Sacramento drought busters write 350 violations

Sacramento: You’ve been warned. Turn off the sprinklers – at least on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Yet, judging by complaints, thousands of residents apparently have not gotten that water-saving message.

When city utilities officials noticed a substantial spike in water use Thursday, they sent out enforcement officers on the lookout for sprinklers spraying on a non-watering day. What they found surprised even the experts: More than 350 violations in a two-day sweep.

“I’ve been on the council for 20 years, and I don’t remember anything like this,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn of the enforcement effort.

All but one of the violations was a first-time offense, meaning the homeowner got a written warning and explanation of Sacramento’s current water rules. The lone second offense brought a $50 fine, but that may be waived if the homeowner completes a water conservation class. A third offense comes with a $200 fine. For four or more violations, the fine jumps to $1,000 for each offense.

Nobody has had to fork over those hefty fines – yet. According to Cohn, more than 600 violators have been cited since Sacramento adopted its emergency water rules Jan. 14. Of those, only five were second offenders; no third offenses have been cited.

“It’s pretty obvious there are still many customers who are not aware of the new watering limitations that have been put in place to address the drought,” said Dave Brent, the city’s utilities chief.

Since Sacramento asked its customers to cut back water use by 20 percent to 30 percent, residents have been on an honor system to comply. They’ve also anonymously reported more than 3,000 suspected violations to the city’s 311 hotline.

“We’ve received many calls from our constituents, too,” noted Councilman Darrell Fong. “They’ve also reported problems in parks; people find leaks or the timers need to be reset. Citizens are helping.”

The enforcement effort is about education, not revenue, Cohn noted. “We’re not trying to raise money with this. We’re just trying to get people to engage in good sound water practices. We don’t want to see water running down the gutters.”

As Sacramento struggles with the worst drought in its history, enforcement efforts will continue to ramp up, city officials said.

“We’ve had a little confusion about which days residents may water,” Cohn said. “Before the drought, we allowed three times a week. During the winter, it was once a week. Because we’re getting into the growing season, people need to keep their plants healthy. But they should water no more than twice a week.”

Warm weather and fast-growing plants prompted the big spike in water use last week. With unseasonably hot temperatures, many residents turned on their sprinklers to water thirsty lawns – but forgot to reset their timers and eliminate one water day.

“Last year, they were allotted those three days to water, but this year, because of the drought, we have reduced watering to two,” said utilities spokeswoman Jessica Hess. “We think that people simply turned their sprinklers on without resetting the timers.”

Under the current water rules, Sacramento properties with addresses ending in odd numbers may water on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Properties with addresses ending in even numbers may water on Wednesdays and Sundays. Also, all irrigation should be done before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. to help cut down on evaporation.

No watering is allowed on Mondays, Thursdays or Fridays. That’s when patrols will be out in earnest with 30 to 40 enforcement officers watching water use.

“What we’re really asking people to do is be smart,” said Sacramento Mayor Pro Tem Angelique Ashby, noting the city offers water-saving incentive programs, too. “We’re pulling out all the stops to urge people to do everything they can to be wise water users.”

And if it’s raining? Turn the sprinklers off, Ashby said. “Nobody says you have to water twice a week. With the rain, we shouldn’t see any sprinklers this week at all.”

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