Beverly Hills and three other Southern California cities were slapped with fines Friday for not conserving enough water, marking a new phase in the state’s response to the historic drought.
While announcing that the state overall met its monthly conservation goals in September, officials said Beverly Hills, Indio, Redlands and the Coachella Valley Water District missed their mandates by wide margins. Each was fined $61,000, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water usage in California.
“They weren’t making a strong enough effort, and the customers in their districts were not responding to the effort that they were making,” said Cris Carrigan, the state board’s enforcement director, during a conference call with reporters.
None of the four water districts have fined any of their residents for using too much water, he said. Collectively, they’ve “wasted” about 2.3 billion gallons of water since June by not hitting their conservation numbers, he added, including about 1.4 billion gallons at Coachella Valley.
As for Beverly Hills, he said he believes many residents of the iconic Los Angeles suburb are saving water but that the others “should be ashamed of yourselves.”
The fines amount to $500 a day since June 1, the maximum allowed under the state’s statutes, for each district. If their conservation efforts don’t improve in the coming months, Carrigan said, the state could issue cease-and-desist orders and ramp up the penalties to $10,000 a day if those orders are violated. The fines “send a signal that there are penalties for failing to meet the conservation standard,” Carrigan said.
While several other water districts have missed their targets by considerable amounts, Carrigan said the state is going after agencies with the financial resources to operate significant conservation programs. The cities have the right to appeal the fines to the five-member state board.
The fines were announced amid otherwise positive news: California’s urban water customers collectively reduced their water use by 26 percent in September, continuing to surpass the statewide mandate, though at lower levels than were seen during summer, the water board reported.
Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year issued an executive order calling for urban water customers statewide to reduce water usage by an average of 25 percent compared to 2013. The state water board then set a range of specific conservation goals for water agencies for June through February, targeting communities with higher per capita usage for the biggest cuts.
Since June, Californians have reduced water use cumulatively by 28.1 percent.
“The bottom line is, the news is still quite good even though conservation rates are still lower than last month,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state board.
State officials acknowledge it will get tougher to maintain the 25 percent cuts through winter, when sprinkler systems typically are shut off. Instead, Californians will have to find ways to reduce their indoor water use, a more difficult task.
With 28 percent cumulative savings, “we’ve still got some cushion,” Marcus said. “Would I like a bigger cushion? Yeah, definitely, but I think we’re in the ballpark.”
The four agencies fined by the state Friday have been assigned relatively high conservation mandates – and haven’t come close to meeting them since June. The state told Beverly Hills, one of the wealthiest cities in the state, to reduce water usage by 32 percent. Its residents managed a 20.4 percent reduction from June through September, state figures show.
A water expert at UCLA, located 3 miles from Beverly Hills, applauded the state for cracking down. “It doesn’t only send a message to Beverly Hills,” said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for the environment and sustainability. “It sends a message to the rest of the state, all of the cities and urban water agencies, that the state is serious about this.”
In a prepared statement, Beverly Hills Deputy City Manager Cheryl Friedling said, “Beverly Hills is very concerned about not meeting the 32 percent goal set by the state.” The city will take steps to do better, she said, “such as new penalty surcharges, hiring additional staff to address water violations and developing individualized conservation programs.”
The city of Indio is supposed to cut water use by 32 percent; it has achieved a 22 percent reduction since June. Redlands is missing its 36 percent conservation target by 11 percentage points, and Coachella Valley is 9 percentage points short of its mandate for a 36 percent cut.
Redlands spokesman Carl Baker said city officials were surprised by the fine. The state hadn’t contacted the city about its record since June, when Redlands officials were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the city’s conservation efforts, he said.
“It’s a really high bar, 36 percent is a really high bar,” Baker said. “We have a warm climate, large lots.”
The state has ordered most Sacramento-area water agencies to cut water use between 28 percent and 36 percent, and most communities hit those targets, with room to spare, during the summer. But in September, several local agencies slipped.
The city of Sacramento cut water use by 26.5 percent, missing its target of 28 percent. The city of Davis cut use by 18.2 percent, well below its target of 28 percent. The city of Lincoln cut use by 26.4 percent, off its target of 32 percent. But all three have cumulatively exceeded their goals since mandatory cuts took effect in June.
The cumulative savings since June for the broader Sacramento region was 34 percent through the end of September.
Statewide, nearly one-third of the largest water agencies are not meeting cumulative water conservation targets, including four in the Sacramento region. The city of Folsom, the Carmichael Water District, the Placer County Water Agency and the Rio Linda-Elverta Community Water District have posted cumulative water savings for June through September that are slightly below their mandated targets. It will be tough for them to make up ground during the winter.
“We expressed this concern to the state board early on: As you move into September, October and November, it is going to be difficult meeting the conservation targets,” said Marcus Yasutake, Folsom’s environmental and water resources director. “You don’t have the same opportunity for the outdoor savings.”
Folsom recently sent a mailer to its customers telling them about missing September targets and offering suggestions on how they can do more to conserve, Yasutake said. He said warm weather and resulting outdoor irrigation in Folsom was largely to blame for the lackluster September results. “I don’t attribute this to water waste by our customers by any means,” he said.
Most water used by local residents is applied to their yards. Sacramento residents have dramatically reduced outdoor watering this year, as evidenced by the prevalence of brown grass across the region. But outdoor irrigation starts to slow around September, making it harder to post gains over prior years just by turning off sprinklers.
Peter Brostrom, program manager for water use efficiency at the Department of Water Resources, said there are several steps Californians can take to cut their indoor water use this fall and winter. “If you look at kind of what are the big uses of water in the house, toilets are about 20 percent statewide,” Brostrom said. “Clothes washers are about 20 percent, and showers are about 20 percent. Leaks are at 18 percent.”
He said $100 rebates are available for those who replace toilets with more efficient ones. He also suggested replacing old clothes washers, flushing only when there is solid waste and taking shorter “Navy showers,” which involve turning the water off while applying soap and shampoo.
“That alone can save a significant amount of water,” he said. “But probably the cheapest thing to do is to change out the aerators, especially in bathroom faucets. You can put a 0.5 gallon-per-minute aerator on there, which will significantly reduce the waste.”
Missing the target
Large California water agencies that missed conservation targets by a big margin
Yucaipa Valley Water District
West Valley Water District
Beaumont-Cherry Valley Water District
Coachella Valley Water District*
*Fined on Friday by state
Source: State Water Resources Control Board