California Cities Struggle To Enforce Mandatory Water Restrictions
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This month, California's governor ordered water use in the state to be cut by 25 percent overall. Specific targets were put in place for each city as well. Many of them already had their own conservation rules but will now have to do more to avoid hefty fines. San Diego imposed water restrictions in November, and Claire Trageser of member station KPBS reports the city is struggling to enforce them.
CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It's a few minutes after sunrise and Travis Pritchard and Jamie Hampton are stalking waterways through the streets of San Diego.
TRAVIS PRITCHARD: It's right there. You can see it coming off. Right here.
JAMIE HAMPTON: Just complete oversaturation of water and it's just running off down the sidewalk.
TRAGESER: They're in Hampton's old VW van and are trying to find the source of a big puddle by following its trickling gutter trails.
HAMPTON: Yeah. We just drove - three blocks?
PRITCHARD: It was constantly wet.
HAMPTON: The entire gutter system is filled with water.
TRAGESER: Pritchard works for the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper. He's out scouring the streets for water waste because, he says, the city isn't.
PRITCHARD: Currently, I don't see the city doing any enforcement at all. And what really they need to be doing is out there aggressively finding the problems and following it all the way through until it's fixed.
TRAGESER: San Diego imposed water rules in November, including only watering lawns three days a week for no more than seven minutes, but the city didn't have enough staff to go out and look for violators. Instead, it asked residents to rat out their neighbors and relied on those reports to find water waste. That's why Pritchard is acting like a vigilante water cop.
PRITCHARD: Mandatory measures without any sort of effective enforcement are just voluntary measures.
HALLA RAZAK: So when we would receive a complaint, we would send a letter and give folks a couple of weeks to fix that.
TRAGESER: Halla Razak is the head of San Diego's Public Utilities Department. She says up until now, water rule breakers have gotten three chances to fix a problem before facing fines of up to $500. No one has been fined so far. But now San Diego has to cut its water use by 20 percent, so by violators will get two strikes instead of three. The city will also slash sprinkler use at parks and restart a rebate program for homeowners who take out their grass. Razak says, even if you're following all the water rules...
RAZAK: There's always more that people can do, of course. Instead of a five-minute shower, you can do a three-minute shower.
TRAGESER: She also has more unconventional suggestions.
RAZAK: Please keep a bucket in your shower and that heat-up water that gets wasted, collect that and do anything you want to do with it, including fixing pasta if you wanted to.
TRAGESER: Back on their water-waster hunting expedition, Pritchard and Hampton have found the source of the puddle that pooled on the street. Sprinklers are drenching a small patch of grass at an apartment complex a few blocks away.
PRITCHARD: They've saturated it and it's just soggy, running off.
TRAGESER: Pritchard snaps a picture with his phone to make a report to the city. That starts the process that theoretically could lead to a fine for the apartment complex owner if the problem isn't fixed. Pritchard points out that San Diego only cut its water use by 2 percent last year.
PRITCHARD: We really need to be stepping up as a leader for water conservation, and I see the city just plodding along and doing really the bare minimum or just under that.
TRAGESER: The city is now planning to hire a few extra staff to drive the streets and look for water waste, but a slow hiring process could mean it'll be months before that policing begins. For NPR News I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.