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State water fines upped

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webmaster | 07/17/14

Conservation efforts weak

Reservoirs are running dry, the Capitol’s lawn has turned brown, and farmers have left hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.

In Madera, the drought behind those discouraging sights is being taken seriously by residents and governments alike, as fines and outdoor watering restrictions have already been enacted on city and county water users.

“At the county level we’ve reduced our water use by about 21 percent,” deputy public works director Kheng Vang said. “That’s about 79 acre-feet per month of water saved.”

However, Californians as a whole haven’t been doing their part. State water regulators are trying to change that and have imposed fines up to $500 a day for wasting water.

The State Water Resources Control Board acted this week amid warnings that conditions could get worse if it doesn’t rain this winter.

Many city and suburban residents often are not fully aware of the seriousness of the three-year drought, the worst in California since the mid-1970s, board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in an interview after the 4-0 vote.

The vote is historic, she said, not only because the steps are unprecedented in California but because the board is trying to spread the burden of the drought beyond farmers and agencies that are trying to protect wildlife.

“We’re all in this together,” Marcus said.

In Madera, those on county-and-city-owned wells can only water two days a week, with fines anywhere from $50 to $175 for repeat offenders.

Vang said Madera County’s goal was to reduce water use by 10 to 25 percent.

Since that goal had been met, he said it was unlikely the county will implement the $500 fine. Enforcement of it is largely left to each public entity as it sees fit. “This state fine is more for areas that don’t have a water contingency plan,” Vang said. “So for other water districts or systems, public or private, this puts those rules in place for them so they can adopt them and conserve water.”

The full $500-a-day fine, considered an infraction, could be reserved for repeat violators in other counties, for example. Others might receive warnings or smaller fines based on a sliding scale.

The hefty penalty follows a board report that consumption throughout the state actually rose by 1 percent in May, while Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking a 20 percent reduction in water use.

“We’re taking the prudent step of taking action as if it’s not going to rain for more years, because we know that’s possible,” Marcus said of the state’s decision.

The fines will apply only to wasteful outdoor water use, including watering landscaping to the point that runoff flows onto sidewalks, washing a vehicle without a nozzle on the hose or hosing down sidewalks and driveways — actions already prohibited in Madera.

The board estimates the restrictions, which take effect in early August, could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.

The rules include exemptions for public health and safety, such as allowing cities to power-wash alleyways to get rid of human waste left by homeless people, to scrub away graffiti and to remove oil and grease from parking structure floors.

If fines fail to promote conservation, Marcus said the board would consider other steps such as requiring water districts to stop leaks in their pipes, which 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.

Even with the leeway granted to local governments and water districts, some managers were unhappy with the board’s action.

Mark Madison, general manager of the Elk Grove Water District south of Sacramento, said the steps will unnecessarily punish customers who already have reduced consumption. Residents in his district have cut water use by more than 18 percent since last year.

“What you’re asking me to do right now is to thank them with a sledgehammer,” he told the board.

The increased usage noted in the report was attributed to two regions: Southern California coastal communities and the far northeastern slice of the state.

Some heavily populated Southern California water districts became so good at saving water and building their own water storage facilities in recent decades that residents confidently increased consumption at the start of the summer, according to officials.

The drought “doesn’t seem as big of a deal,” Andrew Rossignol said Wednesday as he washed his car in the driveway of his Santa Ana home. The city of Santa Ana increased May water use by 64 percent.

The 32-year-old musician recalls being taught to conserve water as a youngster. And though he still saves water, now the drought is something he hears mentioned in radio news reports or sees in fleeting public service messages on freeway signs.

No region of California, including Madera County, met Brown’s request for an overall 20 percent reduction, but some came closer than others. Communities that draw from the Sacramento River reduced consumption the most, by 13 percent, while those along the North Coast reduced consumption by 12 percent.

Madera County’s 21-percent reduction applies only to those on county-owned sources. Meanwhile private users can draw from aquifers as deep as their wells may reach, likely bringing down overall conservation.

San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California cities that draw from the Colorado River only decreased water use by 5 percent. But other cities did far better. The city of Folsom in Sacramento County led the way with a 31 percent water use drop for May. Five other cities conserved more than 20 percent of their May consumption.

Cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state’s water, with about half going outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of consumption in the state.

California farmers are just as guilty of using too much water as their urban neighbors, according to a separate report released Tuesday. The study by the University of California, Davis, found that some farmers — particularly those in Central California — could see their wells run dry next year unless the state sees a wet winter.

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Mark Smith of The Tribune contributed to this report.


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