Raleigh began 2008 with water levels in Falls Lake, its drinking-water source, at an all-time low for January.

Now Raleigh City Councilor Russ Stephenson is promising a serious look at sweeping conservation policies, including a tiered-rate system for water customers, while Council considers a possible de facto moratorium on new-home water hookups.

Two years ago, an advisory water conservation task force recommended a tiered system, following the droughts of 2002 and 2005. The previous council ignored it.

Composed of citizens, the task force recommended a 40 percent surcharge on customers using more than a “base” amount of water per month. (Mayor Charles Meeker recently proposed 50 percent surcharge on all water usage, which council has rejected.) However, Stephenson says a flat surcharge regardless of family size strikes many people as unfair and would especially impact low-income families hard. “While for people of means, going from $30 a month to $45they wouldn’t even know it,” Stephenson adds.

An alternative might be to establish a base amount that accounts for the number of household users (a family of four equals four users), but with a larger surcharge for exceeding it; in one water-short West Coast community, Stephenson says, the surcharge for excessive use is eight times the base rate.

Thomas Crowder was one of two council members calling for a tiered-rate system after the 2002 drought. (The other was Janet Cowell, now a state senator.) “We’re having to look at emergency steps today because of the failure of previous councils to develop a long-term strategy for water conservation,” Crowder says.

The previous council also failed to curb lawn watering last summer, waiting until late August to cut the number of permitted watering days from three to two per week. Not until Oct. 23 did the city prohibit lawn irrigation using sprinklers, but hand-watering the grass is still allowed.

Stage 2 restrictions would prohibit hand-held hoses, but since Christmas, City Council has twice postponed implementing the ban. It’s expected to debate the issue again Feb. 5.

Unless the Council amends the rules, Stage 2 would force car washes to close unless they can recycle water. It would impose a de facto moratorium on new-home water hookups: Houses could be built, but wouldn’t be eligible for certificates of occupancy.

These new hookups consume substantial mounts of water. Builders use an estimated 1 million to 2 million gallons each day, two days each week, to flush out new water mains. The Raleigh system’s average daily usage is 40 million gallons, according to Dale Crisp, public utilities director. And the city provides the flushing water free.

Stephenson, chairman of the council’s public works committee, says he expects the homebuilders association to propose alternative conservation methods this week to stave off the hookup moratorium.

The task force also recommended going to first-stage conservation measures sooner, anticipating the prospect of droughts rather than waiting for them to materialize. That recommendation, too, was ignored.

Unless Raleigh wants to bring the homebuilding industry to a halt, Crowder warns, the city must enact such measures as landscaping standards to require drought-resistant plants in place of lawns; separate water mains in new developments for drinking water and irrigation, with the latter supplied from recycled “gray” water; and incentives for on-site irrigation systems using rainwater, like the one installed last year by his new colleague, Councilor Nancy McFarlane.

McFarlane installed a system of gutters and cisterns when she renovated a building in North Raleigh last year for her pharmaceutical supply business. “It’s a 6,000-square-foot, one-story building on one and one-third acre of land, and we did use drought-resistant plants,” she says. “What’s amazing to me is that one inch of rain captured from half of the roof surface supplies enough water to irrigate the entire lot for three months.”

Such systems should become commonplace in Raleigh, Crowder thinks. “If we want to be a leader, if we want to be a ‘green city,’ which we fall well short of being, we’d better start to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”