California gears up to fine water wasters: Should we turn our neighbors in?


Five years ago, when south-central Texas was suffering through its driest year in more than a century, public officials in the city of San Antonio turned in desperation to a new tactic to enforce water conservation: They dispatched the police. From April of 2009 and on through the rest of the year, off-duty officers and other city employees prowled neighborhoods looking for over-green lawns, leaky hoses and inveterate sidewalk-washers, issuing tickets to observed offenders. The city also set up an online form residents could use to report their neighbors, just in case the authorities let one slide.

"We don't go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that,” San Antonio Water System spokeswoman Anne Hayden said back then. “But we do take the report and send out a letter saying, 'You've been reported for not following water rules.'"

Sprinkler on the sidewalk. Photograph by Flickr user Jeremy Price.

The gambit may have seemed extreme at the time, but it worked. The city used no more water in 2009 than it did in 1984, even with nearly twice the population. By 2011, the “water police,” along with other aggressive conservation policies, had driven the city’s water use down 130 gallons per person per day — about two-thirds of the state average. San Antonio’s now-permanent conservation ordinance has kept the water level in the Edwards aquifer stable enough to sustain both an endangered blind salamander and the city’s drinking water supply through successive years of drought.

In California, state and local officials have long been mulling a way to achieve a similar kind of success, and persuade the state’s residents to stop wasting water in this third driest year of the century. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, asking the state’s residents politely to reduce their water use by 20 percent. It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up.

So on Tuesday, the State Water Control Board decided more draconian measures were in order. The agency directed local jurisdictions that don’t already have mandatory water restrictions in place to adopt them: No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers. And it authorized local agencies to fine water scofflaws as much as $500 per day.

Will it work? Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the University of California Los Angeles, has done a lot of research into why people waste water during droughts. She has found that rate increases work, except when “price insensitive” wealthy residents – some of the West’s biggest water squanderers – choose to ignore them. Water budgets for consumers, like those adopted by the cities of Boulder, Colorado and Santa Rosa, California, are even more effective: If you use more than it appears that you need, your rate shoots up dramatically.

But mandatory water restrictions only work if they’re enforced. The City of Los Angeles reports that water use has dropped 17 percent since 2007, and mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use have been in place since 2009. Anecdotal observation, however, reveals the prohibition on driveway-washing to be about as effective as the law against fireworks on the 4th of July. In the crowded slice of coastal Los Angeles I call home, broken sprinkler systems still overwater boulevards — sometimes so thoroughly that trees topple from saturated roots. Nor do the limits curtail the 30-minute showers my neighbor takes every morning. The restrictions govern only outdoor water use, where 60 percent of the water goes. Overlong showers remain beyond their scope.

Pincetl thinks there might be a better approach, both farther-reaching and less mean than punitive fines and Stasi-like neighbor-spying: Garden-variety public education. “I think we’ve lacked leadership (on water use),” says Pincetl, whose name is pronounced with a silent “t”. “We don’t have examples among our religious leaders, our political leaders or our media leaders of people taking the drought seriously.”

The governor asked for conservation, but  “it’s not like the rabbis of L.A., or the Catholic Archdiocese or Ellen DeGeneres or any of these people who have prominent positions ever said anything about it. He needed to pick up the phone and call people,” Pincetl says. “He needed to say, ‘Help me out with this.’”

Pincetl advises against “drought-shaming” – confronting neighbors over their flagrant water crimes. “There’s a couple down the street from me, they’re Estonian, and probably suffered greatly in World War II.” When she gently corrected the woman in the couple for watering the sidewalk, “she blew up at me,” Pincetl says. It accomplished nothing.

“This is a campaign,” she says. “This about understanding we live in a water restricted environment. We need signs at libraries and grocery stores. We need Trader Joes” – a popular discount grocer – “to post messages about it.”

For the City of Los Angeles and its utility, however, the time for messaging alone to work may be over. LADWP officials have been staffing up their Water Conservation Response Unit since April, and within a few weeks they plan to deploy staff to move past neighborly warnings and “fix-it” tickets to levying meaningful fines. First offenses will still get a warning (with pictures). After that, though, homeowners can expect $100 to $300 per violation, and owners of commercial buildings might incur fines as high as $600.

Even Pincetl admits that repeat violators might deserve pricey tickets at this point: "We're in a drastic position now," she says, "because we desperately need to conserve." In the future and going forward, however, it might be wise for communities to develop “a more integrated set of strategies. If you haven’t exhausted all the remedies,” she says, “going from zero – doing nothing – to fining people? It just seems a little churlish.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News and is based in southern California. She tweets @judlew.

