The threat of punishing water wasters with $500 penalties has caught Californians' attention, but officials of Los Angeles County's two largest municipal water departments see other ways to encourage conservation without resorting to fines.
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Prohibitions against water waste, to be imposed statewide next month by the California Water Resources Control Board, have already been in place in Long Beach since March, and in the city of Los Angeles since adopted in 2008 during the last drought.
Los Angeles issued $300 fines to repeat offenders from 2009-12, according to the Department of Water and Power, but none since then. The city of Long Beach has not issued any fines for water waste.
"It's never been our approach to want to be water cops," said Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, which has focused on educaton and persuasion, including a
rebate of up to $3,500 for replacing a lawn with drought tolerant landscaping.
"Peer pressure and having the community help each other out is the way to go," he said.
During the last drought, both Los Angeles and Long Beach were able to achieve water use cuts of close to 20 percent, the goal Gov. Jerry Brown requested anew last January when he proclaimed the current drought emergency.
Both cities report water consumption per person near 100 gallons a day, much less than in much of the rest of California.
But further reductions in water use have proven more elusive this year, in part due to weather that has been significantly warmer, averaging 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
In May, which was hit with two heat waves, Long Beach was unable to reduce water consumption from levels during the previous May, and water use in Los Angeles actually increased 2.4 percent, according to figures provided by the cities.
Nevertheless, officials in both cities express confidence that outreach programs will encourage their consumers to find further water savings.
Los Angeles has increased its lawn replacement incentive to a maximum of $6,000, according to Penny Falcon, DWP's water conservation policy manager. She noted the department is also mailing notifciations to all its water customers to spell out the permitted watering days - three a week, but which three depends on whether the address is even (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday) or odd (Monday, Wednesday, Friday).
DWP staffers known as water conservation response units investigate reports of sprinkler runoff, hardscape hosing, and other water waste. Since 2013, DWP has received 622 reports of
violations, conducted 235 field inspections, mailed 378 notifications and found 21 repeat offenders, but no three-time offenders, according to the DWP's Michelle Vargas.
How the new statewide regulations will be enforced was not spelled out Tuesday during the vote of approval by members of the Water Resources Control Board.
"I don't think they're planning to go out and ask us and local police to turn into water cops," said Wattier of Long Beach. "I think the main reason they did this up to $500 a day fine was to get people's attention."
Given the level of media attention, Wattier thinks it has, and believes increased awareness is a necessary first step to getting Californians to think about conservation every time they use water.
"The State Board's action sends a strong messsage to Californians and local water agencies that it's time to get serious about saving water," said Marcie Edwards, LADWP general manager, in a statement released Wednesday.
The day after the vote, in another bid for increased awareness, California's Water Resources Department unveiled a new public service video starring popstar Lady Gaga, encouraging Californians to conserve.
"She makes a good spokesperson," he said.
Stored water reserves have largely buffered Southern California from drought impacts already being felt north of the Tehachapi Mountains, particularly in San Joaquin Valley farming communities.
But Wattier warned that, at this rate, as much as half the reserves will be drawn down by the end of this year. Absent increased conservation, a fourth straight drier than normal winter is expected to result in water surcharges as an economic incentive to cutback.