Plans for a new home have prompted the Inverness Public Utility District to update its rules for new water connections during a drought. If the latest version of regulation 117 is approved, property owners would be allowed to connect to the water system only if they agree to defer landscaping. 

The change is one of many that water districts are making these days as suppliers grapple with how best to conserve water amid a historic drought. Banning new connections is one way, but it is largely symbolic when compared to conservation measures by existing customers. 

“We know the big draw in our usage is outdoor watering, not toilets, so why not make it easier for the handful of folks that are affected?” said Wade Holland, the district’s customer services manager.

Nicole Bartolini and Joshua Garcia purchased an undeveloped property on Vision Road in January with plans to build a family home next spring. The property had permits and planning approvals, and they said they were unaware when they made the investment that IPUD had banned new connections—a move it made last July. 

The couple asked the board of directors for an exception, offering to defer landscaping until after the water shortage emergency ended. But regulation 117 allows only for an unconditional exception or a denial, so the board did a bit of administrative gymnastics. Dakota Whitney recused herself from a vote because she is too close with the owners, and Kathryn Donahue was absent at the May 26 meeting. Brent Johnson and Ken Emanuels voted to deny the appeal, and Dave Press voted to make the exception. Without a majority of the board on either side, a decision was delayed until June 3, when Ms. Donahue joined the meeting, and the appeal was denied by a 3-1 vote. 

At the same time, the board agreed to update regulation 117 at their June 23 meeting to allow for a deferred landscaping exception. “I understand this is sort of circular, folks, but we’ll get there,” board president Ken Emanuels said.

Once the new rules take effect, Ms. Bartolini and Mr. Garcia could move forward with building permits and construction. Because they are far from the nearest water main, they will have to install a 300-foot main and a fire hydrant to meet fire code.

Their appeal also led to changes in how the district communicates about water emergencies, because the two sides were at odds over whether the details were adequately publicized. IPUD advertised in the Light, sent brochures and emails to all customers, and included information in water bills and at the top of the website. Last summer, the town was blanketed with yard signs calling attention to the emergency. But Ms. Bartolini said she talked to multiple real estate agents and residents, and they knew about the water shortage but not about the moratorium on new connections. In response, IPUD will now inform other governmental agencies and local agents about restrictions. 

Three other properties in Inverness have applied for a water meter, but none of the owners hold the urgency felt by Ms. Bartolini and Mr. Garcia. One property already has a home built on it, so it presumably has access to private water. The other two properties are owned by the same person who has no immediate plans to build.

IPUD was already in the process of updating its drought rules to allow for more flexibility if water rationing is enacted. The board currently has three options: ration by meter, ration by resident or ration by a percentage reduction. The new ordinance additionally allows for rationing water on a per-person basis, with smaller allocations for larger households, or by giving each meter a baseline amount, with additional water allowed for each fulltime resident.

Any rationing program ultimately selected by the board would challenge staff. The district has just three people working on the operations side, and Mr. Holland and clerk Shelley Redding are running the show on the administrative side. Employees would be hard-pressed to read meters and process the data, communicate with customers and handle appeals on top of their usual tasks. Staff is recommending a temporary hire to manage rationing.

Similar conversations about new connections are underway at Marin Water, which serves the San Geronimo Valley and most residents in southern and central Marin. The implications are greater there because a moratorium would make it harder to build housing in areas that the Marin Countywide Plan intends for development. Staff estimates that a suspension would reduce consumption by less than 0.1 percent of annual water demand; by contrast, customers are being asked to reduce water use by 40 percent. The board is considering a moratorium, with exceptions for affordable housing projects. 

The North Marin Water District approved a suspension on new connections in Point Reyes Station, Inverness Park and Olema on March 16, with an exception if landscaping is deferred, like IPUD will have. The Bolinas Community Public Utility District has been operating with a moratorium on new connections since 1971, without exceptions.