J Dusheck
J Dusheck
Jul 18, 2014 09:31 AM
Living in Santa Cruz, CA, as I do, I am frustrated by the way people are reporting the water usage stats. Here included. "It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up." Actually, what happened is that vast areas of the state reduced water consumption by 8 to 13%, typically about 10%. But the LA - San Diego corridor increased consumption by 8% and there are so many people down there that it swamped the efforts of the rest of the state. Southern California and California are not synonymous. Meanwhile, places like San Francisco and LA don't actually have any water restrictions in place. That sends a message that there's nothing really to worry about. They can fine people for "wasting" water, but they aren't fining people for using more than a given allotment (unlike in the city of Santa Cruz). Otherwise, great and important story!
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jul 18, 2014 11:57 AM
Hi J Duscheck, and thanks for your comment. I'm not quite sure what you're so frustrated about, though: According to the California water board's numbers, statewide water use in the month of May 2014 was up by 1 percent over water use in the month of May the previous three years; in the places where it declined, like the Bay Area, it declined by only 5 percent.

Nor is the "LA-San Diego corridor" all to blame. Santa Barbara's water use rose by 8 percent, even while the Central Coast shows an overall 10 percent decline. And while water use in the desert cities might have declined a bit, it was huge to begin with. A 10 percent decline from 300 gallons per person, per day, is still an awful lot of water.

It's actually Los Angeles that's getting a raw deal in most reporting, yours included: As I write in the post, Los Angeles *does* have water restrictions in place — the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power already had its own procedure in process to ticket and fine water wasters before the state water board ruled. Per capita daily water use in LADWP's territory is 129 gallons – not as low as your city's at 96 gallons per person per day (and bravo for Santa Cruz), but way under the statewide average of 196, and right around Humboldt County's at 120.
J Dusheck
J Dusheck
Jul 19, 2014 10:33 AM
Here is a map from Bay Area News Group that shows which regions were saving in May and which were not. When I said the LA-San Diego corridor, I was referring to the large region that includes Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego and many other cities. Sorry for the confusion. Except for coastal Southern California and the Reno-Tahoe area, the rest of California reduced water use voluntarily at least a little.


As for the new restrictions, they do not limit water use.

For example, the water allotment in Santa Cruz is 250 gallons per day for single family residences. For multifamily apartments, it's 175 gallons/unit/day.
Penalties as follows:
• First offense – written notice and opportunity to correct the violation
• Second offense - $100 penalty
• Third offense - $250 penalty
• Fourth offense - $500 penalty and installation of a flow restrictor at customer’s expense

This is actual water rationing. I was under the impression that Los Angeles was not rationing water. You are saying otherwise?
The new state "restrictions" are barely restrictions at all.
"No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers." In effect, the state is saying, if you are going to waste water, don't let it run on paved surfaces. Don't be so obvious about it!

It doesn't say anything about reducing water use.
J Dusheck
J Dusheck
Jul 19, 2014 10:36 AM
Whoops! It doesn't included Santa Barbara. My mistake.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jul 20, 2014 07:45 PM
Hi J - Yes, I've seen that map in many places. I was actually going to post that map with the blog, but because it lumps places together (like Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, San Diego and Los Angeles) that have little in common water-wise, I didn't. There's too much variance within the "hydrologic regions" it designates.

I didn't say anything about "rationing." I used the word "restrictions."

Other than that, I think we're pretty much in agreement about everything. As you already understand from reading the blog post, my neighbor's 30-minute showers remain above scrutiny. It's true that people use the most water outdoors, but still.
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Jul 21, 2014 04:41 PM
While responsible citizens are wringing their hands about urban water use and considering "turning in their neighbors", corporate agriculture is flooding almond orchards and spray irrigating alfalfa fields in the Central Valley (in 100 degree temperatures) with hardly a thought about conservation. We are told that we have to ask for a glass of water at a restaurant while the ag industry sucks up all the taxpayer-subsidized water they can get their corporate lips on. 70/80 per cent of water used in California is used by agriculture, and the big users are not the "small family farmers" we hear so much about from ag industry spokespeople. In the third year of a drought, Big Ag is collapsing groundwater aquifers in the Central Valley so they can export almonds or grow alfalfa to feed livestock. Maybe the "water cops" should write them a ticket? Oh, silly me, there are virtually no laws in California that regulate ag use of water.