Despite restrictions, lawn lovers water on
HINGHAM — Some water under cover of darkness, waiting until night’s protective curtain has fallen to turn on their sprinklers while the neighbors slumber.
Some are wealthy enough that, even when busted, they simply pay repeated fines and continue watering their lawn.
And still others resort to deception, putting up bogus “well water” signs so they can blast their sprinklers without drawing nasty scowls from neighbors and tickets from local officials.
Officials in towns that have imposed partial or total sprinkler bans say most residents have complied, letting their lawns go brown in response to the worst drought in more than a decade.
But there remains, officials say, a group of hardened sprinkler scofflaws who refuse to retire their sprayers and soaker hoses in order to maintain the ultimate suburban status symbol: the emerald-green lawn.
The refusal by some to abide by the restrictions has frustrated authorities in affluent communities where lush lawns are cherished and envied.
“It’s pretty blatant,” said Stephen Olson, director of operations at Aquarion Water Company, which serves Hingham, Hull and part of Cohasset. “During the middle of the day – the worst time to irrigate – someone has their sprinkler on. That’s a pet peeve of mine – that, and irrigating during a rainstorm.”
Nearly three-fourths of Massachusetts is experiencing a severe drought, ravaging corn crops, newly planted Christmas trees, and other agricultural staples, according to state officials.
To conserve water, local communities have adopted a patchwork of restrictions, with some banning all sprinkler use and others limiting sprinklers to a few days of the week.
The rules have led to inevitable tensions in lawn-obsessed Hingham, which has been laboring under a total sprinkler ban since Aug. 2.
Glenn Olsson, the police chief, lamented that residents have been calling police to report neighbors who are watering the grass, rather than handling the matter themselves.
“I hate to say it, but the days of walking over to your neighbors and saying, ‘Hey, you should probably take care of that’ – that doesn’t happen anymore,” Olsson said. “There’s no communication anymore.”
He also said the fines — which can rise to $294 in Hingham — are no obstacle for many wealthy homeowners who spend thousands on landscaping.
“They’ll pay it – what do you do then?” he asked at a recent meeting of South Shore officials held at the Aquarion Water Company in Hingham.
Olson, the Aquarion official, said the company has sent warning letters to its top 100 water users, reminding them that only hand-held hoses can be used to water lawns.
Aquarion has also fielded two dozen tips from residents alerting them to flowing sprinklers, and followed those up with warning letters.
Now, Olson said, the company may launch night patrols to catch culprits watering after dark.
“We have a lot of responsible citizens, so now we’re down to whatever percent are not,” he said. “How much energy is it going to take to squeeze that remaining percent?”
Norwell’s Water Department said it dispatched workers at night and caught about 200 sprinklers running in violation of its ban.
About 30 to 50 homes were repeat offenders, said Eric LaFramboise, treatment facilities manager at the town Water Department.
“There was a couple of cases where we did see them watering one day, and the very next day we saw them watering, as well,” LaFramboise said. First time-offenders were issued a warning. Repeat offenders were slapped with fines of up to $100.
Another point of tension: In many towns, homeowners with private wells are allowed to water their lawns as much as they want, while those who use the municipal water system must abide by local limits.
“It just seems very irresponsible,” said Bettina Siegel, a Wayland resident. She said she bikes past condominiums with “well water” signs where the sprinklers run so freely, water rushes into the street.
“They just want green lawns,” Siegel said. “And what does that do, especially in a drought?”
Many homeowners hope that by posting “well water” signs, they will avoid such complaints, as well as fines from the town. Some towns even require the signs.
But Rolf Gjesteby, chairman of Cohasset’s Water Commission, said residents have also been caught posting “well water” signs even though they use the municipal water system.
These scofflaws, when confronted, will take down their signs, he said, “and they’ll water at midnight anyway.”
Richard N. Palmer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that although their sources vary by location, many wells draw from the same groundwater that feeds municipal water systems.
Therefore, “it might well be appropriate to ask those with private water sources to follow the same sort of good-neighbor rules that everyone is being asked to follow,” he said.
Ultimately, local officials are hoping repeated warnings will soak in, and persuade even the most obstinate homeowners to turn off their sprinklers and let the grass dry and wither.
“Water is a finite resource,” said Carol A. Murray, interim director of public works in Manchester-by-the-Sea. “You’d think we’d look at California and say, we should learn from them.”