California law enables public shaming of those who waste water

Households like Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane were public shamed after being fined for excessive water usage. Photo: Google MapsHouseholds like Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane were public shamed after being fined for excessive water usage.
Photo: Google Maps

Although most of California has continued to conserve water during the ongoing drought after mandatory water usage cuts were dropped, the state has now passed legislation to discipline water wasters if conservation levels fall.

A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday requires urban water suppliers, cities, water districts and private water companies with more than 3,000 customers to institute rules that define “excessive water use” and enforce them during drought emergencies.

Water agencies can choose between two options. They can either offer tiered rates that charge a higher amount to those who go over a certain target or fine households that go over a determined amount.

Marin Municipal and North Marin water districts already have rules in place that follow the tiered option.

For water providers that decide to fine households that exceed approved water usage, those customers’ names must be made public due to a requirement in the state Public Records Act that obligates suppliers to name those who have been fined for excessive use.

“Household that guzzle water – while their neighbors and most other Californians abide by mandatory reductions – will no longer be able to hide and persist in their excess,” state Sen. Jerry Hill told the Marin Independent Journal.

Hill pushed the bill, SB 814, after reading about how some customers ignored the requests for conservation and used 12 million gallons last year. Since some water agencies charge the same amount per unit of water, no matter how much is used, wealthy homeowners can afford to continue to be wasteful.

East Bay Municipal Utility District passed an excessive use ordinance itself last year. It penalized households that used 984 gallons of water or more per day, which is four times the district’s average of 246 gallons a day per household.

Those who went over 984 gallons a day were charged $2 per water unit. Heavy water users didn’t see a large price jump in bills, but the fine still resulted in their names being made public.

As a result, Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane, Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil, and a Chevron vice president, George Kirkland, were outed as water wasters.

“Most of them were never on the list again,” East Bay MUD spokeswoman Andrea Pook told the Bay Area News Group. “We don’t have any hard data about how much of it was public shaming and how much of it was financial. People are motivated by different things.”

The ordinance was dropped in the summer after winter rains boosted supplies.

The new law will only come into effect if California is in a drought emergency and a water agency is subject to mandatory conservation either by the state or its own management plan.

While the state does still remain in a drought emergency that Brown declared in January of 2014, the mandatory water conservation targets were lifted in June. Officials say they would only be reinstated if conservation levels drop and winter rains fail to appear.

Not every water agency approves of the law, including the San Diego County Water Authority, the city of Roseville and the Association of California Water Agencies.

The association argued in a letter that the bill was “a top down statewide approach,” arguing that “local control is the most effective path to mitigating the effects of drought.”

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