By James Poulos.
With California residents and wildlife struggling to cope, officials have introduced a fresh round of crackdowns on water consumption, dealing a blow to farmers and municipalities thirsty for more.
Water suppliers braced for fines in areas where consumption didn’t hit aggressive targets set by Gov. Jerry Brown. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “16 water suppliers missed their conservation targets by 15 or more percentage points and will be contacted by water officials for an explanation, as well as corrective actions, within the next two weeks,” according to officials.
Californians have made strenuous efforts to comply. “Data released by the State Water Resources Control Board showed that Californians had reduced their water consumption by 59 billion gallons compared with June 2013, indicating what officials called a fundamental change in water-use habits,” the Times added.
But that hasn’t stopped regulators from pushing harder to ferret out the offenders. At a new website, savewater.ca.gov, Golden Staters can snitch on their neighbors with “details and photos of water waste,” the Associated Press reported. “Complaints are then sent to local government agencies based on the address of the offense.”
A reversal in court
Water guzzlers have more to fear than new websites, however. Farmers hit by tightened taps recently faced another setback as relief they sought from regulators was rejected in court. “In a closely watched case with statewide implications, a Sacramento Superior Court judge declined a request by the West Side Irrigation District, a small agency in the Delta, for a preliminary injunction that would have reined in the State Water Resources Control Board. The state board is pursuing fines and other enforcement actions against West Side and a few other water districts over allegations of illegal pumping,” the Sacramento Bee noted.
The decision served to put farmers and suppliers on notice that water policing would increase. Already, the Water Board “has sent thousands of letters to farmers, water districts and corporations holding rights to divert water from rivers and streams,” the Associated Pressobserved, indicating “supplies were running too low in the fourth year of drought to meet demand.”
Punishments could be severe. “Suppliers that repeatedly fail to meet their savings targets could face fines of as much as $10,000 a day,” according to the Times. Although the West Side District had the option of begging for mercy before the Board, its lawyers doubted the possibility of a fair hearing, the Bee reported.
In addition to heavy use, water regulators have also indicated their willingness to crack down on environmental accidents. In the wake of the Refugio State Beach oil spill, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board asked Attorney General Kamala Harris to consider “penalties of up to $25,000 per day of violation, plus $25 for every gallon of oil spilled” for the pipeline’s owners, according to Yahoo News.
“‘The Water Board will work closely with the Attorney General’s office to make sure all those responsible for the Refugio spill face the strongest enforcement measures allowed by law,’ Board Chair Jean-Pierre Wolff said in a news release.”
But regulators confronted an uphill battle to stave off environmental damage in drought conditions. California’s water woes have taken a harsh toll on the Delta smelt, a tiny fish that has long been the bane of area farmers who can’t tap its waters without running afoul of state and federal rules.
“The silvery, finger-sized fish has been in trouble for years, but the four-year drought is helping to push the smelt to the brink of extinction,” the AP reported. “In July, a key index of delta smelt abundance hit zero for the first time since the survey began in 1959. Researchers found a handful of smelt, but the number was too small to register on the population gauge.” Farmers have argued that too much fresh water has been lost trying to keep the fish’s population numbers robust.