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This post has been updated.
Back in 2009, a thin crystal-blue line of “water cops” patrolled San Diego in search of leaky pipes, renegade car-washers and outlaw irrigation. A couple years later, the jobs vanished as drought restrictions loosened, and the city went back to enforcing its rules with less hoopla.
Now we’re back where we were then with mandatory restrictions on water use. The city hasn’t hiring another crew of water cops again, however, and no one’s been fined for violating drought laws regarding water use.
But things could change. Here are some questions and answers about how local agencies are handling drought restrictions and what could happen next.
What restrictions are in place now?
County water authorities declared a Stage 2 “drought alert” this summer, which means that conserving water is now mandatory instead of voluntary. (There are four stages of “drought response.” The highest one, “drought emergency,” requires mandatory conservation of more than 40 percent.)
Countywide, restrictions for all water consumers went into effect on Aug. 1, although some of these were already in effect in certain areas. Here are the new rules:
• Irrigation is only allowed three days per week except from November through May, when only once per week is allowed. (The city of San Diego has not implemented this rule.) Only water during the late evening and early morning hours. (There are potential exceptions. In San Diego, for example, nurseries are allowed to irrigate more frequently.)
• Irrigation runoff must be eliminated.
• Leaks must be fixed within 72 hours.
• No water fountains or other “water features” — those running-water doohickeys in your home or garden — unless they use recycled water.
• No car-washing outside of commercial car washes that use recirculated water unless a hose with a shut-off valve like a trigger nozzle is used.
• Restaurants may only serve water on request.
• Hotel guests must have the option of not having their linens and towels washed daily.
• Construction must use recycled or non-potable water when available.
Do any of these restrictions make a big difference?
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any analysis of what works and doesn’t work,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research institute in Oakland that focuses on water use.
But, he said, “there is new evidence that incentives to remove lawn — so-called ‘cash for grass’ or ‘lawn to garden’ policies — are very effective. These kinds of permanent improvements are more effective and long-lasting than voluntary or mandatory requests to change behavior.”
What happened to the water cops?
They’re still here, sort of.
The city of San Diego hired 10 people in 2009 to handle water-waste investigations, enforcement and a hotline when mandatory water restrictions went into effect during a drought. The positions disappeared in 2011 when the drought restrictions lifted, the city said.
The city still investigates water waste using its existing staff, and everyone is supposed to pitch in, even City Council types.
“Essentially, every city worker is charged with understanding and enforcing water use restrictions,” Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said. “They do that in their own work and report problems with private property and other agencies to our code enforcement team.”
Elsewhere in the county, San Diego County Water Authority spokesman Mike Lee said he’s not aware of any agencies that have dispatched water cops.
Is anybody getting fined for violating drought rules?
Not yet, at least not in the city of San Diego this year.
“Almost always, the problem is corrected once it is brought up to the attention of the owner,” Gustafson said. “If the problem persists, city staff will contact the owner by phone or in person to explain the problem and get the owner to take corrective action. If the problem is still not corrected at this point, the issue is referred to Code Compliance Officers who usually will send a warning letter first before issuing a citation.”
But this doesn’t mean you can leave the sprinkler on forever. The city has rules about water use that are in place whether there’s a drought or not, and people can get fined for offenses like over-irrigating and allowing too much run-off. Fines for citations run from $100 to $1,000.
How bad could things get?
As drought restrictions go, San Diegans have it pretty easy at the moment. In Sacramento and Riverside, for instance, residents can only water their lawns or wash their cars on certain days of the week.
Other areas are more restrictive: In the Big Bear area, no turf irrigation will be allowed from November-May. And in central California’s Gold Country, Tuolumne County (home to the town of Sonora) had required conservation of 50 percent, with some residents required to cut their water use by 25 percent compared with last year or face fines.
“As the drought worsens, we will see a shift from voluntary to mandatory policies, increased enforcement, and a larger number of agencies imposing such restrictions,” said Gleick of the Pacific Institute. “The drought, as bad as it is, could get far worse. Experience from a very long severe drought in Australia showed that current U.S. restrictions are relatively mild compared to what will have to be imposed in the drought continues and worsens.”
A 2008 BBC article explains how bad things got during the Australia drought of the late 2000s: In Brisbane, residents could only use fewer than two bathfuls of water a day. In Melbourne, kids used timers to limit their showers to two minutes.
A Forbes story, also from 2008, described the situation in Melbourne this way: “Roving patrols enforce the rules, and if you receive a warning but persist, you could be prosecuted, fined and see your water supply reduced to a trickle.”
The City Council will meet in October to figure out whether it needs to bump up the rules about water use due to the drought. Regionally, the San Diego County Water Authority will know more about the upcoming water situation in early 2015, said Lee, as we learn how much rain and snow is falling on California.
If the drought continues into its fourth year, the region will probably get less water from its main supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, he said. In that case, the impact on the county will be lessened a bit because of the water we get from the Colorado River and expect to get from the plant under development in Carlsbad. It will produce drinkable water from sea water by taking out the salt.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly explained some of the city’s water restriction rules. We apologize for the error.