Drought: Water Savers Fined, Rich Get Free Reign

The number of penalties issued to water wasters during California’s record drought has decreased as most water agencies have successfully complied with a mandatory order to cut water use by 25 percent statewide.

However, the state’s complex water management system has created a scenario in which individuals who have cut back the most are often fined, while rich super-users pay to consume as much water as they want.

The latest report from the State Water Resources Control Board indicates that statewide compliance and enforcement actions issued against water wasters dropped from 92,868 in August to 77,763 in September, as the state exceeded Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory cutback target for a fourth straight month.

But the decrease in issued penalties is of little comfort to Apple Valley resident Debbie Alberts, who, despite having cut her water use by more than half this year, told the New York Times that she pays hefty “drought surcharges” on a water bill that can routinely reach hundreds of dollars. Alberts’s last bill included a surcharge of nearly $80, putting the total bill above $330.

“It’s impossible to get under the line,” Alberts, a part-time food service worker, told the paper. “We wash clothes once a week. We flush every third time. Sometimes we go to the laundromat because we’re afraid.”

Meanwhile, in posh areas of Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area, households that can afford it use millions of gallons of water per year with little or no repercussions. A recent investigation found that one such “mega-user,” now known as the “Wet Prince of Bel Air,” used 11.8 million gallons of water last year, enough to serve the needs of nearly 100 California households. The Wet Prince was estimated to have spent nearly $90,000 on water alone last year.

Not only can these mega-users (365 households that used more than one million gallons last year) keep their lawns green and pools filled with little or no difficulty, but water agencies have not identified any of them publicly, as some agencies have begun doing to “droughtshame” users into cutting back. Compare that with Dave Wilson, a Los Angeles homeowner who was fined $600 for watering his lawn on the wrong day of the week; Wilson’s name and address were reportedly publicized by the city.

Barb Stanton, mayor pro tem of Apple Valley–where median income is less than $50,000 a year–told the Times that she has paid drought surcharges herself, even after ripping our her lawn and replacing it with rocks.

“They have all this disposable income, and they’re not conserving at all,” Stanton told the paper of cities like Bel Air and Beverly Hills, the latter of which was recently slapped with a $60,000 fine for failing to comply with Brown’s cutback order.

Some water agencies, including one in Oakland and one in the Coachella Valley, have begun experimenting by issuing penalties to the heaviest users.

However, officials may have a disincentive to publicize the state’s biggest wasters. An investigation last year found that 26 public officials, including water and utility officials, used more than double the amount of water used by the average California household in 2013.


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