San Jose officials tighten water restrictions for new developments

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San Jose officials are restricting water use for new developments, but conservationists want to see the city take more aggressive steps.

San Jose councilmembers voted Tuesday to amend the city’s water efficient landscape ordinance—a 1993 rule which is periodically updated. City officials said there’s an urgent need for new developments to only install drought-tolerant landscapes, citing the extreme dry conditions affecting the Bay Area and the state.

The amended ordinance applies to any new residential or business project with a landscape area, and it bars the use of high-water use plants, such as Kentucky bluegrass. It also prohibits turf—with a few exceptions—and the use of water sprinkler systems.

Conservationists applaud San Jose for adopting stricter landscaping requirements, but say the city will need more stringent measures in the near future to save water, given the severity of the state’s drought.

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“I can only see it getting worse, not better,” Bryan Mekechuk, Monte Sereno vice mayor and a member of Water Rates Advocates for Transparency, Equity and Sustainability, told

San Jose officials declared a water shortage last October, following months of arid conditions across the Bay Area and much of California. Water wholesaler Valley Water approved a rate hike of up to 9.1% last May, and San Jose Municipal Water System increased the average rate for consumers in North San Jose and Alviso by 8%, and for residents in Evergreen and Edenvale by 12.7%. Some advocates are fighting San Jose Water Company’s attempt to increase rates for hundreds of thousands of customers.

Jeffrey Provenzano, deputy director of the water resources division in San Jose’s Environmental Services Department, said the city is encouraging people to convert their lawns to landscapes for native plants. In a presentation for the City Council, Provenzano highlighted the difference in maintaining a grass lawn versus a landscape of very low water-use plants: 37,975 gallons a year compared to 3,798.

Some conservationists believe the city may require people to rip up their lawns if the drought worsens, following the lead of Nevada, which mandated the removal of some ornamental lawns. Provenzano said that is unlikely to happen in San Jose, but noted it’s difficult to predict what actions will be necessary in the future.

“If we do not receive a decent amount of rain next winter, there could be even more water restrictions to the point where watering grass isn’t a viable option,” he told

Conserving water

Dennis Murphy, water and sustainable life director at Sustainable Silicon Valley, said San Jose struggles with residential water usage compared to neighboring San Francisco because more people have yards that need watering. He said the city’s measures are good, but need to be accompanied by people changing their water habits. He added the city needs to increase communication about water conservation.

“The biggest challenge is outreach,” Murphy told “Ultimately, how do they sell this from an awareness standpoint?”

Other environmentalists said San Jose may want to look to other California cities for inspiration on how to save water. Gladwyn d’Souza, conservation committee chair for the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, said Los Angeles implemented water microgrids, which help the city more effectively capture rain and stormwater. He also cited the Salesforce tower in San Francisco which reuses all water on site.

“As one of the largest cities in the state, San Jose really needs to begin to address these issues in the age of climate change, drought and wildfires,” d’Souza told

Newsha Ajami, chief development officer for research for earth and environmental sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, said residents can lessen individual water use by swapping out inefficient home appliances. She emphasized the public is not sufficiently aware of how dire conditions are becoming.

“This year you have to think about if you can keep your lawns green or not, but next year might be, ‘can I shower or drink water or cook?’” Ajami told “Thank god we’re not in any of these situations right now, we’re sort of managing, but the reality is the less water we use, the more water that’s left in the system in case next year is another dry year.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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