Water warnings, fines all part of enforcer's job

Staff WriterNovember 10, 2005 

Luis Sanchez had the garden hose in his hand, spraying down his seeded side yard.

He knew about the city's limits on water use, but his neighbor said a hand-held hose was OK.

City inspector Don Casterlin pulled up in his black Dodge pick-up with some bad news:

Don't believe your neighbor.

Seems you can water the lawn with a hand-held sprayer between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., but not in the middle of the morning.

Casterlin gave Sanchez a $50 citation. Sanchez said he planned to contact the city to get a special, 45-day permit that allows more frequent watering for new lawns.

"I was almost done, too," he said as he surveyed his hay-covered plot.

Casterlin is one of seven Raleigh inspectors who are checking homes and businesses for illegal water use. They'll spread out across Wake County all weekend and plan to begin checking for violators at night and in the early mornings.

The City Council approved mandatory water restrictions last week but gave water customers a week of warnings for first-time offenders before it started issuing $50 fines on Tuesday. Subsequent violations cost $500 apiece.

In the first week, the city issued about 65 warnings. On Tuesday, it handed out 14 $50 citations.

The rules, which limit lawn irrigation and ban other water uses such as car washing at home, stretch across the county. Raleigh provides water to Wake Forest, Garner and Rolesville; it sells water to Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, Wendell, Zebulon and Knightdale. Residents in those towns must comply with the rules.

Durham also approved mandatory water restrictions this month. Residents who do not adhere to the restrictions will get written warnings. If a violator fails to come into compliance a second time, the city could cut off water service to the home. Public works employees, who normally work around the city, are watching for violators.

A quick look at the drained coves and wide, sandy banks at Falls Lake, Raleigh's water source, highlights the problem.

The lake is nearly 8 feet below its banks. Rainfall for the year is about 8 inches below normal. Forecasters can't say when the region will get enough rain to fill its reservoirs.

In Raleigh, water use is about 50 million gallons a day, not much different from when the council approved mandatory restrictions. "That's really no change," said Dale Crisp, city public utilities director.

It was clear Wednesday morning that people hadn't gotten the message.

In about an hour, Casterlin had written four tickets. He found violations in nearly all the subdivisions he visited off Rock Quarry Road, including the first, Granite Ridge.

"Hello," he said, when he spotted sprinklers spurting water.

Four automatic sprinklers shot water across a front yard. Another sprinkler was irrigating a side yard.

Casterlin, tall and bearded with salt and pepper hair, walked up, rang a doorbell and waited.

Rico Montgomery, a machine operator, came to the door. He said he didn't know about the restrictions.

"I work a lot of hours," he said. "This is the first time I heard about it."

When he is not on drought watch, Casterlin catches people, mostly contractors, illegally hooked up to city water or investigates damage to water and sewer lines. He still is looking for those violators, and he found one Wednesday morning.

But right now he's focusing on usage violations. This week, he'll train a half dozen city employees, who drive around the city as part of their job, to spot violations.

To issue citations, inspectors must actually see violations. Wet pavement or water running down the gutter isn't enough.

Casterlin saw Fennel Deshield with a garden hose in his hand but didn't see water coming out of it. Casterlin gave Deshield a blue door hanger with the rules, but no citation. Deshield said he knew there were restrictions but didn't know what they all were.

"I wish they would put these on the doors to let people know," he said.

And what might seem an obvious violation isn't always so.

Casterlin's Nextel beeped with a question about North Ridge Country Club, which somebody said was watering its course. But North Ridge, like many other golf courses, doesn't use city water to keep its grass green. Grounds crews use water from the lakes in the neighborhood.

Another complaint this week came about a contractor washing off a street. Turns out the contractor had hauled water from elsewhere to prepare a street for paving, Casterlin said.

Back in Chastain, near Rock Quarry Road, Casterlin walked away from Sanchez's house to his truck and spotted another violation across the street. A sprinkler was spraying someone's front yard.

This time, nobody came to the door, so he hung a blue card on the door knob and jotted down the address in his log.

All citations come in the mail.

Casterlin knows what will solve the city's water problem quicker than a flood of citations. It's the same thing he escaped when he moved from his native upstate New York.

"I hate to say it," he said. "We need a hard winter."

Staff writer Sarah Lindenfeld Hall can be reached at 829-8983 or slindenf@newsobserver.com.

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