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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Five years ago, when south-central Texas was suffering through its driest year in more than a century, public officials in the city of San Antonio turned in desperation to a new tactic to enforce water conservation: They dispatched the police.

From April 2009 and on through the rest of the year, off-duty officers and other city employees prowled neighborhoods looking for over-green lawns, leaky hoses and inveterate sidewalk-washers, issuing tickets to observed offenders. The city also set up an online form residents could use to report their neighbors, just in case the authorities let one slide.

“We don’t go out in a car with sirens blazing or anything like that,” San Antonio Water System spokeswoman Anne Hayden said back then. “But we do take the report and send out a letter saying, ‘You’ve been reported for not following water rules.’”

The gambit may have seemed extreme at the time, but it worked: The city used no more water in 2009 than it did in 1984, even with nearly twice the population. By 2011, the “water police,” along with other aggressive conservation policies, had driven the city’s water use down 130 gallons per person per day—about two-thirds of the state average. San Antonio’s now-permanent conservation ordinance has kept the water level in the aquifer stable enough to sustain both an endangered blind salamander and the city’s drinking water supply through successive years of drought.

In California, state and local officials have long been mulling a way to achieve a similar kind of success, and persuade the state’s residents to stop wasting water in this third-driest year of the century. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, asking the state’s residents politely to reduce their water use by 20 percent. It’s almost as if no one read the news that week: Statewide water use hardly declined at all; in some places, such as coastal San Diego and west Lake Tahoe, water consumption actually went up.

So in July, the State Water Control Board decided more draconian measures were in order. The agency directed local jurisdictions that don’t already have mandatory water restrictions in place to adopt them: No more hosing off driveways, running fountains that don’t recirculate and watering the sidewalk with a poorly aimed sprinklers. And it authorized local agencies to fine water scofflaws as much as $500 per day. Those restrictions went into effect last week.

The Desert Water Agency, the water utility for much of Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City and other parts of the west valley, will hold a public hearing on emergency conservation regulations, as well as potential restrictions and enforcement actions, at 8 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 1200 S. Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs. The Coachella Valley Water District, the water utility for the east valley, will hold a similar public hearing at 9 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 12, at the Steve Robbins Administration Building, 75515 Hovley Lane East, in Palm Desert.

Will these restrictions and fines work? Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, has done a lot of research into why people waste water during droughts. She has found that rate increases work, except when “price insensitive” wealthy residents—some of the West’s biggest water squanderers—choose to ignore them. Water budgets for consumers, like those adopted by the cities of Boulder, Colo., and Santa Rosa, Calif., are even more effective: If you use more than it appears that you need, your rate shoots up dramatically.

But mandatory water restrictions only work if they’re enforced. The city of Los Angeles reports that water use has dropped 17 percent since 2007, and mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use have been in place since 2009. Anecdotal observation, however, reveals the prohibition on driveway-washing is about as effective as the law against fireworks on the Fourth of July. In the crowded slice of coastal Los Angeles I call home, broken sprinkler systems still over-water boulevards—sometimes so thoroughly that trees topple from saturated roots. Nor do the limits curtail the 30-minute showers my neighbor takes every morning. The restrictions govern only outdoor water use, where 60 percent of the water goes. Overlong showers remain beyond their scope.

Pincetl thinks there might be a better approach: garden-variety public education. “I think we’ve lacked leadership (on water use),” says Pincetl. “We don’t have examples among our religious leaders, our political leaders or our media leaders of people taking the drought seriously.”

The governor asked for conservation, but “it’s not like the rabbis of L.A., or the Catholic Archdiocese or Ellen DeGeneres or any of these people who have prominent positions ever said anything about it. He needed to pick up the phone and call people,” Pincetl says. “He needed to say, ‘Help me out with this.’”

Pincetl advises against “drought-shaming”—confronting neighbors over their flagrant water crimes. “There’s a couple down the street from me; they’re Estonian, and probably suffered greatly in World War II.” When she gently corrected the woman in the couple for watering the sidewalk, “she blew up at me,” Pincetl says. It accomplished nothing.

“This is a campaign,” she says. “This about understanding we live in a water-restricted environment. We needsigns at libraries and grocery stores. We need Trader Joes to post messages about it.”

For the city of Los Angeles and its utility, however, the time for messaging alone to work may be over. LADWP officials have been staffing up their Water Conservation Response Unit since April, and soon plan to deploy staff to move past neighborly warnings and “fix-it” tickets to levying meaningful fines. First offenses will still get a warning (with pictures). After that, though, homeowners can expect $100 to $300 per violation, and owners of commercial buildings might incur fines as high as $600.

