When neighbors become cops


It's a frustrating dilemma for many who conserve -- watching other people squander the resource you're trying to save.

Maybe you've installed a low-flush toilet and a low-flow showerhead, but how can you convince that wastrel down the street to fix her sprinkler and stop using a hose for a broom? Don't worry, help is available: Some water agencies in Southern California now offer conscientious residents a way to help police their neighbors. That frees up agencies that lack the resources to find water-wasters; now, their eyes and ears can live in the neighborhood.

Some agencies have tried an indirect approach that encourages locals to remind their neighbors rather than report them. This February, for example, the San Diego County Water Authority began printing and distributing door-hangers that residents can leave at nearby houses if they see water going to waste. The door hangers, also available online, inform the recipient of the nature of the transgression and remind him that "our region is facing a serious water shortage."

"The analogy we like to use is that if you saw someone with their taillight out, you'd tell them," says John Liarakos, a spokesman for San Diego's water authority. But with the drought worsening and supply cuts by California's sprawling Metropolitan Water District due to take effect later this year, the water savings haven't been enough. Now the city of San Diego Water Department, one of the water authority's largest customers, is planning both to start mandatory conservation and encourage residents to report waste.

It's a policy some other Western water agencies have already adopted. Las Vegas and Tucson, for instance, both fine water-wasters and encourage their customers to report those who break the rules. More recently, they've been joined by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Until last September, Los Angeles's water-use restrictions were rarely enforced. Even though it was a violation to water lawns between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the summer, there were no penalties, and some residents may not have even known about the regulation. Those times are over now.

"Conservation is not voluntary; it is absolutely mandatory," says Jane Galbraith, who works for the Los Angeles water department. Over the last seven months, the city's water conservation team has investigated some 5,500 incidents of water waste -- many of them incidents reported by residents -- and written 3,300 citations. Penalties are nothing to sneeze at and can range from a warning to a $600 fine for repeat offenders.

Tired of seeing someone else squander the water you're trying to save? Don't get mad, get even: Call 1/800-DIAL-DWP and the water cops will be on their way. Not everyone is happy about the new approach, of course; a few less-than-enthused San Diego residents, for instance, denounce it as the "water nazi" or "water nark" program. Not surprisingly, mandatory conservation is seldom popular.

It is certainly possible that an influx of anonymous door-hangers could start some interesting local feuds, just as it's conceivable that some who call to report water waste could have motivations unconnected with the drought. But issues of local "water nazis" aside, the idea stems from a simple premise: If you want to stop water waste, ask the neighbors to lend a hand. They already know who the offenders are. And often they'll be glad to help.

Ultimately, recruiting residents to keep tabs on each other could solve some of the challenges agencies face when promoting conservation. Public education campaigns may help raise awareness, but frequently they end up preaching to the converted. The people who pay most attention to messages urging water conservation are probably those who are already trying to conserve. And areas that already have instituted mandatory conservation or water-use limits often find that restrictions require lots of staff time and are difficult to enforce.

By asking locals to report on or simply remind each other about water use, water agencies hope to extend the reach of their conservation programs and increase their impact. Even if the idea isn't popular with everyone, it offers those who do conserve a way to give a nudge to those who don't.

Just how effective these new tactics will be remains to be seen, but for now, the message many Western water agencies hope to send is a simple one: "Water-wasters, beware. Your neighbors are watching you."

Jonathan Parkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in LaJolla, California. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.