Infrastructure & Environment

California May Start Fining People $500 for Using Too Much Water

by | July 10, 2014
 

By Hudson Sangree
 
People who heavily water their lawns in the middle of a drought could end up paying a lot of green for that emerald grass.
 
California water authorities proposed emergency regulations this week that would prohibit wasteful lawn watering and car washing, with fines of up to $500 a day for residents who break the rules. The proposal also would grant police and other law enforcement officials broad discretion to write citations for water use they deem wasteful.
 
The dramatic move by the State Water Resources Control Board comes in response to the worst drought to grip California in a generation -- one that threatens to get worse if it doesn't rain this winter. Figures released last month showed that between January and May of this year, California as a whole cut its water use 5 percent compared to the same period over the preceding three years. That falls well short of the 20 percent reductions Gov. Jerry Brown urged when declaring a state of emergency in January.
 
"We're trying to deal with the fact that California is in this incredibly historic and severe drought and trying to figure out ways to increase our resilience and security," said water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus. "We've been lucky in the last 100 years or so that it has started to rain after three years of drought, but there's no guarantee that it will this time."
 
The board, the agency charged with overseeing California's complex system of water rights, will consider the proposed regulations at its hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday. The action is part of the board's continuing efforts to cut water use statewide, and water agency officials from across the state are expected to offer input.
 
Last week, board members unanimously approved emergency regulations aimed at quickly enforcing orders that water users with "junior" water rights -- those issued after 1914 -- stop diverting water from rivers and streams. The new regulations allow the board to impose fines of $500 per day through an expedited process for failure to comply with a curtailment order.
 
Those regulations heavily affect farmers. The latest proposal applies to urban and suburban homeowners who let their sprinklers run too long, resulting in runoff. It also targets those who hose down their driveways and sidewalks, or who wash cars without a shut-off nozzle on their hose.
Under the proposal, violations would be infractions punishable by fines of up to $500 a day, and anyone with authority to enforce laws could issue citations, including police and park rangers, according to water board officials.
 
"Any employee of a public agency charged with enforcing laws can write a ticket," said George Kostyrko, public affairs director for the board.
 
Lisa Brown, Roseville's water efficiency manager, said city officials would like to see that aspect of the proposal changed. Roseville put strict water rules in place this spring as its main water source, Folsom Lake, shrunk to half capacity. Repeated rule breaking is treated as an administrative violation, not an infraction, she said.
 
"Our attorney interprets an infraction as a criminal offense, which means citations would have to be issued by sworn police officers," Lisa Brown said. Currently city employees can enforce the watering restrictions, she said. "We're going to ask that language be amended."
 
It's also unlikely that Roseville would impose fines of $500 a day, she said. The city tries to educate residents about good watering practices and even hands out hose nozzles with shut-off valves. Only violators who don't respond to gentler tactics receive fines of $100, $200 and $500 for first, second and third citations, she said.
 
Lisa Brown said water agencies in the Sacramento region generally support tougher state rules, but agencies that feel they have adequate water supplies may be less enthusiastic.
 
"For us, the trigger was Folsom Lake dropping," she said. We instituted mandatory (cutbacks) in response to lower lake levels. Other agencies may feel they have sufficient water supplies to get them through the year."
 
The city of Sacramento has also instituted mandatory cutbacks, calling for a 20 percent reduction in water consumption and limiting landscape watering to two days a week. Terrance Davis, the city's drought manager, said the proposed state rules align with city regulations.
 
"We await the hearing on the 15th, like other water agencies, for additional clarification," Davis said.
Tom Cumpston, general counsel of the El Dorado Irrigation District, which supplies water to much of El Dorado County, said his district has rules similar to the state proposal, including a prohibition on overwatering and runoff.
 
"We already have mandatory restrictions on outdoor irrigation for our customers, and the prohibited activities are things we've long had in our anti-water-waste regulations," Cumpston said.
 
The conservation figures the water board released last month show disparity among regions in the state. The best conservation progress occurred among water agencies in the Sacramento Valley region, which reported a 10 percent savings from January through May. The worst was along the Central Coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which reported zero and 2 percent savings, respectively.
 
Some water agencies have told the board that conservation progress may appear small because they have been working for years to reduce water consumption as a general practice. Sacramento, which has a history of unrestricted water use, had more room to improve than some south state and coastal agencies that have long-standing water-saving programs.
 
At the Association of California Water Agencies, headquartered in Sacramento, spokeswoman Jennifer Persike said there is some concern among the 430 water providers the group represents about what she called an "unprecedented" proposal. Nevertheless, she said, the group generally supports the plan.
 
"We're in the camp that it's tough medicine, but we feel we're at that point in California where a crisis message needs to be sent to all Californians," she said. "We're in the third year of a drought, and it's serious. It's time to get people to wake up."

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) 

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