California drought: ‘Water cops’ being hired by Bay Area agencies to root out water waste
California’s worsening drought and mandatory new state water rules are prompting Bay Area water agencies to beef up their conservation staffs — the employees sometimes called “water cops.”
Only a few cities, including Santa Cruz and Sacramento, have resorted to writing tickets or issuing fines. But most others are simply responding to complaints by sending employees to homes and businesses with a stern warning, and sometimes a door hanger.
“The bottom line is that we are just not getting the results we would like to see for water reduction,” said Joan Maher, deputy operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
On Tuesday, the district’s board will vote on whether to spend $500,000 to hire up to 10 new temporary employees to help enforce water use prohibitions across Silicon Valley.
If the proposal is approved, as expected, the workers would respond in person to complaints about property owners wasting water. They also would send the information to whichever of the 12 cities or private companies sends the property owner their bill.
Few Bay Area cities have begun to impose fines yet for wasting water, but if they eventually do, they could use the information to write tickets.
In February the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked its 1.8 million customers in the county to cut water use by 20 percent compared with last year, but so far, none of its retailer providers has met that goal. Palo Alto and Mountain View conserved the most, with a 17 percent reduction each, and the countywide total is a 12 percent reduction.
Similarly, in the East Bay, the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland hired a new outreach person this week, and another starts next week, said district spokeswoman Abby Figueroa.
They will join nine other East Bay MUD staff members who help do free water audits at homes and business, look for leaks and tell property owners when they are violating the district’s and state’s water wasting rules.
“We have a backlog with water wasting complaints,” Figueroa said. “We’re getting calls about runoff, broken sprinklers, people washing cars too much. Everyone is hearing all the media reports and talking about drought a lot. The news definitely got people’s attention.”
In February, East Bay MUD asked its 1.3 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties to voluntarily reduce water use by 10 percent. Between Feb. 1 and May 31, they achieved that 10 percent savings. But it is still below the 20 percent savings that Gov. Jerry Brown requested statewide in January when he declared a drought emergency as the state moved into its third dry year.
Figueroa said the agency has no plans this year to issue fines to people violating its rules or new rules passed last week by the State Water Resources Control Board that ban washing cars without a nozzle on the hose, spraying down pavement, watering landscaping so much that it runs into streets and running ornamental fountains without recirculating systems.
“We’ve been conserving. Our total system storage is in good shape compared to other districts,” she said. “And we brought in additional supplies. That’s getting us through the summer.”
At an Aug. 12 board meeting, the district is expected to pass rules limiting lawn watering to two or three days a week.
Contra Costa Water District, which requested a 15 percent voluntary reduction, has no plans for fines. It has eight outreach employees and enough budget to hire two more if needed, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Allen.
The Bay Area’s largest water district, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which provides water to 2.6 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, north Santa Clara and southern Alameda counties through the Hetch Hetchy system, is planning to either hire or reassign six employees to respond to water wasting complaints, and look for violations.
The agency is considering in the next few weeks imposing fines on San Francisco residents who waste water, with a warning for first violations, said Steve Ritchie, its assistant general manager.
“Penalties are the last resort. But we are definitely keeping that option on the table,” he said. “It’s important that we have that as a tool.”
Some Bay Area residents are surprised that there aren’t more areas issuing fines, as city officials in Sacramento, Santa Cruz and other communities have done for flagrant water wasting.
“Nobody wants to be seen as fining people, but what we are doing isn’t enough,” said Peter Gleick, executive director for the Pacific Institute, an Oakland nonprofit group that studies water usage.
“Maybe we’ll muddle through this year and we’ll be lucky and next year will be wet,” he said. “But if not, we’re in a deep, deep hole and voluntary will be off the table. We will be talking about things like mandatory removal of lawns, and per-capita rationed amounts.”
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