learning the rain dance,” Gordon said.


San Francisco’s water users have cut their water consumption by about 10 million gallons a day, a decrease of more than ten percent from last year.

But Gov. Jerry Brown has asked Californians to cut water use even more, by 20 percent.

If mandatory water use restrictions of 20 percent or more are put into effect, cutting off water to community gardens, letting expensive lawns die and closing all bathrooms and sinks may be the only ways The City can meet the goal.

If water use restrictions get more severe, The City could be forced to:

*Stop washing streets and sidewalks;

*Close public bathrooms on Recreation and Park Department property, like in the Panhandle, Dolores Park, and Golden Gate Park;

*Shut off sinks in other public restrooms in buildings;

*Let turf brown-out at

-Washington Square

-Alamo Square

-Civic Center (a recent $250,000 investment)

-Marina Green ($450,000)


-Larsen Park

*Cut off water to community gardens and Alemany Farms;

*Replant lawns with drought-tolerant Kikuyu grass, which is classified as an “invasive species.”

Sources: Recreation and Park Department, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Department of Public Works

Drought Memo to General Manager Phil Ginsburg on Further Measures:

DV.load(“//”, { width: 640, height: 840, text: false, container: “#DV-viewer-1223060-drought-memo-to-gm-on-further-measures” }); Drought Memo to General Manager Phil Ginsburg on Further Measures (PDF)
Drought Memo to General Manager Phil Ginsburg on Further Measures (Text)

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