Sacramento agencies: Our water waste rules are tough enough

Large water agencies throughout the Sacramento region have no intention of imposing criminal penalties for water waste, despite a new state regulation that allows them to do so.

The State Water Resources Control Board adopted the unprecedented measure on Tuesday in response to the ongoing statewide drought. Starting Aug. 1, it means water agencies can cite residents and businesses with criminal infractions for certain kinds of water waste and impose fines of up to $500 per day.

An array of water officials in the capital metro area said their existing rules are tough enough and that they don’t feel they need the additional hammer of a criminal fine.

“I don’t see it as necessary,” said Einar Maisch, director of strategic affairs at the Placer County Water Agency. “We’re doing a pretty good job of achieving water conservation with the measures that we have in place.”

The state water board is not mandating that municipalities levy the fine, and emphasized Tuesday that the new criminal rule is an optional enforcement tool for agencies that need it.

“We’re not trying to supplant what you do,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the state water board. “We would be giving you a different set of tools to use if you wanted to.”

The rules, nevertheless, are causing some confusion. Some agency officials said they didn’t think they had legal authority to impose a criminal fine, even if they wanted to. Many water agencies are chartered under state law as special districts and are not endowed with police powers to hand down a criminal violation.

Carlos Mejia, an attorney for the state water board, said the authority for water agencies to impose such violations comes from emergency drought legislation signed by the governor in March. In effect, he said, this changed state law so water agencies can enforce any rule adopted by the state board as an emergency drought measure.

“Not only peace officers, but any employee of a local agency charged with enforcing laws relating to water use can issue these infractions,” Mejia said.

The new rule makes it a criminal infraction – similar to a speeding ticket – to use potable water for a variety of outdoor purposes: hosing down sidewalks and driveways; allowing landscape irrigation to run off to streets and gutters; washing a motor vehicle using a hose without a shut-off nozzle; and using a decorative fountain that does not recirculate its water.

The rules are expected to remain in effect for 270 days, unless extended, and apply to both residents and businesses.

Agriculture was specifically exempted, though farming operations consume about three-fourths of all the surface water in California, and are also the primary users of groundwater.

Most farmers have already had their surface water supplies severely reduced, either because their contracts to purchase water from reservoirs have been cut back, or because their water right to divert directly from a stream has been curtailed by the state. California farmers have largely made up for the reduction in surface water supplies by significantly increasing their groundwater pumping, according to a UC Davis study released Tuesday. Some also have adopted conservation measures in the form of fallowed land or alternate crop choices.

Placer County Water Agency, like most in the Sacramento region, already has rules in place that allow fines to be imposed on customers who waste water. And many agencies in the region already ban the practices specified by the state board. In all cases, the potential penalties are administrative fines, not criminal.

The process begins with a written warning before fines are imposed, then climbs a ladder of progressively steeper monetary penalties if additional violations occur. In extreme cases, repeated violations could cause customers to have their water service shut off.

Maisch and others say most customers correct a water-waste violation after the first written warning.

“We think our program works quite well,” said Jim Peifer, supervising engineer at the city of Sacramento, which has a similar program.

The city has no plans to use the new $500 criminal penalty, Peifer said. The city has issued nearly 3,000 violation notices since January. Of these, 88 resulted in second notices and $50 penalties, and only five required third notices and a $200 penalty.

The state water board adopted the new $500 criminal penalty because the state as a whole has shown little progress toward meeting the 20 percent water conservation goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown in a January emergency declaration. Statewide, water consumption actually increased 1 percent in May compared with the prior three years.

The Sacramento River hydrologic region, which includes the capital metro area, showed the greatest progress of any region in the state, cutting its water consumption 13 percent in May. But the region also had more room for improvement than coastal areas of the state, which historically have used significantly less water per capita.

Peifer said Sacramento residents reduced their water consumption 17 percent in June compared with the two preceding years. Maish said El Dorado Irrigation District has cut water use about 15 percent.

Lisa Brown, water conservation administrator for the city of Roseville, said customers there have reduced water use 15 percent overall, while residential customers have done slightly better at about 18 percent.

Since January, using its existing rules, Roseville has issued more than 3,700 warnings but only two $100 penalties, Brown said. “We would rather educate them on the problem so that we don’t have to come back,” she said.

Nevertheless, Brown said the new penalty is proving valuable in focusing public attention on the severity of the drought.

“I know it has really put a fear factor into our customer base,” she said. “We’re getting calls today with people very afraid they would be imposed a penalty of $500.”

Like officials at several other agencies, Brown said Roseville has no plans to impose the criminal penalty.

Even so, other aspects of the new state regulation will require local agencies to amend their rules.

For instance, the state action requires water agencies to impose mandatory outdoor watering restrictions during the drought. If they do not already have such rules on their books, the board’s action requires them to limit outdoor watering to two days per week. Maisch said that although Placer County Water Agency has asked for voluntary outdoor watering reductions, it does not have “mandatory” rules in place and may have to amend its regulations.

Mark Madison, general manager of Elk Grove Water District, said his board of directors also may have to amend its rules to comply with this section.

Elk Grove residents have reduced water consumption about 18 percent so far this year, Madison said. That happened thanks to persuasive customer education, not threat of fines, Madison said. Despite the conservation efforts, the drought has taken a toll on the groundwater stores that the district relies on for most of its water.

Madison said district staff last week completed the latest round of quarterly well-water measurements, which show groundwater levels have dropped by 3 to 5 feet, after remaining stable for many months.

“We now are seeing our groundwater table, I believe, starting to feel the effects of this drought,” Madison said. “In that respect, I do applaud the state (water) board for being very proactive on this matter. These actions are a hedge against future worsening conditions. We do not know what the future holds relative to this drought.”

This story was updated July 17 to correct the name and title of Jim Peifer, supervising engineer at the city of Sacramento.

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