DROUGHT:

Calif. allows fines to force urban conservation, but cities aren't biting yet

California is giving local governments more authority over urban water wasters as the state's historic drought continues, but cities are loath to exercise their new powers.

Emergency regulations went into effect last week that allow water agencies to fine residents up to $500 per day per wasteful activity, including washing sidewalks, using a nozzleless hose to wash a motor vehicle and watering lawns to the point of causing runoff (Greenwire, July 16).

Cities aren't rushing to use the new authority, even though California is lagging behind the 20 percent conservation goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in January and the entire state is now classified as in severe drought or worse. Key reservoirs are less than half their historical averages for this time of year, and statewide water usage actually increased slightly in May compared with the previous three years, according to state data.

"It's really up in the air whether any local cities will say, 'OK, now that we have this authorization to issue an infraction fine of $500 a day, we'll just start doing that,'" said Marty Grimes, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which sells wholesale water and manages groundwater for 1.8 million people. "I don't sense that the cities are quite ready to go to that level."

The district has asked residents to reduce their water use by 20 percent in order to stave off overpumping of groundwater but cut usage by 12 percent between February and May. "That's not great," Grimes said.

The district has received about 150 calls to its drought hotline reporting water waste since the beginning of July and is now hiring 10 new water waste inspectors, but they still won't have the power to issue citations. District officials are meeting with their 13 individual retail water providers this week to see which ones have enforcement plans in place and can follow up on referrals.

"It's a very interesting time where we're going from this voluntary education phase to needing to ratchet it up to another level," Grimes said.

San Francisco is also behind on its goal of saving 10 percent, or 8 billion gallons, by the end of the year. As of last week, it had reduced its usage by 3.4 billion gallons. But penalties aren't yet on the table, a spokesman for the municipal utility said.

"Fines are a last resort," said Charles Sheehan, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "We're not just going to go fine someone; you have to talk to them, you have to educate them."

Conservation is on the uptick, he pointed out. Nearly 60 percent of the savings came in the past five weeks.

Nearby, the East Bay Municipal Utility District exceeded its 10 percent conservation goal last month, reaching 10.6 percent. It has added two enforcement officers and is having a board meeting next week to codify the state's list of prohibited activities. But it's not planning to issue fines. "We are opting not to use that enforcement tactic," said spokeswoman Abby Figueroa.

Some local governments have already been exercising their powers for months and have results to show for it. Since May 1 in Santa Cruz, families of four or fewer people have been on a budget of 249 gallons per day, and businesses are limited to outdoor watering one day per week. Households are charged penalties based on the amount of water they use above their allotment.

While customers have racked up about $500,000 in penalties so far, they are allowed to go to "water school" to waive them. The 2.5-hour class educates customers on how to read a water meter, how to find and fix leaks, and other water-saving behaviors. More than $300,000 of the penalties are due to be suspended, thanks to the education program, a city spokeswoman said.

The city has hired about a dozen extra staff to oversee the rationing, spokeswoman Eileen Cross said, and met its goal of reducing usage 25 percent in June and July. For outdoor water waste like filling swimming pools and washing sidewalks, the city has the power to penalize violators up to $500 for a fourth offense.

"In 19 out of 20 times that water waste is observed, customers are unaware of it," she said. "And they're anxious to remedy the problem. We've sent out many 'notices' but have only actually had to levy a few fines."

In January, Sacramento doubled its fines for outdoor waste violations to as much as $1,000 for a fourth offense. A spokeswoman couldn't say how many fines have actually been levied, since the city also allows violators to attend a water conservation class to waive the penalties. But the city reduced its water use 22 percent last month compared to the previous year, more than meeting its goal of 20 percent.

Los Angeles is maintaining its existing rules, in place since 2009, that allow fines of $100 to $300 for residential and $200 to $600 for commercial customers. But the city hasn't fined anyone yet this year, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokeswoman Michelle Vargas said. Rather, it has added a fourth employee to its team of on-the-ground water waste patrols, raised a rebate for lawn replacements from $2 to $3 per square foot, and launched a public information and advertising campaign.

'A politically hot potato'

The state water board's regulations enable agencies to issue fines, in the case that local governments don't already have the authority, but they don't mandate that fines be issued.

Water policy experts said the state is toeing a fine line between encouraging local governments to extract steeper reductions from their residents and giving them the latitude to pursue their own solutions.

A legal expert praised the water board's specificity of a $500 fine and the statewide nature of the requirements but said he didn't expect it to have much immediate effect.

"I think probably a lot of cities right now are thinking to themselves, 'We can't expect immediate compliance here,'" said Stanford University natural resources law professor Buzz Thompson, co-director of the school's Woods Institute for the Environment. "I'm sure they're also thinking to themselves, 'This isn't going to be very popular.'"

It's politically tricky to set a statewide mandatory target, another expert said, because some regions have been more diligent than others about conserving in wetter times, based on their natural hydrology.

"The start point of how you measure levels of conservation is going to be a politically hot potato," said Bruce Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford. "Southern California knew they had a water problem for a long time, so they've been better at conservation, capturing stormwater, creating reservoirs. Northern California, because they assume the water is there, they're starting from a different point."

Ordering local agencies to enforce restrictions also is a sensitive issue in times of budgetary constraints.

"There's enormous resentment in California about the state and their willingness to impose things on local government ... without providing resources," Cain said. "These unfunded mandate questions have a long history in state-local relationships in California, and the resentments are already built up. You're putting a match on a pile of tinder that's been building up for quite a while."

A prominent environmentalist criticized the state's response, saying regulators could do much more.

"If California and much of the West is suffering from severe drought, then why have the responses to it been weak and largely ineffective?" Peter Gleick, the president of the think tank Pacific Institute, wrote last week in an op-ed. "In short, we're in denial."

Gleick pointed to better measurement of water use and restructured water rates as areas ripe for improvement. "Even in wet years, we have serious unresolved water problems," he wrote. "If we fail to act, we will be at risk of waking up, turning on the tap, and getting nothing but air."

State water officials acknowledged their limitations. "We can't from Sacramento, with our staff, police the state," said Max Gomberg, a policy adviser with the State Water Resources Control Board. "The enforcement has to come at the local level."

If conservation doesn't kick in soon, Stanford's Thompson said, he expects cities to begin ratcheting up enforcement. "If there's scofflaws out there, I can't imagine they won't begin to come down with the $500 fines."

State water officials said they might take more steps later if conditions warrant. Other potential areas of regulation could include leak repairs, indoor usage, and commercial and industrial use.

"Think of this as phase 1," Gomberg said. "We're not going to end here. Certainly we're not going to end here if the drought conditions get worse and it doesn't rain a whole lot this winter."

Twitter: @debra_kahn | Email: dkahn@eenews.net

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