Big fines might be next phase of California drought battle

Gov. Brown's latest plan to get tough on water wasters includes fines of up to $10,000 for 'worst offenders'

Is California about to get tough on water wasters?

That's the question after Gov. Jerry Brown this week announced plans to fine customers that waste water up to $10,000 per day in an effort to force conservation during the worsening drought. With Brown demanding urban areas cut water use by 25%, some wonder whether the state has much of a choice.

Are hefty fines the most effective tool?

Until now, many major cities including Los Angeles have shied away from issuing hefty fines. They argue they are getting strong results with a program that emphasizes educational information and warnings over big penalties.

Los Angeles has cut water use by about 10% since early last year and is on track to comply with Mayor Eric Garcetti's order to slash consumption by 20% by 2017.

Since January 2014, the L.A. Department of Water and Power has sent more than 7,300 warning letters and citations. As of several weeks ago, the department had issued only eight $100 fines and two $200 fines for watering violations.

Tiered water pricing under assault

Until recently, some water officials believed they had a more effective weapon in their arsenal to force conservation.

Many water agencies around California have adopted tiered water rates that essentially encourage conservation by charging heavy water users at a higher rate than lighter users.

But an appeals court last week threw the legality of this rate structure into question, saying an Orange County water agency's tiered rates were unconstitutional because it didn't show that the higher rates reflected only the cost of providing the water.

Higher fines for water wasters are another option.

“Fines are a tool, and they’re the last tool you use,” Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of California’s Water Resources Control Board said after Brown's announcement.

How one community got tough on water wasters

One possible model for the get-tough approach is Santa Cruz. Last summer, the coastal community imposed a strict rationing program. The city issued $1.6 million in water fines in 2014 and gave violators the option to waive their penalties by attending "water school." So many people attended that the city collected only about $800,000 in fines.

The governor’s proposal would also empower cities and counties to issue fines. Local governments would be able to enlist staff members to hand out warnings and citations, expanding the ranks of officials prodding Californians to meet conservation targets.

“Only the worst offenders” would face the maximum fines, Brown said.

Source: Times reports

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