In the face of grim conservation rates during one of the worst droughts in history, local water districts are working to determine how to crack down on those who waste water outdoors after state regulators approved fines of up to $500 a day.
It’s now illegal for urban residents to water landscape to the point of flooding or runoff flows into streets, wash cars without using a shutoff nozzle, use water to wash any hard surfaces like driveways and use decorative fountains without recirculation devices.
The State Water Resources Control Board voted to enact the fines but local distributors and suppliers must determine how to enforce the new law and some may be looking toward watchful residents.
“I think a lot of people are putting the emphasis on ratting out your neighbor. I hope this encourages people to talk to each other,” said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “As much as it’s been talked about in the media, some people haven’t gotten the message. So do the neighborly thing and let people know there’s a drought. And maybe we can build these neighborly relationships through conservation efforts.”
The state regulation was in response to mid-year supply updates that showed conservation had been off to a slow start. Now, local distributors are somewhat reassured to see efforts increase significantly in the last month and hope educating consumers will prevent them from needing to issue fines.
“First and foremost [education] will always be our approach and the penalty enforcement will be a last resort. If someone chooses to willingly not comply with the state regulations to restrict water use after repeated warnings, we’re going to plan to enforce some sort of fine,” Jue said. “It just gives us another way to educate people and encourage conservation. Utilities should look at this as another tool in our conservation tool kit.”
The SFPUC would likely set up a hotline for residents to report those who they think are violating the new rule. It may also hire new employees or reassign current staff to make contact with those who are found to be violating the law, Jue said.
The SFPUC serves San Francisco residents and wholesales to the Mid-Peninsula Water District and the California Water Service Company, which serve San Mateo County communities.
The SFPUC called for a 10 percent voluntary reduction in February and, as of Monday, customers have only hit 6.6 percent, Jue said. The utility, however, will only be enforcing the new rule in San Francisco and each distributor will be responsible for its own jurisdiction, Jue said.
The public has until Aug. 1 to comment and utilities must respond with implementation plans, Jue said.
The Board of Directors for the Mid-Peninsula Water District, which serves primarily Belmont, will meet Thursday night to discuss enforcement of the new regulations. However, the small district doesn’t have “police power” so it may need to look to Belmont for enforcement assistance, Dave Warden, Mid-Peninsula Water District board member, wrote in an email.
Local water agencies
Cal Water, a statewide distributor that serves several San Mateo County communities, has been ahead of the game with conservation requests and implemented mandatory restrictions May 1, said Yvonne Kingman, Cal Water corporate communications manager.
Including the state’s four recent mandates, Cal Water has 10 actions listed on its unauthorized water use list. Customers must repair any leaks they’re notified of, can’t fill swimming pools, restaurants cannot serve water unless a patron requests and cannot use water for construction purposes such as dust control unless no other method can be used, according to the rule.
Its rule has enforcement measures already in place and currently Cal Water customers are given a warning or restrictive flow devices are installed, Kingman said.
“Up to now, we’re still educating our customers on [our rule] and the unauthorized water uses, so that’s been our tactic, to achieve compliance through education,” Kingman said.
But in response to the changing laws, Cal Water will coordinate with the California Public Utilities Commission to devise an enforcement plan, Kingman said.
“If we find that after a warning that people are still egregiously using water, we could install a flow restrictive device and now, with the state water board’s action, we’ll work with the [California Public Utilities Commission] on how we might apply their enforcement actions for ourselves, but it’s still unclear,” Kingman said.
Although Cal Water customers on the MidPeninsula have only cut back 2 percent over the last year and South San Francisco an additional 7 percent, its consumers have greatly reduced consumption over the past eight years, Kingman said.
Since 2006, Cal Water customers on the MidPeninsula have cut back by 16 percent and South San Francisco customer demand has dropped by 10 percent, Kingman said.
The SFPUC is also focusing on education and awareness during the summer months to achieve its goals, Jue said. The utility seeks to save 7.6 billion gallons by Dec. 31 yet it’s now at only 2.8 billion gallons since it called for conservation in February, Jue said.
Although rationing is currently voluntary, if conservation statistics remain grim, the SFPUC could start issuing mandates, Jue said.
“It’s still on the table because we know usage can still fluctuate from the end of the year. If everyone can meet the 10 percent conservation goal we feel comfortable keeping it [voluntary] through the end of the year, but that can change,” Jue said. “Usually if it starts spiking and it’s another dry year next winter, we could be talking a whole other ball game.”
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