In the wealthy enclave of Los Angeles, tougher penalties for wasting water | New Policies

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE, Associated Press

In a wealthy enclave along the Santa Monica Mountains that’s a celebrity haven, residents are now facing more aggressive consequences for wasting water.

The municipal water district of Las Virgenes in northwest Los Angeles hopes to boost water conservation by making it easier to impose fines on households that go over their allotted “water budget” and threatening to dramatically limit water flow to customers who repeatedly fail to save.

The district offers a bold example of how local officials in drought-stricken California are trying to get people to use less water, voluntarily if possible, but with the threat of punishment if they don’t. not conform. Las Virgenes officials hope their approach will be a wake-up call for residents of affluent neighborhoods, where most water is used outdoors like landscaping and swimming pools.

“What we’re trying to do is conserve water now so we can stretch the limited supplies we have,” said Dave Pederson, district general manager.

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California is feeling the effects of climate change; it has experienced drought conditions for most of the past decade and during that time has suffered its most destructive and deadly wildfires. After two exceptionally dry years that left reservoirs across the state at or near record highs, a series of recent winter storms have improved conditions. But most of the state is still in severe drought.

In July, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom asked residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%, but water consumption fell by only 6% in November. The state water board last month imposed a series of light restrictions, such as waiting two days after a storm to water lawns. He could take bigger steps later in the year if the drought intensifies.

In California, local districts provide water service, regulate usage, and enforce penalties. Las Virgenes serves approximately 75,000 people in Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Calabasas and Hidden Hills, an area that in recent years has attracted a growing number of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Will Smith.

Like much of the Southern California interior, Las Virgenes rarely sees rain outside of the winter months, and during the summer the average high temperature is in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius). That’s richer than most places — a typical home in Calabasas sells for over $1.5 million, according to online real estate marketplace Zillow.

Despite calls for conservation, water customers increased their consumption there in August and September, then exceeded the 15% reduction target in October before missing the target again in November. Collectively, customers far exceeded their water budgets last year.

One of the district’s biggest problems is “the ability of affluent customers to consistently significantly exceed their water budgets since money is no deterrent,” said Michael McNutt, spokesman for the district. He declined to share the names of the district’s biggest water users.

About 70% of the district’s water is used outdoors, and many are willing to pay a higher water bill to keep their lawns and gardens lush and their swimming pools filled.

“It seems there has been a lackluster response to the water emergency,” said Calabasas Mayor Mary Sue Maurer, who thinks restricting water flow could set the alarm bells ringing. that some people need.

Due to dry conditions, California regulators said in December they would not provide water from state supplies beyond what was needed for essentials like drinking and bathing. This could change in the coming months, but allocations are unlikely to increase significantly unless the winter is very wet. The uncertainty is particularly stressful for Las Virgenes, which gets about 80% of its water from state supplies.

The district’s new approach to boosting conservation is part carrot, part stick:

The agency is installing an advanced water meter system that will show customers in real time how much water they are using. It’s designed to help people spot when they’re over the limit and adjust their behavior, rather than waiting for the monthly bill to arrive only to realize they’ve overused. They will be installed across the district by April, except for customers opting out, which few have done.

Each household has a “water budget,” something used by many California water districts, based on the number of residents and the size of the property. Starting this month, customers will face fines if they go over their monthly budget by 150%. Previously, the threshold for fines was 200% and about 15% of customers in the district were fined, Pederson said. People only get a warning the first time they go over budget.

But fines are not the most severe sanction; households with three fines could have a flow restrictor put on their water system, slowing what comes out of their faucets or pipes to a trickle. Previously, the district could add the restrictors after five fines, but never did.

Wealthier Californians didn’t conserve as much as others during the last drought, even when the state mandated it, said Mehdi Nemati, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. He works with water agencies on conservation programs but not with Las Virgenes.

Las Virgenes’ approach to advanced metering, fines and the threat of flow restrictors stands out among the state’s more than 400 mid- to large-sized water agencies, he said. . Only a few dozen neighborhoods have advanced metering systems because they are expensive to install, and few use penalties against residents who abuse them. Instead, many districts increase the cost of water as customers use more of it.

Such a method changes behavior for some but is not very effective in changing it for wealthy people, he said. Las Virgenes also uses such a structure and then adds penalties on top.

It’s even rarer for a district to threaten flow restrictors, which are typically reserved for customers who consistently fail to pay their bills. Nemati guessed that the politics of Las Virgenes would invite lawsuits.

“The agency is pretty brave if they really want to do this,” he said.

Las Virgenes doesn’t want to be tough with fines or restrictions, said Pederson, the general manager. Fines start at $2.50 and can go up to $10 for every 748 gallons (2,831 liters) above the 150% threshold. The average home in the district uses 19,448 gallons (73,618 liters) of water per month, most of it outdoors.

District officials have acknowledged that many customers stick to their water budget.

“Our system helps us target the message to the people who are really, frankly, the problem,” Pederson said.

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