Even Pincetl admits that repeat violators might deserve pricey tickets at this point: “We’re in a drastic position now,” she says, “because we desperately need to conserve.” In the future and going forward, however, it might be wise for communities to develop “a more integrated set of strategies. If you haven’t exhausted all the remedies,” she says, “going from zero—doing nothing—to fining people? It just seems a little churlish.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News, where this story was originally published. The author is solely responsible for the content. The Independent’s Jimmy Boegle contributed the Coachella Valley-specific information to this piece.

Published in Local Issues

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”

Published in Local Issues

Despite last weekend’s helpful storms, it’s a fact: There’s a water shortage in California.

Depending on your news source, we’re told that the state is suffering either through its worst drought ever, the worst since the 1880s, or—at the least—the worst in the last 15 years.

“Not only was 2013 one of the driest years on record in California; it followed two dry years in 2011 and 2012,” said Craig Ewing, the Desert Water Agency’s president of the board, during his opening remarks at a recent DWA public workshop regarding water conservation and management.

Concern is highest in communities farther north, like Santa Barbara, where water restrictions mandated by a Stage 1 drought alert were initiated on Feb. 4. Customers there are being asked to reduce water usage by 20 percent. But even as such measures are being taken, some projections say that available water resources for that city could run out as early as July. “I am not calm and collected,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority, the agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to the Santa Barbara Independent.

Here in the Coachella Valley, the news is comparatively good news for Desert Water Agency customers. The agency serves customers in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. “We have underground storage called the aquifer here,” explained Ewing at the workshop. “Ninety percent of our water comes from that; 10 percent comes from snows and the creeks. So we aren’t in the desperate condition they’re in up north.”

The good news continues. Due to the combined efforts of the DWA on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District agency—which services most of the communities from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea—the water level in the aquifer has been supplemented frequently since 1973 through “recharging” of the supply with water obtained from the Colorado River as part of an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“We started banking natural runoffs during wet years,” Ewing said. “Now we’re trying to maintain a stable supply. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, since they’re telling us that the 21st century will be drier than the 20th. This comes down to some big issues around climate and geology and water availability, and your role as a human being to leave a smaller water footprint as we go forward.”

Ewing noted the fortunate reality at play in the Coachella Valley. “We live in a desert, and yet we have direct access to the California State Water Project, so we don’t pay a middle man,” he said. “We have this aquifer that actually filters the water so we don’t have to spend money on treatment, and it provides a valuable natural storage resource. We have to recognize that we are probably the most fortunate people out there with regard to water—but that’s no reason to ignore the drought problem.”

Also in attendance at the public workshop was Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who is currently running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “I’m here because I felt it was important to hear about the concerns that our constituency may have and to hear from the DWA what they are proposing. Everyone has to do their part at the end of the day. We have to do everything we can to protect our most important natural asset.”

DWA officials discussed some of the water-conservation efforts currently under way. The first is operational efficiency, which involves the water agency’s efforts to make sure it saves water in the way it’s delivered to the customer. This includes replacing damaged water mains, providing homeowners with smart water meters, and identifying irrigation-system leaks, among other initiatives.

Other efforts include educational outreach, customer incentives or rebates, and regulatory restrictions on water usage. Another conservation strategy, tiered-rate billing, is under serious consideration and study by the DWA.

For CVWD customers, tiered-rate billing is already business as usual.

“We started tiered rates in 2009,” said Heather Engel, CVWD director of communications and legislation. “And we didn’t get a lot of resistance from our customers. We did a pretty heavy education campaign, which included sending ‘shadow bills’ to every customer for three months prior to implementation. They got to see if their bill would go up, down or stay the same. And for 80 percent of our customers, the bill actually went down by a couple of pennies.

“Some people did accuse us of just trying to make more money,” Engel continued. “But it really was an education program. People maybe thought they were being very conscientious with their water use, but here was a guide that they could look at and say, ‘Wow! I’m being excessive.’ Maybe they had leaks they didn’t know about and could now address.”

Are tiered rates definitely in the future for DWA customers?

“If you ask me, I’d say yes,” said DWA board president Ewing. “But it will be a discussion for the board. I think we need to go there.”

Barbara Ojena, a Palm Springs citizen, seemed pleased that she attended the workshop.

“I was very impressed how on top of things the organization is. Personally, I’d like to see a few more regulations put in place at this time, because we are in a severe situation statewide. I think we need to make people more aware of that and conserve what we’ve got.”

Published in Environment

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