California hopes fines up to $500 slow water waste
By DON THOMPSON
and MATT HAMILTON
GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) — Bo Cuketieh inadvertently let a fine mist from a leaky hose soak the front lawn of a Southern California home Wednesday before considering that such water waste could merit a $500 fine under unprecedented restrictions proposed by California regulators.
Cuketieh, a 35-year-old welder living at the Glendale home, said conservation is necessary, but he chafed at the maximum fine.
“That’s the difference between me making my house payment or not,” said Cuketieh, who was shirtless and hunched over in the 98 degree heat as he filled his car radiator. “I live from one week to the next, and I have a pretty decent job.”
Such considerations could soon become common as state water regulators are set to consider draft emergency regulations next week in Sacramento, invoking for the first time mandatory statewide restrictions on residential outdoor water use.
The State Water Resources Control Board projects the proposed restrictions could save enough water to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.
A combination of mandatory and voluntary restrictions so far has resulted in a statewide water use reduction of 5 percent through May — far short of the 20 percent sought by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Regulators are hopeful that Californians, with some nudging, will respond as they did during the drought of 1976 and 1977. Brown happened to be governor then, as well, and called for statewide conservation measures.
About a third of the state’s residents responded, enough to voluntarily reduce consumption by about 20 percent, according to state records.
“I like to say, having a browning lawn and a dirty car is a badge of honor,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the water resources board.
About 30 percent of the state’s water suppliers already have imposed mandatory restrictions that include limits on irrigation, washing vehicles and filling fountains and pools.
Mary Ann Dickinson, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency, said she knows of no state that currently has a statewide restriction on outdoor water use.
The regulations the board will consider Tuesday aim to put muscle behind conservation efforts and would give more authority to law enforcement to impose the restrictions, though it will be up to local governments on how and when to act.
Urban water agencies would have to require mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use, if they haven’t done so already. Agencies without water plans would have to restrict outdoor irrigation to no more than two days each week or take other mandatory conservation steps.
Statewide regulations would prohibit landscape watering that causes runoff onto sidewalks or streets, washing sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, using a hose to wash a vehicle unless the hose has a shut-off nozzle and using drinking water in a fountain or decorative water feature unless the water is recirculated.
Violations would be punishable by fines of up to $500 a day, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning.
The board is initially targeting outdoor use because that accounts for much of the water waste, Marcus said.
The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state’s water, about half going outdoors.
Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state’s consumption.
Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, said the agency already has mandatory restrictions but added that his district’s starting $50 fine is too small to bother enforcing. The possibility of heftier penalties alone should stop guzzlers, he said.
Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said he doesn’t expect fines to be imposed on a large scale, but he said the regulations would push Californians to take the drought seriously. “The word ‘voluntary’ doesn’t say ‘serious’ to most people; the word ‘mandatory’ does,” Quinn said.
Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said the proposed regulations are reasonable steps.
“What we’re proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum,” Marcus told reporters during a conference call. “If it doesn’t rain later this fall, we certainly will consider more stringent measures.”
She said board members might require efforts to stop leaks that account for an estimated 10 percent of water use, stricter landscape restrictions and encouraging water agencies to boost rates for consumers who use more than their share of water.
“We’re not trying to spank people. We’re trying to ring a bell and get people’s attention,” she said.
“We have communities struggling for water and bathing out of buckets,” Marcus said. It’s fair, she said, for the state to require that at a minimum, “that people don’t water sidewalks, that people don’t let their water run when they’re washing their car.”
Associated Press Writer Fenit Nirappil contributed to this story.