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.'"
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.