Sunday, August 16, 2020

How seriously should residents take local irrigation bans?

Water is at a premium this summer as heat bears down, rain remains an inconsistent presence, and more people are staying home during the pandemic than in past years. In some communities, town water departments have begun to impose limitations on the amount of water residents use to keep their lawns green and gardens blooming.
One community in Massachusetts alerted its residents that water demand was 20% greater than last year and that the town is beginning to tap into its storage tanks to meet demands. As a result, in late July, the town's selectmen voted to ban the use of all automatic irrigation systems until further notice, unless those systems drew water from a private well. A first offense would result in a warning and any following offenses would result in fines and the resident's water service being shut off. Handheld watering is not banned.
As the ban took effect, some residents reluctantly obeyed calculating that conserving water was for the greater good of their community. Others wondered how the town could possibly enforce the ban given that the most frequent time for built-in irrigation use was in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark and difficult to monitor, doubting that the water department would take the time to track water usage for each resident. Still, others thought it would be unfair if they complied while their less civic-minded neighbors ignored the ban altogether.
But the two most frequent questions I've heard from this particular town's residents were: Should I just keep watering and only shut the irrigation system off after receiving my first notice? And: Should I report neighbors whose sprinklers I continue to see going off after the ban begins?
Technically, if your only goal is to avoid fines, waiting to turn off their irrigation until after the first notice seems OK since there are no fines assessed. The stakes only get higher on subsequent infractions. But while this approach may work to be able to keep watering and avoid having all water shut off to the house, it misses the point of the ban. The sooner the town's water usage returns to sustainable levels, the sooner the ban gets lifted. Continuing to automatically irrigate until caught likely only prolongs the ban, penalizing those who do comply and putting the town at risk for a continued water shortage. At best, it's unneighborly and poor stewardship.
Now for the second question. It may be annoying to see your neighbors' sprinkler systems going off, but it should be the town's role to monitor residents' irrigation usage and to cite them if they run afoul of the ban. Unless a neighbor posts a sign, it seems impossible to determine by sight if they are using town water or well water. Neighbors reporting neighbors without sufficient knowledge seems just as likely to create ill will as it does to resolve the town's water shortage.

What does seem fair is for any residents that are truly concerned about the water shortage to ask the water department how it plans to monitor irrigation usage to ensure the ban can be lifted as soon as possible. The town doesn't make that clear on its public notice. We don't have a right to police our fellow citizens, but we do have a right to demand transparency from leadership. The right thing is for residents to comply with the ban as soon as it goes into effect and for the town to make clear to them how the ban will be enforced. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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