Consumers in the highest tier of water users could be fined as much as $40,000 a month if the drought worsens and they refuse to reduce consumption deemed "unreasonable," under a plan approved Wednesday by commissioners of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
"What's been missing in the water conservation ordinance is the ability to address what we call these mega-users," said Marty Adams, LADWP senior assistant general manager, offering this definition: "The folks that we see listed in the paper, using millions and millions of gallons of water a year, and no real recourse." DWP has not identified "mega users" by name, but has released statistics on the highest usage by area. Last year it was revealed a property in Bel Air was consuming 32,000 gallons a day. Consumption in Beverly Hills, known for its large, lushly landscaped properties of the wealthy, has dropped since the city began threatening to impose significant fines. The plan for Los Angeles would amend the city's existing emergency water conservation ordinance, which dates back to the previous drought of 2008. City council approval is required and expected. Last year, the council and Mayor Eric Garcetti called for a "more aggressive approach to water conservation," as the mayor put it. "The program approved today gives us stronger tools to fight excessive water use," said Garcetti in a written statement. It could take effect as soon as summer. Water districts throughout California remain under state mandate to reduce water consumption to target levels that vary by area. The target reduction for Los Angeles is currently 16 percent, and the city has met that during the past 18 months, but remains under "phase two" drought restrictions. The DWP has a water conservation unit which investigates reports of violations of specific rules against water waste, such as yard watering during the heat of the day or more than three days a week, hosing down hardscape, and failure to repair leaks. DWP increased staffing of the unit last year, and expects to add two more personnel in the next few months, according to spokeswoman Amanda Parsons. Under the current ordinance, consumers found in violation the first time get off with a warning. A second violation can draw a $100 fine, the third $200, the fourth $300, and a fifth can lead to the installation of a flow restrictor. When consumers are notified, 90 percent take care of the problem, and only four $300 fines have been levied in the past year and a half, according to Adams. DWP traditionally has relied on educating consumers, and subsidizing programs such as lawn replacement to reduce water use. Nevertheless, DWP now sees need for changes to "better reflect the severity of the current drought conditions," said Penny Falcon, DWP manager of water conservation policy, speaking Wednesday to the DWP Board of Commissioners. The current penalty schedule remains in effect if the drought does not worsen. But if it were to move into a higher phase, the penalties would double across the boards, and for every higher phase thereafter. If the drought were to reach Phase 5, in which all landscape watering would be forbidden, a second violation would face a $400 fine, and a fourth violation $1,200. In addition to those fines, DWP plans a separate program to investigate the water consumption of "mega users," seeking uses that are "unreasonable" or could be reduced. If so, DWP could set a "water budget," even if the property owner is not in violation of any of the specifically forbidden misuses. The focus would be properties where water usage rises month after month and not only in summer to tier 4, the highest level of pricing tiers under the DWP's recently revised billing system. Adams expects as many as 40,000 of DWP's customers will have tier 4 usage during the hot months of the year, but fewer in cooler months. Consumers would be given one billing cycle to comply with the water budget, then face fines that would begin at $1,000 for every month in violation. If the consumer remains out of compliance, the fine would increase to $2,000 at six months, $3,000 at one year, $4,000 after 18 months. Like the much smaller penalties for the misuse violations, fines for top tier "unreasonable" use would automatically increase if the drought worsened into higher phases. In phase five, the initial fine would be $10,000 a day, increasing every six months, and topping out after 18 months at $40,000. Two DWP Commissioners questioned this, concerned the approach would not accommodate the needs of large families, or properties with orchards. "It is unfair to penalize people who have larger properties, maybe more people living within their home," said Christina Noonan, the only commissioner who voted against the proposal. Speaking during the meeting, Commissioner Jill Barad said she has fruit trees and grows vegetables at her home and asked staff if the water audits and budgets would account for that. Adams said they would, along with other factors such as property size and localized climate, it generally being more extreme north of the Hollywood Hills in the San Fernando Valley. The methodology for how to compute the reasonableness of water use is a work in progress and will be developed with technical guidance from the state, Adams said. Given the variations between properties, he sees the audits as a better approach than simply requiring all customers to reduce consumption by the same percentage — the citywide goal set by the California Department of Water Resources. "If someone says 'I don't need to comply, I have the money, I can afford the water bill,' then we have some teeth in the ordinance that allows us to police that and apply fines," Adams said. Whether Los Angeles will in fact move into a higher drought phase will depend to a great extent of the results of the Sierra snowpack depth survey the first of next month, Adams said. Delivered hundreds of miles by the California and Los Angeles aqueducts, Sierra snowmelt ordinarily provides a significant amount of LA's water. Major reservoirs in the north are now near normal levels, and in some cases above. But Southern California has had another drier-than-average winter, failing to provide much groundwater replenishment, and Adams said it would it would not be wise to drawn down the water stored in the north too quickly.