July 23, 2014 / 3:45 AM / 5 years ago

Drought-stricken California agencies seek 'water cops'

SAN JOSE Calif. (Reuters) - Hosing down a driveway in drought-stricken California could soon mean a visit from the “water cops,” as agencies throughout the state begin beefing up staff to enforce strict new conservation rules set to take effect next month.

A buoy meant for boaters rests on the dry bed of Lake Mendocino, in California February 25, 2014. REUTERS/Noah Berger

The water district serving the state’s Silicon Valley tech hub unanimously approved spending half a million dollars on enforcement, including agents, at a board meeting Tuesday night. Los Angeles’ water utility said it would also be hiring more people to investigate reports about residents wasting water.

“Our members are up to their ears in reports that people are wasting water,” said Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Water District, which sells water to public utilities and municipalities in Silicon Valley.

To streamline the reporting process, the additional spending will also go towards developing a smartphone app for users to document water waste violations.

“We’ve been doing the carrot for a long time,” Director Dennis Kennedy told the meeting in the city of San Jose, “and it’s time to really push that stick.” California is in its third year of a devastating drought that is expected to cost its economy $2.2 billion in lost crops, jobs and other damage. Last week, state regulators approved sweeping new restrictions on outdoor water use that allow cities and local water districts to impose fines on violators.

The new regulations prohibit washing a car with a hose that does not have a shutoff valve, watering the lawn more than twice a week and washing down streets and sidewalks.

Santa Clara’s newly approved enforcement positions, popularly known as “water cops,” will be available to individual cities or public utilities within the region to investigate allegations - often from neighbors - that people are violating conservation rules.

In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power is hiring four full-time people and two part-time staff for its water-waste response unit, said Jim McDaniel, the agency’s assistant general manager. Depending on the enforcement activity, he said, the team could be expanded to nine. The LAPD will also help identify violators, he said.

Other cities with water enforcement teams include Pasadena and Sacramento.

Water agencies are also making it easier to report water wasters online, and preparing emergency conservation orders for consideration by their boards, said Lisa Lien Mager, spokeswoman for the California Association of Water Agencies.

Violators can be fined, but George Kostyrko, spokesman for the California Water Resources Control board, said the agency was discouraging the use of fines most of the time.

“Our goal here is not to generate infractions for homeowners,” Kostyrko said. “Our goal is to get their attention.”

Reporting by Jennifer Baires in Santa Clara, Calif.; Additional reporting and writing by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Peter Cooney and Robert Birsel

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