Article courtesy of Jason Green | September 17, 2014 | San Jose Mercury News | Shared as educational material
Water wasters in Palo Alto could face fines of $100 per day following a unanimous decision by the City Council.
Council members approved the penalty Monday for residents and businesses that ignore multiple warnings and violate three outdoor water-use restrictions adopted last month in response to one of the worst droughts on record.
“It’s a difficult time,” said Vice Mayor Liz Kniss. “It doesn’t look like we’re coming to the end of this anytime soon and I think it’s very important that we do the absolute best we can in that area of conservation.”
Drinking water cannot be used in non-recirculating fountains and decorative water features or to wash down sidewalks and driveways. Some landscape irrigation is also forbidden between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Drip systems, soaker hoses and hand watering are exempt.
The restrictions were adopted in response to an emergency mandate from the State Water Resource Control Board in July. Prohibitions on irrigation runoff and hoses without automatic shut-off nozzles, which the board also ordered, are already in place in Palo Alto.
Senior resource planner Nico Procos said nearly 50 violations have been reported since the restrictions were adopted.
The city is responding to first and second violations with a door hanger, email or phone call. A third violation results in a certified letter from Utilities Director Valerie Fong. Following the council vote, a fourth violation is now punishable by a fine of $100 per day.
Procos said the city is still focusing on education and does not expect to issue fines right away.
“We think that most people want to do the right thing and we want to give them an opportunity to do the right thing,” he said. “We really are not anticipating at this time that it’s going to be necessary to impose fines, but we do need the authority to do so just in case.”
Channing Avenue resident Rita Vrhel called the $100 fine “ludicrous” and suggested setting it at $500.
“I think people need to change their attitude,” Vrhel said about the water wasters she encounters on her daily walks. “It’s not whether you can afford it or not. It is a community resource. Once it is gone, it is gone.”
Councilwoman Karen Holman, meanwhile, expressed misgivings about the city’s plans to hire what she called a “water cop.”
The “water waste coordinator” would “log incidents, coordinate field crews to respond to reports, track number of incidents per site and help with issuance of certified letters and enforcement,” according to a city staff report. The city’s water fund would cover the $29,000 cost of the position.
“I think it seems premature to hire a $29,000 enforcement person at this time,” Holman said. “It may become obvious and necessary in a couple of months.”
Fong countered that the position was necessary to achieve the city’s various water conservation goals.
“We’ll probably use a lot of our existing field staff to help with some of the door hangers and thing like that,” she said.
Councilwoman Gail Price sided with Fong.
“With this kind of an approach, I think we really need to have an enforcement component,” Price said. “And you need to really be able to fund that so that this has some meaning.”
Procos noted that residents reduced their water use 13 percent between February and July compared with the same period last year.
Councilman Larry Klein said the city needs to do a better job. One option would be to get more residents to sign up for a program that offers rebates to those who swap out traditional lawns for drought-resistant landscaping. Palo Alto is one of the highest per capita water users among the 26 agencies that comprise the Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency, he said.
“We use lots of water and it’s primarily because we have extensive lawns and we love our lawns,” Klein said. “We have a lot of room to grow our program and I certainly hope we can.”