Wasting Water Is About to Get a Lot More Expensive in California

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to hike fees to a maximum of $10,000.

The dead lawn in front of the State Capitol Building in Sacramento. (Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/Creative Commons)

Apr 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Ten thousand dollars is the latest historic number to come out of Gov. Jerry Brown’s office as state officials attempt to conserve water in what is now the fourth year of drought in California.

Brown recently announced a mandatory 25 percent reduction for urban water use—a first for the state. And while his previous focus has been on increasing the size of the carrot—through lawn-removal rebate programs and other monetary incentives—Brown reached for a bigger stick Tuesday with a proposal to increase the maximum fine for the worst offending water wasters to $10,000—a twenty-fold increase from the current $500.

Between the mandatory reductions—which have cities like Beverly Hills facing a 36 percent drop in water use—and the proposed fee increase, the state would appear to have come a long way in the past few months. In mid-March, Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, was apologetic when announcing restrictions that included a ban on restaurants serving water to customers unless they explicitly ask for it.

But the track record of implementing fines during the current drought has been incredibly uneven. Santa Cruz, which relies primarily on the San Lorenzo River for drinking water and other urban water needs, issued $1.6 million in fines in 2014. Half of those fines were later forgiven after violators attended “water school”—like traffic school, but for drought awareness—or fixed leaks. But even $800,000 is far, far more than the $400 in fines that Los Angeles issued in all of last year.

That number has only increased slightly in recent months. Since January 2014, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the public utility that serves the city, has issued 10 fines, ranging between $100 and $300 per violation for residential customers and between $200 and $600 for commercial ones. “This shows that L.A. has been responding to the call to conserve,” Carol Tucker, who works for LADWP communications, said in an email.

DWP believes Gov. Brown’s proposed fine structure, which would require action from the legislature to be implemented, would not apply to the utility, as it already has a water conservation ordinance in place. No proposed legislation was released with the announcement, but George Kostyrko of the State Water Resources Control Board said in an email, “it is our understanding this proposed bill would provide benefits to all water agencies, not just the ones that don’t have existing authorities or water conservation ordinances,” including LADWP.

Agriculture uses the lion’s share of water in California—80 percent—but so far Gov. Brown has been reluctant to extend mandatory conservation measures beyond urban uses. Both state and federal water projects, which supply farmers with much of their irrigation water, have drastically (if not completely) cut their deliveries for this year, which has helped create a boom in drilling wells to tap shrinking stores of groundwater.

Still, there is plenty that cities can do to conserve. If residents traded lawns for drought-tolerant plants and switched to water-efficient appliances like low-flow toilets, urban water use could drop by as much as 60 percent.