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A ban on odd-even watering?

When a town imposes a water ban, a homeowner with a green lawn can be like a tavern patron at the end of the night, says Brutus Cantoreggi, Franklin's Department of Public Works director. It's not actual need that drives their thirst as much as the anticipation of a dry tap.

"It's kind of like last call," he said. "People end up focusing on what they're not going to be able to get. I actually saw [water use] increases when we put odd-even restrictions into effect."

For years, water conservation in Boston's western suburbs has relied on a hodgepodge of local restrictions with a mixed record of success, environmentalists and state officials say. Because the season has been so dry, 18 of the 37 cities and towns in the Globe West area have some sort of water-use restriction in effect, including four voluntary restrictions and 14 mandatory bans, ranging from a voluntary 3-day-per week restriction in Medfield to a complete ban on outdoor hose and sprinkler watering in Upton.

But now, faced with severely low levels in reservoirs and streams and ever-increasing pressures from development and population growth, local officials like Cantoreggi, state regulators, and some environmentalists are pushing for a more standardized regional approach that takes into account advances in water conservation and lawn care techniques.

One of those advances, Cantoreggi and others say, would be the elimination of the most popular type of restriction, the odd-even water ban. Currently in use in at least 11 communities, the ban typically allows homeowners with even-numbered street addresses to water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and those with odd-numbered street addresses to water on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, with no watering on Mondays.

In his experience, Cantoreggi said, the odd-even restrictions actually serve as a memory trigger for many homeowners, who end up watering more than they might have otherwise, not less. When he was the DPW director in Millis, he said, residential water use increased when the town put the ban in place.

In Franklin, he said, the town has put in place one of the toughest water bans in the area, a one-day per week restriction that environmentalists and state officials are holding up as a model. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year, Franklin residents are allowed to water their lawns only on the day of the week that their trash is collected.

Cantoreggi said the ban has been so effective that the town didn't need to put it into effect this year, but did so anyway to help condition residents to use less water.

"People have accepted it," he said. "People have less of a problem having a brown lawn if all the lawns on the block are brown."

Enforcement, however, remains a sometimes touchy issue. A few years ago, Cantoreggi and his crews issued about 30 water ban violation tickets (carrying a $50 fine) to people who ignored the ban, only to have virtually all of them dismissed by a district court judge.

"The clerk [of the court] came up to me and said that the judge wanted to know why I was wasting his time," he said. "I hate being the water police."

Nigel Pickering, a senior engineer with the Charles River Watershed Association, said recently that state officials are now frowning on odd-even bans, and will soon be pushing for tougher restrictions. Those regulations are expected to be part of a new state Department of Environmental Protection permitting process that will, for the first time, put standardized, population-based water use restrictions on most towns and cities.

After adopting new rules in 2004, the DEP is just now beginning to issue new water use permits to towns and cities in the western suburbs, Pickering said. (The limits will mostly affect cities and towns west of Route 128 that get their water from local reservoirs and wells and not from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.) For many towns and cities along the Charles and Concord rivers, that will mean a limit of 65 gallons per resident per day, averaged over the course of a year. Towns that go over the limit will be required to implement water conservation strategies.

Sudbury Water District Superintendent Al Renzi said that many people in that town will be due for a rude shock over the next two years, as Sudbury's water permit comes up for renewal. Water use in the town is well over 80 gallons per resident per day this year, and the town has seen only limited success with its mandatory odd-even watering restriction, currently in effect due to low well levels.

"We did notice a bit of improvement . . . but nothing dramatic," he said. "People just end up watering for longer periods. They're absolutely addicted to watering. It's ridiculous."

Duane LaVangie, chief of the DEP's Water Management Program, confirmed the tougher rules, saying that many communities with water use issues will soon be required to impose one- or two-day a week restrictions rather than the odd-even one.

While many suburbanites who moved from the city for the promise of a big expanse of green surrounding their house may not be thrilled with the prospect of seeing it turn brown in the summer, the new restrictions like those in Franklin are actually in line with advanced thinking on lawn care. Some specialists have told the DEP that watering deeply, but less often, actually encourages healthier, more drought-resistant grass, while limiting weeds, which have shallower roots.

"Every irrigation specialist we've talked to says that you can water effectively in one or two days per week," LaVangie said. "Up to now, people have just had their landscapers come early in the year, set their sprinkler systems to water every other day, and then just forgotten about it. That's just not acceptable anymore."

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