Your neighbor’s sprinklers come on every night. The water sprays over the sidewalk and runs down the gutters. In past years, this may have been viewed as an annoyance. Now, people are picking up the phone.
Facing the driest winter in Sacramento area history, residents are on an honor system to cut use 20 percent or more. If they see blatant violations of drought mandates, they can anonymously alert authorities.
“Until the (Sacramento) City Council passed the water restrictions, I felt I really haven’t had any reason to say anything, because hey, they’re paying for it, right?” said one midtown resident who used Sacramento’s 311 anonymous tip line. “My block is particularly bad, but it’s all landlords and businesses, and because I live on that street, I’m not comfortable approaching any of the landlords or businesses about it – my own landlord included.”
But when her landlord kept overwatering until the lawn was a muddy mess, she made the call. City and water district hotlines have been ringing like a steady rain on tin roofs.
“We’ve had an insane number of calls compared to last year at this time,” said William Granger, the city of Sacramento’s water conservation administrator.
Through Thursday, Sacramento’s Department of Utilities water waste hotline had received 1,458 anonymous tips this new year, including more than 450 this past week. In January 2013, which was also dry, complaint calls totaled 61.
Likewise, enforcement ramped up dramatically. In January, Sacramento issued 83 warnings and one $50 fine for a second offense, compared with eight notices and no fines in that month last year. Overwhelmingly, the notices have been for outdoor irrigation.
“A lot of people are a little confused; they’re watering on the wrong days,” Granger said.
Resident frustration pops up frequently in social media. Nextdoor.com, the neighborhood network, is peppered with water-related comments.
“I know there are often rivers flowing to the gutter grates around here in the mornings,” posted a Greenhaven resident. “I’m not interested in policing my neighbors, but what are the rules?”
When you spot a neighbor wasting water, approach them first before calling authorities, said etiquette experts.
“If you see that your neighbor is wasting water, you should first talk to them,” said Callie Gordon, who answers etiquette questions along with Helen Ford Wallace and Lillie-Beth Brinkman for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. “Let them know about the cutbacks on water use. Before you go to a hotline, or ‘tattle,’ you should first bring it to their attention.”
“Water shortages and droughts are a good reminder that we’re all in this together,” added Brinkman, noting Oklahoma has had its share of prolonged drought. “That’s a good thing to keep in mind when trying to decide how best to handle water-wasting neighbors, especially in times when the situation is dire.”
A casual conversation often works best. If not, write a letter citing the potential violations, keeping the tone polite but firm. Then, follow through and alert authorities if no change is seen. Anonymity is OK.
“Personally, I would rather be anonymous, because I think some neighbors can really get ugly if they are called down,” Wallace said. “But I think if you have something that is important to you, it is wise to speak out.”
Spurring some local angst, only about half of Sacramento homes are metered. Without a meter, residents have no way to know exactly how much water they use or if attempts at saving have been effective. The city of Sacramento is in the midst of an ambitious metering program to have the whole city metered by 2025, but it’s much more involved than most homeowners think, Granger said. All homes built after 1992 are metered as well as almost all commercial buildings.
“Within two years, we will be close to 60 percent metered,” said Granger. “It’s a very expensive project and a lot more complicated than initially believed.”
The city of Sacramento used new meter hook-ups in the Pocket neighborhood as an opportunity to teach residents more about their water use.
WaterSmart, a San Francisco-based software company, supplies a detailed breakdown of residential water use. About 100,000 homes in 13 cities now get these monthly reports along with their utility bill, plus personalized tips for how to save water. WaterSmart is conducting the Pocket pilot program and another in Roseville. The company also provides reports for all single-family homes in Davis.
“This really connects people who use water and have been thinking about drought with what they can do,” noted Peter Yolles, WaterSmart founder and CEO. “That’s what WaterSmart is all about – raising awareness and making water saving personal. ... It’s a simple tool to capture people’s attention.”
Using a neighbor-to-neighbor comparison, the report tells homeowners how their usage rates against others and suggests ways to save. Overall, the response has been positive, Yolles said. “People love it because it’s about themselves. They can see how they’re doing, if their efforts are making a difference.”
And sizing up the neighbors helps, he added. “It’s all about community peer pressure to get their attention and persuade them in a friendly way to change their water behavior.”