By James Poulos.
After a wave of new rules, regulations and crackdowns, many water-conserving Californians have evaded formal and informal punishment. With no end in sight, however, others have begun to face both forms of penalties.
The mood of the public and officials alike has tilted hard against outsized consumers. Although “water providers such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have refused to divulge the names of California’s top residential water users,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “the DWP is now considering changes to its water conservation ordinance that would impose ‘substantial’ fines for excessive use and make the names public.”
Pressed by “public outrage, and questioning by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz,” the Times noted, DWP would follow in the East Bay’s footsteps, where agency overusers recently confronted “an excessive-use penalty ordinance that allows it to fine and name water customers who consume more than four times the average household.”
From nagging to snitching
In the Bay Area, a culture of water shaming has developed from the ground up. In a report on “the domestic water police,” the New York Times recently identified “moms and dads, spouses and partners, children, even co-workers and neighbors” as among the residents “quick to wag a finger when they spot people squandering moisture, such as a faucet left running while they’re brushing their teeth, or using too much water to clean dinner plates in the sink. And showers? No lingering allowed.”
More nagging has gone hand in hand with more snitching. The Times reported that “state water agencies issued more than 70,000 warnings for overuse and more than 20,000 penalties” this June and July, with many issued when “someone’s neighbor ratted on them,” according to State Water Resources Control Board climate and conservation manager Max Gomberg.
Although those penalties landed on a relatively small group of die-hard squanderers, the state has now leveled substantial fines on whole cities that failed to meet conservation targets. “While most communities continue to hit mandated conservation targets, a few have consistently missed,” the Sacramento Bee noted. “All four were in Southern California: Beverly Hills, Indio, Redlands and Coachella Valley Water District. Each was fined $61,000.”
These sums could be only the beginning. “The penalties are based on the board’s authority to issue fines of $500 per day for violations of its emergency regulation,” according to the Press-Enterprise. “The board could also issue the providers a cease and desist order, which carries a fine up to $10,000 per day for non-compliance.”
A vicious circle
The crackdown has come as agencies have hiked rates for users who do conserve. “Water providers in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the state have recently told customers that rates will go up at least temporarily, as utilities struggle to pay for building and repairing pipes, buying water and other costs, even as customers cut back,” according to Reuters. Agencies have sometimes wound up a victim of their own success. “In Los Angeles, conservation led to a $111 million drop in revenues during the fiscal year that ended July 1, a period mostly before the mandatory cutbacks kicked into high gear, Department of Water and Power budget director Neil Guglielmo said Friday.”
But for now, regulators have tried to emphasize the positive. “Californians slashed their water use 26 percent in September, meeting Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of 25 percent for the fourth straight month,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing recently released state data. Though encouraged by the numbers, water agencies have strained to strike a messaging balance between threats and warnings on the one hand and encouragement and pride on the other, hoping to give savers a sense of reward without subtly encouraging a return to laxity. Utilities, noted the Chronicle, remained dedicated to “trying to keep the conservation message front and center after four dry years, especially as residents may be tempted to become less diligent with forecasts calling for a wetter-than-average winter.”