SF, Peninsula cities to impose fines on repeat water wasters 

click to enlarge Some California residents have stopped watering their lawn altogether after Gov. Jerry Brown asked for a 20 percent cut in water use. - DAMIAN DOVARGANES/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Damian Dovarganes/ap file photo
  • Some California residents have stopped watering their lawn altogether after Gov. Jerry Brown asked for a 20 percent cut in water use.

San Francisco and cities on the Peninsula are taking their most drastic steps yet to crack down on repeat water wasters as California grapples with a three-year drought that's showing no signs of improving.

Last week, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission approved its first mandatory water-conservation measure in The City in more than two decades. And as of this month in at least three San Mateo County cities, wasting water could mean a visit from a police officer and up to a $500 fine.

The SFPUC supplies water to virtually all of San Mateo County, and is currently at about 60 percent of systemwide storage capacity.

The heightened enforcement follows emergency water-regulation measures approved by the California Office of Administrative Law on July 28 that prohibit water waste and make infractions punishable by fines of up to $500.

Officials from several cities told The San Francisco Examiner this week that conservation efforts begin with education, but repeat wasters can expect to be fined.

Earlier this month, the Foster City and Hillsborough city councils unanimously approved mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use while also authorizing police officers to enforce such rules and issue fines of up to $500 to noncompliant residents. The Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to vote next week on a similar resolution also calling for police to cite repeat offenders.

Restrictions that could carry fines include washing vehicles with a hose that does not have an automatic shut-off valve and watering outdoor flora that leads to runoff on sidewalks or in gutters and streets, or during most daylight hours.

"When you start dealing with this sort of stuff and you cite people, you want to have somebody who has that kind of experience dealing with the public," Foster City Councilman Herb Perez said of using police officers for enforcement.


In Menlo Park, pending City Council approval of the water-restricting resolution Tuesday, conservation enforcement will also be handled by police to track how often repeat water wasters are contacted.

"The Police Department has the ability to issue citations and document addresses ... so that's the best way for the city to handle any type of violation," explained Jesse Quirion, Menlo Park's interim Department of Public Works director.

Police will respond to calls of water-use violations if the city's code enforcement officer, a nonsworn employee of the Police Department who was designated to enforce the ordinance, is unavailable, said Randy Schwartz, Hillsborough's city manager.

Another Peninsula city, Daly City, passed a similar water-restricting ordinance Aug. 11, but staff with the Water and Wastewater Resources Department will issue potential fines instead of police, said Patrick Sweetland, the department's director.

Other cities -- including San Mateo, Burlingame and San Bruno -- are urging residents to reduce water use, but there are no immediate plans to fine repeat wasters.

In San Francisco, the SFPUC on Aug. 12 approved a 10 percent mandatory outdoor-irrigation reduction -- its first required water-conservation measure since 1988 -- that will be enforced on some 1,600 dedicated irrigation customer accounts, about half of which are municipal agencies.

The other half is a "wide assortment" of customers, essentially "anyone who has a meter for dedicated irrigation," SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue said.

Most residences will likely be exempt from the outdoor-irrigation reduction since they typically have just one water meter, Jue said, and it's impossible to determine how much water is being used outside versus inside.

"We're not really enforcing this on our normal customers," Jue said.


At the end of the fiscal year next June, the SFPUC said it will review usage data from 2013 to determine which customers used more than 90 percent of their allotted water in 2014 and will likely bill those customers at two times their water rate for that amount.

The SFPUC is scheduled to finalize charges for excess use at its Tuesday meeting.

Additionally, The City is streamlining its efforts to handle reports of water wasters. Residents can report a violation by calling 311, Jue said, and reports of private water waste will be handled by the SFPUC conservation team.

A resident accused of wasting water will receive two warning letters, followed by a visit from the SFPUC to try to document the report. After the third notification, the resident could be fined at least $100.

No citations had been issued in The City as of this week.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service said the state needs at least the average annual rainfall this year to fill its depleting 154 reservoirs, which could be tapped dry by next summer if California fails to receive enough rain.

The average annual rainfall in San Francisco is 23.65 inches. On the Peninsula, average rainfall varies from 20.65 inches near San Francisco International Airport to 16.15 inches in Palo Alto. The mountainous areas in Woodside and La Honda average 40 inches of rain. Rain years are measured from July 1 to June 30.

The chance of an El Niño wet weather pattern emerging in fall and early winter recently decreased to about 65 percent for the Northern Hemisphere, but that doesn't rule out the prospect of more than normal rain in California.

Since July 29, 58 percent of the state -- more than ever before, including much of Northern California and nearly all of the Bay Area -- has been in D4 drought classification, which is the U.S. Drought Monitor's most severe stage.

"It's completely possible that we'll get several Pineapple Expresses that fill our reservoirs," Mark Strudley, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said of the tropical storms that bring several days of heavy rain. "We don't have any predictability for that unless we get really close to the event."

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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