California’s new water-waste penalty also applies to government, but who will enforce it?

07/21/2014 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 8:26 PM

When California water officials last week passed new regulations making wasting water a crime, they also handed a new tool to government watchdogs.

In a little-noticed provision of the regulations adopted Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board declared that public agencies – in addition to individuals and businesses – can be prosecuted for a criminal infraction and fined $500 per day for certain categories of water waste.

Those categories include using a hose to wash off sidewalks and driveways; watering landscaping so much that water runs off into streets or gutters; washing vehicles using a hose without a shutoff nozzle attached; and using potable water in a decorative fountain unless it recirculates that water. The law is expected to take effect Aug. 1 and continue for 270 days, unless renewed by the water board.

For now, it remains unclear how a criminal water waste violation would be enforced against a government agency.

The state water board has no plans to be a first responder on such violations, said George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the agency. Instead, he said, citizens should report violations to the relevant local water provider.

Many water providers in the Sacramento region have reported they do not plan to levy the new $500 criminal penalty. Instead, they will follow their own administrative enforcement procedures. Almost universally, this begins with at least one warning notice, followed by a small fine if a violation continues.

An additional twist rises when it comes to citizens reporting water waste by cities and counties: In some cases, that means asking one government agency – the local water district – to intervene with another. Or it may mean one department trying to regulate a sister department. If a citizen reports water waste in a Sacramento city park to the city water department, is there any guarantee the city will police itself? Should the state stand ready to enforce such cases instead?

The California Department of General Services is the proper responding agency for water waste on state property. The department handles maintenance at state facilities and has been working since January to reduce waste and adopt new conservation measures at all state properties, spokesman Brian Ferguson said.

He estimates state properties as a whole already have met the governor’s call for a 20 percent reduction in water use. This stems from a range of initiatives, from fixing leaks and letting some lawns go dormant – notably on the state Capitol grounds – to replacing plumbing fixtures with more efficient units.

The department also created a website, at http://saveourh2o.org/report-water-waste, where state employees – and the public – can report waste at state facilities.

Ferguson said the state has received about 300 such reports so far. These are reviewed by General Services then forwarded to the relevant state agency for correction. There is no punitive enforcement process.

In the city of Sacramento, residents have another path to report water waste at state buildings. The city government is the water provider for a great many state government properties, just as it provides water to homes and businesses.

Jim Peifer, a supervising engineer in the city utilities department, said the city would use its usual enforcement process – not the new $500 criminal infraction – if water waste is reported on state property within city limits.

Asked if governments can be relied upon to correct their own water waste violations, or those of another government agency, Peifer said: “It’s a fair issue to bring up. I think framing the issue that way misses the point of what we are trying to do, which is to reduce water demands – not to punish people. This is accomplished through our enforcement program, where we try to educate people first.”

The process starts with a written warning. If the violation is not corrected, a $50 fine would follow. Penalties increase to $200 for a third violation and $1,000 for a fourth. The city has received about 10,000 complaints of water waste since January. About 3,000 led to written notices that resolved the problem, and 88 resulted in $50 penalties. Only five escalated to $200 penalties.

“If someone sees something that is out of the ordinary, we encourage them to contact us,” Peifer said. “The city needs to do its part, too, and if we find water waste at a city facility, then we need to correct it.”

Terrance Davis, the city’s sustainability manager, estimates Sacramento city departments have cut water consumption about 38 percent since January, a deeper cut than the 17 percent achieved by city residents as a whole. This came about after the city formed a task force of officials from key departments.

Savings were achieved largely by reduced landscape irrigation in parks and other public areas, he said. Some older plumbing fixtures have been replaced with more efficient units, and the city closed one of two vehicle-washing stations and restricted use of the other.

“We’re of course enforcing our own regulations on ourselves,” Davis said.

Jim Metropulos, a Sacramento resident concerned about conservation, is among the local residents who have raised concerns about city watering practices. Metropulos noted that on two days last week, the sprinklers throughout Curtis Park were running during the noon hour. The city specifically bans watering during midday hours, when the heat and evaporation are most intense.

Linda Tucker, a city spokeswoman, said the sprinklers were running at Curtis Park because city crews were replacing a booster pump and dealing with electrical malfunctions.

In general, Metropulos said, there ought to be an easier way for the public to submit complaints and a more straightforward process for holding water wasters accountable.

“I think there should be a way by which you get a notification, and if it’s not rectified by a certain time, then you should get fined,” he said.

Kostyrko said the state water board intends to follow up on complaints that don’t get resolved by a local agency. But for now, there is no convenient way to alert the board when complaints don’t get resolved.

“The idea here really is not to go looking for penalties,” he said. “The idea here is to change behavior.”

He said the board eventually will set up an online form where people can report chronic violations, but it offers nothing of that kind now.

He can’t say yet how the board will prosecute violations that are brought to the its attention after going uncorrected by a local agency. He said the board will wait until the new regulations are approved by the state Office of Administrative Law – expected by Aug. 1 – before deciding how to respond.

“If it appears there’s a pattern of behavior that’s not corrected ... the state water board will definitely inquire,” Kostyrko said. “Until we have some regulations that are approved ... it is our feeling that it would be premature to get into that detail.”

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