Californians continue to save water, but 4 suppliers hit with fines

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Despite sizzling hot temperatures in September, California as a whole was still able to scare up a 26 percent cut in water use compared to the same month in 2013.

The State Water Resources Control Board on Friday released the latest water use numbers, which show California is on track to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's call to slash overall water use 25 percent by the end of February. But officials also issued their first fines against water agencies that officials say are not doing enough to cut back.

The cities of Beverly Hills, Redlands and Indio and the Coachella Valley Water District have all been issued fines of $61,000. The four agencies have constantly failed to meet their individual conservation targets. The water board has the authority to issue fines of $500 a day for failure to comply with the state's emergency water regulations. The fines stretch all the way back to June 1 — the first day those regulations took effect. 

The four water agencies have 20 days to appeal the fines. 

"Up and down the state, residents and water suppliers are making the necessary sacrifices needed to help California meet its conservation goals. However, some urban water suppliers simply have not met the requirements laid before them," said Cris Carrigan, director of the Office of Enforcement. "For these four suppliers, it's been too little too late to achieve their conservation standard."

In a statement, the city of Beverly Hills said it has been working "aggressively" to meet its water conservation goals, developing a program that incorporates education, rebates and penalties. The penalty surcharges didn't go into effect until October. The rest of the statement goes on:

"Beverly Hills is very concerned about meeting the 32% goal set by the state. As such, the City is committed to continuing the outreach and implementing additional programs, such as new penalty surcharges, hiring additional staff to address water violations and developing individualized conservation programs that will help us achieve reductions we need."

Redlands was informed late Thursday about the fine, which a city spokesman characterized as "hefty."

"We were surprised… We had no indication that we would be receiving a fine so we were surprised by it," Redlands public information officer Carl Baker told KPCC.

The water department will be meeting with the Redlands City Council on Tuesday to present the options for dealing with the fine and decide on next steps.

For its part, the Coachella Valley Water District said it was also considering "new approaches to encourage increased conservation."

"We will be bringing those options to the next CVWD Board of Directors meeting [Nov. 10]," said district general manager Jim Barrett.

The Indio Water Authority said in a statement that they were aggressively working toward its 32 percent water conservation goals set by the state and had just added a drought penalty surcharge earlier this month.

“While we are disappointed with today’s action, like other water agencies across California, we are concerned about not meeting the 32% goal set by the state," IWA General Manager Brian Macy said in the statement. "IWA will continue to explore additional programs to help us achieve the reductions we need. ... We are committed to conserve."

Locally, other cities like Los Angeles, Long Beach, Ventura and Santa Ana continue to meet their state-mandated cutback goals.

Since June, the state has posted cumulative savings of 28 percent.

But the September figures show the state's conservation efforts continue to taper off following a peak savings rate of 31.4 percent in July. One concern among state water officials, ironically, is the change of seasons. Opportunities for big water savings are dwindling as the state heads into the cooler late fall and winter months, when water use typically drops off. 

"Millions of Californians have saved water during the summer months, which are the four most critical months to save water," said water board chair Felicia Marcus. "Now, we need to keep it up as best we can, even as we hope for as much rain and snow as we can safely handle. We're in the position of having to prepare for drought and flooding at the same time, but that's what we're faced with."

Overall, nearly three-quarters of urban water districts are either hitting their conservation targets or are within one percentage point. Another 100 are from 1 to 15 percentage points off their goals, and six are above 15 percentage points.

The goals are cumulative over the nine-month reduction period the state established. That means districts that have yet to meet their goals must make even deeper cuts going forward to have any hope of reaching their targets. 

One concern for water officials is what they call "a significant decrease" in efforts by water districts to enforce water cutbacks.  In September, the state's water agencies as a whole reported taking 77,763 compliance and enforcement actions — a decrease of 16 percent from August.

This story has been updated.
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