Some Merced County water officials and experts say there are better ways to conserve water in Merced County than to levy a new, bigger fine, an unprecedented step taken this week that declared certain types of water waste a criminal infraction similar to a speeding violation.
On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board set the allowable fine at $500 per day after seeing evidence that existing conservation measures are not working. Water-wasting would include allowing landscape watering to spill into streets, and hosing off sidewalks and driveways, among other practices.
It would be up to each jurisdiction whether to use the $500 fine or stick with their current citation rates.
Michael Wegley, director of water resources for the city of Merced, said fines of that size are unnecessary. “For us, it’s not about collecting fines and making money, it’s about getting people used to the change,” he said. “So we’re comfortable with the fine schedule we have.”
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In April, officials in Merced – as well as Atwater – adopted new restrictions limiting outdoor water use for residents. Both cities imposed financial penalties for violators of up to $150 for repeat offenders in Merced and up to $100 in Atwater.
Wegley said the efforts so far this year have been successful. In March, April and May, Merced’s water use was down by an average of about 12 percent from last year, he said.
Livingston adopted new drought-related restrictions in January with a $100 maximum fine for repeat offenders. There has also been a push in many Merced communities to install water meters on older homes to encourage conservation.
Despite efforts like those in Merced County, water usage has risen in the state. Californians as a whole have failed to conserve water during the worst drought in a generation, according to data reviewed by the state board at its meeting Tuesday in Sacramento.
Residential and business water use in California rose 1 percent in May compared to a three-year average for the same month from 2011 to 2013, according to a recent survey of 276 water agencies. Those agencies represent about two-thirds of all urban water users in the state.
No mandatory water limitations have been imposed in Los Banos or in unincorporated areas of Merced County. Officials representing those areas have asked residents to voluntarily conserve water.
Meadowbrook Water Co., which provides water to more than 6,500 people in the unincorporated Franklin-Beachwood area, has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent decrease in use between 2004 and 2010, according to operations manager Connie Farris. She credited the installation of water meters across the district with the decrease.
When people think that the water’s free because it’s included in a flat rate, they don’t watch what they use, Farris said.
It remains unclear who would collect the $500 fines and where the money would go in her water district, she said. Getting people to reduce their water use is the right idea, she said, but education would go further to bring water-wasting down than increasing fines.
While many parts of the state reported reductions, others broke even or increased use compared to the average of the last three years. Regions at the northern and southern tips of the state were the worst offenders.
The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state’s water in most years. About half of the urban water use is outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state’s consumption.
Scott Stoddard, a farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, said many farmers have made improvements in water efficiency over the last two decades through drip irrigation and other farming practices.
“Sometimes it doesn’t mean that we’re using less water, though,” he said. “It means we’re getting a lot more crop for the same amount of water.”
So, he said, reducing water use would be a difficult task. Governmental leaders, he said, could begin to look at ways to regulate the water pumped out of the ground, as well as ways to recharge underground aquifers.
Setting higher fines to push conservation would likely not lead to sustainable changes to water use, he said.