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Water, Water, Everywhere...

Although her establishment sits on a road named Water Street across from the Downtown Mall, Alice Kim, owner and manager of Oxo restaurant, has, like all Charlottesville restaurateurs, seen the resource for which her street is named become a precious and limited commodity in the past two months.

This week, Kim and her fellow restaurant owners around the city will finally be able to reconsider their drastic water conservation policies that they have been forced to implement this fall to comply with local water restrictions.

But now that the city has lifted its mandatory 20 percent reduction of restaurant water usage, will local restaurants return to providing tap water when customers sit down for a meal, or can Charlottesville residents still expect to receive only bottled water and eat off paper plates?

Early this week, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority announced local reservoir water levels reaching over 90 percent.This increase of over 30 percent in just a month's time has some local eateries ready to call it quits on costly water conservation efforts, while other restaurants are using this season's drought crisis as a turning point in how they will manage future water usage.

"We didn't make any specific water reduction requirements except that restaurants were not allowed to serve water except on request and that all restaurants reduce water use by 20 percent," said Amy Barton, Albermarle County water conservation program coordinator.

According to Barton, how restaurants complied with the restrictions was up to them. Some restaurants chose to run only full loads in dishwashers, turned off ice makers over night and, most noticeable to customers, switched to paper plates and only sold bottled water.

The last two modes of conservation perhaps were the most controversial and drastic measures taken and, now that water restrictions have been lifted, the measures that many customers wonder how they will continue to affect their dining experience.

For Kim, lifting of the restrictions provided a relief, but the concern remains that "we are far from over the drought."

When the city first approached local restaurants with restriction measures, Kim, along with two other local eatery owners, organized Project H2O. This coalition of 40 local restaurants worked together to create and adhere to a very drastic set of changes in their services, in order to cut water use.Among other changes, all participating restaurants immediately began implementing a policy of cutting tap water service, using paper and plastic plates, cutting fountain drink service and using hand sanitizers in bathrooms.

"We wanted to do something to show residents and the city and county officials that we cared," said Kim, who admitted that when her restaurant began serving meals, which average around $65 per person, on paper and plastic plates, customers were more confused than anything else.

"It was a bit of a novelty at first, but when we explained it was for the water restrictions people were really receptive," she said.

With the current restrictions lifted, Kim said her restaurant still plans to keep bottled water on the tables to encourage conservation, but will have tap water available upon request. Although purchasing water at the table may cost more for the customer than free tap water, Kim says the restaurant has not profited from the practice because of costs incurred from purchasing plastic and paper products.

"We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do," she said.

Yet Project H20 was not universally accepted among all local restaurants, some establishments found that cutting water consumption proved more effective when each restaurant instituted its own individual conservation measures.

John Archer, assistant general manager of the Downtown Grille, said his restaurant dropped water consumption by 28 percent while still using its own dishes and cups, being very prudent in dishwashing and shutting off ice makers.

"If the restrictions had got more stringent we were ready to close for a day rather than go to paper plates," Archer said.

Archer said his restaurant will do away with only offering bottled water and return to many of its pre-drought policies now that the water restrictions are lifted. The Downtown Grille charged 75 cents for unlimited bottled water during the worst of the drought restrictions, which cost the restaurant upwards of $100 dollars a day, he added.

"Some people were probably selling the bottled water to make a profit. We didn't," he said.

But Sean Thomas, manager of Rapture restaurant, which participated in Project H2O, said he disagreed with "people accusing restaurants of price gouging" by charging for bottled water. "It's ridiculous that some people are making a fuss over restaurants covering a cost."

Rapture is going back to offering tap water getting rid of their paper plates in the coming days, but Thomas is concerned that "people may forget about all this too soon."

Brian Helleberg, co-owner of Fleurie, another downtown restaurant that did not participate in Project H2O, also found ways to cut water on his own because of concerns that the use of paper plates would not mesh well with the restaurant's upscale nature.

But Hellenberg said he also recognized the potential for price gouging that the water restrictions might have allowed, and as such at the beginning of the drought, reduced the price of the one liter bottle of water that his restaurant offered from $6 or $7 to $2. He plans to keep the price at two dollars even with restrictions lifted.

Not all Charlottesville restaurant mangers, however, were completely supportive of restaurants who chose not to participate in Project H20. According to one local owner who did institute paper plate and strict bottled water policies, "the paper plates were worth it. People shouldn't worry so much about presentation, as they should about the environment. This drought isn't over yet."

Some restaurants even took what might be considered extreme measures to conserve. Mono Loco, a very active participant in the project, ordered Port-O-John toilettes and set them up outside the restaurant for patrons to use. Customers accepted the change relatively well, according to one Mono Loco manager, until the temperature dropped and the toilet seats began to get cold at night.

With the worst drought conditions now officially over, other managers see a need for an overhaul of city water practices to avoid similar scares in the future.

"I think we all learned something from all this," said Tim Burgess, owner of Bang, who was able to cut his water consumption by 50 percent through self-imposed restrictions. "It was very doomsdayish for awhile, but if we've been in a four year drought why did Charlottesville wait until the end of September to freak out?"

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