Capitol Alert

‘Excessive water users’ fine would elevate drought-shaming to California policy

Under emergency drought regulations, Californians can be fined $500 for watering their lawns within 48 hours of rain. Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said it’s only fair that the biggest water users face penalties, too.
Under emergency drought regulations, Californians can be fined $500 for watering their lawns within 48 hours of rain. Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said it’s only fair that the biggest water users face penalties, too. Sacramento Bee file

When Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane found himself on the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s list of its biggest water users in October, he released a statement that he was “more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage” and promised to take “immediate action” to repair irrigation and pool leaks recently discovered at his Danville home.

Two months later, Olympic champion figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi wound up with the dishonor. She told local media that she had stopped irrigation at her Alamo residence while a possible leak was investigated and would “continue to monitor our water usage closely, making sure we preserve our community’s water.”

Welcome to a new era of “drought-shaming.” As California enters its fifth year of a historic dry period and residents buckle down to reduce urban water use by one-fourth, a novel strategy adopted by the East Bay water utility has turned the spotlight on the region’s most wasteful consumers – among them the rich and famous – and could become the basis for statewide policy.

Last month, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced Senate Bill 814, which would require local water districts to set a definition of “excessive water use” and then fine customers by up to $500 for each hundred cubic feet, or about 748 gallons, of water above the limit when the state has declared emergency drought conditions.

$500Maximum proposed fine for each hundred cubic feet of excessive water use

The bill would also authorize disclosure of the names, addresses and water usage of those who violate the limit, partially reversing a 1997 California law that allowed utilities to keep secret previously public data on their customers’ water and power use after tech executives in Silicon Valley raised privacy concerns.

Hill said his proposal is a matter of fairness: While many Californians are making great sacrifices to conserve and, under emergency regulations issued last year, can be fined up to $500 for actions such as washing down their driveways or watering their yards within 48 hours of rain, some residents continue to use thousands of gallons of water per day with impunity.

The Center for Investigative Reporting last fall uncovered at least 365 households across California that use more than 1 million gallons of water annually. In Los Angeles, where 92 of the state’s top 100 consumers reside in affluent neighborhoods like Bel Air and Beverly Hills, it became something of a civic game to try and identify the culprits, who are protected from public disclosure and face no penalties because the city as a whole has hit its conservation targets.

“There’s a tremendous amount of wealth, and some people may feel that this drought shouldn’t affect them, in terms of their quality of life, and they’ll buy their way out of it,” Hill said. “No one should be allowed to just buy their way out of it.”

SB 814 is based on the East Bay Municipal Utility District policy, which was adopted last April after Gov. Jerry Brown announced the mandatory cuts to water use and took effect in July. It sets a threshold of 80 units of water in a typical billing cycle of two months – each unit is 748 gallons, which works out to about 1,000 gallons per day, more than four times the district average – and penalizes customers $2 for each unit used above that level.

Some people may feel that this drought shouldn’t affect them. ... No one should be allowed to just buy their way out of it.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo

The approach attracted only modest attention initially, but pressure from local media to get the records of violators led the agency to release its first list of excessive water users in October. It landed with a splash, and each subsequent monthly installment has been covered like something of an event.

Spokeswoman Andrea Pook said the utility district was merely looking for a way “to get a message across that we needed as a community to be mindful of our water use.”

“The learning part is great. The shaming part is not our intention,” she said. “It’s not surprising that it ended up that way.”

No other water districts have since followed suit, but Hill believes the policy’s success in the East Bay could lead to substantial savings if replicated statewide.

Pook said about 5,700 names have appeared on the excessive water user lists since last summer, and three-quarters of those customers reduced their usage in the next billing cycle – many of them alerted to leaks at their homes they were unaware of – though she cautioned that other factors such as decreased outdoor watering during the winter season could also have played a part.

5,700Number of names that have appeared on East Bay Municipal Utility District’s excessive water user lists since last summer

SB 814 may nevertheless face some resistance. Not every region of the state is actually experiencing a shortage in its water supply, and California’s 411 urban water districts have taken vastly different approaches to conservation and enforcement during the drought.

“There’s a lot of diversity in individual water agencies and how their local ordinances are structured,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, director of communications for the Association of California Water Agencies.

The organization is “very supportive” of Hill’s goal, she added, but has identified some initial concerns with his bill. The East Bay Municipal Utility District has also not yet taken a position.

Hill said the policy was “designed to work for everyone”; each water district will be able to establish its own excessive water use limit based on factors such as average daily use, the number of residents, the rate of evaporation, climate and geography. He suspects that local agencies are concerned about receiving pushback from their customers.

“They don’t want to be the ones to be the bad guys,” he said. “All they have to do is highlight the bad guys.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff