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California Adopts $500 Criminal Penalty for Water Waste

Water use deemed excessive – such as allowing landscape watering to spill into streets, and hosing off sidewalks and driveways – can be subject to fines of $500 per day.

by Matt Weiser, The Sacramento Bee / July 17, 2014
California's Folsom Lake is less than 20 percent full. FlickrCC/sjrankin

July 16 – It will now be considered a criminal act to waste water in California.

On Tuesday, amid evidence that existing conservation measures are not working, the State Water Resources Control Board took the unprecedented step of declaring certain types of water waste a criminal infraction similar to a speeding violation. Water use deemed excessive – such as allowing landscape watering to spill into streets, and hosing off sidewalks and driveways – can be subject to fines of $500 per day.

Californians as a whole have failed to conserve water during the worst drought in a generation, according to data reviewed by the board at its meeting Tuesday in Sacramento.

Residential and business water use in California rose 1 percent in May compared to a three-year average of the same month from 2011 to 2013, according to a recent survey of 276 water agencies. Those agencies represent about two-thirds of all urban water users in the state.

That is a long way from the 20 percent conservation target Gov. Jerry Brown set in his emergency drought proclamation in January.

"Not everyone in California realizes how bad this drought is," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. Speaking of the May data, she said, "Folks just didn't get how bad this is and how bad it could be. We are really in desperate times."

Officials acknowledge conservation may have improved since May, as the severity of the drought has come to broader public attention and more water agencies adopted conservation measures. Even so, as a result of these findings and the ongoing drought, the water board unanimously adopted mandatory statewide conservation rules that now apply to every municipal water agency in the state.

The temporary emergency rules require all municipal water agencies to ban the following uses of potable water, if they don't already:

--Direct application of water to wash sidewalks and driveways.

--Landscape irrigation that causes runoff to streets and gutters.

--Washing a motor vehicle using a hose without a shut-off nozzle.

--Using drinkable water in a decorative fountain unless it recirculates the water.

The measure requires water agencies to impose mandatory restrictions on outdoor watering, according to their existing regulations, if they have not already done so. For agencies that do not have such regulations on their books, the measure requires agencies to limit outdoor watering to two days per week.

"There are opportunities for everyone ... to do more for water conservation," said Max Gomberg, a staff analyst for the board.

The data on water conservation updates information first presented to the board in June. At that time, the data indicated the state cut water use 25 percent in May. But the board's staff on Tuesday said that report was missing critical data from major water providers in Southern California. The new report includes the additional data and paints a very different picture.

The report describes conservation by hydrologic region. The South Coast region, which includes major urban areas in the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolis, actually used 8 percent more water this May, the worst performance of any region in the state. The North Lahontan region, which includes the Northern Sierra Nevada, was the second-worst with a 5 percent increase.

The best performer was the Sacramento River region, including the Sacramento metro area, which cut water consumption 13 percent in May. The North Coast reduced its water use by 12 percent, and the San Joaquin River and Central Coast regions reduced water consumption by 10 percent.

Most water agencies addressing the board Tuesday said the new regulations are justified.

"These are fundamental actions that you're asking everybody to take, and we completely support them," said Martha Davis, executive manager at Inland Empire Utility Agency, which serves a number of communities in San Bernardino County.

The regulations apply to individuals, businesses and public agencies and are expected to take effect Aug. 1. Agriculture was specifically exempted. Violations are subject to fines of as much as $500 per day and would be considered a criminal infraction. Exemptions will be allowed for health and safety purposes, such as using water to remove human waste from sidewalks.

Officials said about one-fourth of California residents live in areas where such requirements are already in place. They said the severity of the drought necessitates expanding those requirement statewide.

"We have three-plus months of hot weather ahead of us before we even have a chance of rain," said Gomberg. "One of the things we're trying to do here is really alert everyone to the fact that this drought could go on. It could be dry next year. It could be dry the year after."

Some water agencies opposed the new rules, saying it sends the wrong message in cases where customers already have achieved significant conservation success. The $500 penalty, they said, is an overly crude tool that isn't necessary when gentler education methods have proved effective.

"What you're asking me to do now is to thank them with a sledgehammer," said Mark Madison, general manager of Elk Grove Water District, who said his customers have cut water use 18 percent on average.

Officials emphasized the $500 fine is not mandatory, but merely a new tool that can be deployed if necessary.

"These regulations are not precluding local agencies from exercising their own enforcement authority," said Gomberg.

The new rules also require water agencies, every month, to report the total amount of potable water they produce as well as the gallons consumed daily per person within their service area. The state now lacks this information, and the board concluded it is vital to monitor progress in responding to the drought.

A number of water agencies objected to this requirement, saying it is difficult to determine the population they serve. Water agency boundaries, they said, often don't mirror other government boundaries, such as city limits or census tracts. In some cases, the population served may change dramatically from month to month because of tourism.

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

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