Little Brother Is Watching You, Water Wasters

California regulators have created a mobile website to let people report violations of mandatory water restrictions directly to the authorities.
A worker washes down a sidewalk in San Francisco. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Aug 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Drought shaming is in full force in California, thanks to apps encouraging the conservation-conscious to post photos of neighbors hosing down driveways or jacking up the sprinklers one day too many.

But what if the water waster is immune to peer pressure—or a resident spots a leak and isn’t sure whom to contact? Now the state is putting the power to root out water hogs in the hands of anyone with a smartphone or a computer. A mobile website unveiled by the California State Water Resources Control Board lets people file reports and upload photos of violations of the mandatory water restrictions. The reports are then sent directly to local agencies responsible for enforcing bans on lawn watering, car washing, and other conservation measures.

“A lot of people don’t know who their water supplier is, so they don’t know who to call,” said George Kostyrko, a spokesperson for the state water board. “We get hundreds of calls reporting water waste, so we decided to create this website.”

Nearly half of California is suffering from extreme drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. A study from the University of California, Davis, estimated the drought will cost California farmers close to $3 billion this year alone.

At SaveWater.ca.gov, individuals fill out anonymous incident reports specifying the type of water violation along with the date, time, and location. They can also upload photos. The website matches the location of the violation with the relevant water agency and includes it in a daily report sent to local regulators.

In June, California reduced its water use 27.3 percent—saving 59.4 billion gallons—exceeding Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate to conserve 25 percent of the state’s water supply.

RELATED: 5 Ways People Are Drought Shaming Their Neighbors

Sixty-five percent of California’s 405 water districts that report to the state are currently in compliance or within 1 percent of their conservation standard. The top performer was the Central Coast town of Cambria, which exceeded its goal by nearly 37 percent.

Yet more than one-third of the reporting districts are off target, and 16 of these laggards are missing their goals by 15 percent or more. They will be hearing from the state in the near future, according to Kostyrko.

“We’re going to be meeting with them this week to talk with them about what they’re doing and what we can do to help,” he said.

Kostyrko says that because 50 percent to 80 percent of urban water is used outdoors, getting residents to reduce watering for landscaping is the easiest and most effective way to achieve water conservation.

Under state law, those who use water excessively can be fined $500 a day. But enforcement data released by the state shows that while many districts received dozens of complaints regarding lawn watering, they rarely fined the violators.

Having easy access to photo evidence of violations via SaveWater.ca.gov could help agencies ramp up enforcement of water restrictions.

There is a catch. Local districts must go to the site each day and download the reports, though it’s not mandatory for them to do so.

The city of Los Angeles decided to take a gentler approach with the “Save the Drop” public education campaign, using the “Drop” character—a wide-eyed drop of water—to get residents to meet conservation goals.

“We knew we wanted to create a movement founded in positivity and humanity, and ‘Save the Drop’ was designed to be that call to action we can all rally around for a long time,” said Sarah Ceglarski, senior marketing director for Omelet, the creative agency that helped the city create the campaign. “By personalizing the relationship between citizens and the ‘Drop,’ we feel the campaign pushes home the idea that everyone needs to take responsibility for their own actions in this regard.”

Of course for L.A.’s wealthy—Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Barbra Streisand, and Tom Selleck have all been drought shamed—a $500 fine is truly a “drop” in the bucket.