Water & Drought

Sacramento region a leader in snitching on water wasters

Most local agencies now limit outdoor watering to two days a week. Two agencies – West Sacramento and the Sacramento County Water Agency – allow yard watering only once a week. Agencies generally have told residents to restrict outdoor watering to specific days, making it easy to see who is breaking the rules.
Most local agencies now limit outdoor watering to two days a week. Two agencies – West Sacramento and the Sacramento County Water Agency – allow yard watering only once a week. Agencies generally have told residents to restrict outdoor watering to specific days, making it easy to see who is breaking the rules. hamezcua@sacbee.com

As the drought deepens, Sacramento-area residents haven’t exactly been shy about turning in their water-profligate neighbors.

Area water agencies took more than 4,000 complaints related to suspected water waste from their customers in April, according to the latest figures from the State Water Resources Control Board and interviews with city officials.

That’s about 20 complaints per 10,000 customers, more than triple the statewide average.

Customers in some Sacramento-area cities, including Folsom, Roseville and the city of Sacramento, reported water waste five to 10 times more frequently than the statewide average.

The complaints are a byproduct of mandatory water conservation measures. The State Water Resources Control Board last month ordered all but a handful of the region’s 23 large water agencies to cut use by at least 28 percent during the next nine months as compared to 2013.

In response, local agencies have targeted outdoor irrigation, which sucks up most of the urban water used in Sacramento during hot, dry months.

Most local agencies now limit outdoor watering to two days a week. Two agencies – West Sacramento and the Sacramento County Water Agency – allow yard watering only once a week. Agencies generally have told residents to restrict outdoor watering to specific days, making it easy to see who is breaking the rules.

Many of the complaints coming in result from residents seeing a lawn getting watered on the wrong day, area officials said.

“People have to realize that there is some sort of Big Brother or Big Neighbor,” said Sacramento public relations executive Doug Elmets. Wasting water “has become a socially unacceptable thing to do. It’s almost a badge of honor to have a little bit of brown grass.”

Several cities and water agencies encourage their residents to report water waste. The city of Sacramento allows residents to make complaints via phone, email – even through a mobile app.

The city of Roseville has a simple online form that residents can fill out to report suspected waste – and a number to call. So far this year, Roseville has received 1,560 complaints, city officials said. It took nearly half of those – 710 – in April, state figures show. On a per capita basis, that comes out to 58 complaints per 10,000 residents, or roughly 10 times the statewide rate.

Roseville officials said their residents are practicing good citizenship. “The city has a very high level of engagement with the community,” said Sean Bigley, government relations analyst for Roseville. “We really want people to own the drought as a community issue. It’s not just the city managing it.”

Sacramento customers made about 1,650 water waste complaints to the city’s 311 system in April, or roughly 55 complaints per day, officials said. They’ve registered about 5,000 complaints so far in 2015.

Utilities director Bill Busath said that some residents clearly believe it’s rude for someone to water in a manner they find excessive while other people conserve and sacrifice. “There is an element of ‘I’m saving,’ and they see their neighbors, and it motivates them to call in,” he said.

The Sacramento region also could be seeing more complaints because it has more water waste to report. With its relatively large lots and historically reliable water supply, the area uses much more water per household than most of the state, particularly in the searing summer months.

Tell households that have liberally watered their lawns for years to pull back fast, and there will be stragglers.

“Californians generally waste more water than other parts of the country,” Elmets said. “People in Sac generally irrigate more” than the rest of California.

1,650Water waste complaints made to Sacramento’s 311 system in April

In addition to responding to complaints, many local agencies are sending out municipal employees to look for excessive water use. Both Roseville and Sacramento have enforcement officers searching for water scofflaws day and night.

“On any given day, we typically have 10 to 20 to 25 people doing patrols,” said Terrance Davis, sustainability manager at the city of Sacramento. “We probably do have one of the largest sets of enforcement folks in the state.”

Most citizen complaints in the region do result in warnings, according to state figures.

Davis said the city of Sacramento prioritizes call responses based largely on whether there has been a prior complaint at the same address. Otherwise, the address might be slated for inspection the next time a conservation officer is in the area.

“We’re not rolling the truck to respond to every single call,” he said.

As a result of complaints and water waste flagged by municipal employees, Sacramento-area water agencies issued 3,400 warnings in April, state figures show. That’s nearly triple the statewide per capita average.

Only two cities, Roseville and Sacramento, issued penalties for water waste in April; the rest stuck to warnings.

The city of Folsom took 293 complaints and gave 108 warnings, but issued no penalties. Folsom spokeswoman Christine Brainerd said the city issued two fines in 2014 and none so far in 2015.

“The city’s philosophy has been to coach to compliance,” she said. “So we haven’t measured our success based on fines.”

Sacramento, on the other hand, issued 191 fines in April, more than any other city in the state, except Fresno.

Water waste complaints in the city of Sacramento vary greatly across neighborhoods. So far in 2015, the areas around downtown, including midtown, East Sacramento, Land Park and College/Glen have seen the highest rates of complaints. North Natomas, North Oak Park and the Pocket aren’t far behind.

Michael DeHaven, a Pocket resident, is among those who believe people should follow the rules to help the state conserve during the drought. He said that if he saw neighbors consistently watering their lawns on the wrong day, “I’d drop a dime.”

“With all the recent reports of farms who have had their water cut, I can see why this is important,” he said.

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