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Wasting water can cost you $500

While state water regulators approved fines of up to $500 per day to encourage California residents to turn off the tap, several local Orange County water agencies don't have plans to dole out the punishment just yet.

However, that doesn't mean that fines won't happen, said Rob Hunter, general manager for the Municipal Water District of Orange County, a wholesale water supplier and resource planning agency that serves the majority of the county through retail water districts.

"The regulation is pretty short and crisp, but in the discussion [Tuesday], it was clearly stated that there wasn't a requirement for people to jump to this $500 fine," Hunter said. "It's up to the local agencies to give warnings — working with people and making sure they're aware of the new regulation."

The Municipal Water District of Orange County will be meeting with other local agencies in the coming days to determine enforcement procedures, Hunter said.

Local agencies that weren't already placing restrictions on water users now have the authority to fine individuals based on the water consumption rates shown on their bills or though catching people wasting water outdoors, Hunter said. Local water districts have complete control over enforcement.

The State Water Resources Control Board approved the fines on Tuesday while emphasizing that water supplies in reservoirs and rainfall are running low in California. Communities are at risk of running out of drinking water, as 80% of the state is experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades, said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus.

The board could fine local agencies up to $10,000 a day for failing to comply with the new water regulations.

"We are facing the worst drought that we or our grandparents have ever seen," Marcus said. "And, more important, we have no idea when it will end. The least that urban Californians can do is to not waste water on outdoor uses."

The regulations, she said, are meant to "spark awareness" of the seriousness of the drought and could be expanded if people fail to conserve.

Californians are now expected to stop washing down driveways and sidewalks, using hoses that aren't fitted with shut-off nozzles to wash their cars, and using drinkable water in certain decorative fountains.

The board's vote comes months after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to urge residents to reduce water use by 20%. Despite the call to action, the state's water consumption has increased compared to previous years.

"Many communities and water suppliers have taken bold steps over the years and in this year to reduce water use," the board commented in a press release. "However, many have not and much more can and should be done statewide to extend diminishing water supplies."

Huntington Beach, which manages its own water, already levies fines of up to $1,000 and can assign up to six months of jail time for residents who habitually waste water, said Travis Hopkins, public works director.

But water districts serving other parts of the county don't issue fines, instead attempting to educate water users about their consumption rates.

The Irvine Ranch Water District, which provides water to Irvine, Newport Beach, parts of Costa Mesa, unincorporated areas of the county and several other cities, doesn't plan to fine at this point, said Fiona Sanchez, director of water resources.

It has incentives built into its current rate structure that encourage customers to save water, Sanchez said.

Each customer has a water budget based on regional use for their particular site. When customers use more than their allocated amount, they're charged significantly more than normal water users.

"The goal is when the customer uses more than their allocation, they get a very strong price signal that alerts them that something isn't right," Sanchez said.

Often, people don't realize they are being billed as "wasteful" users until they see the price increase. The jump in cost often alerts people to water leaks in homes and businesses, which can then be remedied, Sanchez said.

Irvine Ranch Water District put the rate structure into effect in 1991 after a 1980s drought in Southern California. The program has reduced outdoor water use by 50% in the past 20 years, Sanchez said.

"In essence that's our alternative approach to fining people," she said. "I think our customers want to conserve. It's just sometimes they need a bit of extra help."

Over the past several years, Mesa Water, which serves Costa Mesa, John Wayne Airport and portions of Newport Beach, has made it a priority to encourage people to save the precious natural resource.

The district offers free "water-wise house calls" where a surveyor will visit homes to check for leaky pipes, prepare a water budget for the site and offer tips on landscaping to help ratepayers be more efficient, said Noelle Collins, spokeswoman for Mesa Water.

In 2009, Mesa Water adopted an ordinance that sets specific hours for watering lawns and prohibits actions similar to those set by the state board Tuesday.

Collins said she is unsure if Mesa Water will begin issuing fines.

"As of right now, we have to review the regulations and our ordinance and see what our next steps are," she said.

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