Watchdog: Water fines rise as tempers flare

There’s that house in Yorba Linda owned by folks who live out of the country: The sprinklers were never adjusted for a state-ordered 36 percent water cut.

In Trabuco Canyon, a homeowner died and the property headed to auction. A company handling the transaction wasn’t keeping a close eye on things and didn’t learn there was a malfunction with the automatic pool-fill valve until water overflowed and gushed into the gutter – several times in one week.

Over five months, county water agencies have slapped more than 10,000 penalty assessments on customers like these for violating conservation rules. Rules vary from agency to agency, as do conservation targets, but they are intended to help hit tough reductions mandated by the state.

Most fines are small, less than $20 or so, but they will escalate for repeat offenders, officials say.

Those on the receiving end of penalties are none too happy.

Jon Hansen, a Yorba Linda homeowner, has gone over allotment several times, paying an extra $20 to $40 a month in “administrative penalties” charged to customers who exceed their allotment.

“I’ve cut back 21 percent from 2013, even while I’ve added five people to my household,” Hansen said. “So using 21 percent less water, my bill has gone up 54 percent.”

Ninety percent of the penalties issued in Orange County came from San Clemente, for reasons we’ll explain later. From April 15 to Sept. 15, the city accounted for 9,078 of the county’s total penalties, which is 15 percent of all penalties issued in California.

The tiny Serrano Water District, which covers mostly Villa Park, kicked out 740 penalties over that period; the South Coast Water District, 185; Newport Beach, 92; Tustin, 48; Yorba Linda Water District, 21; Westminster, seven; Brea, six; Seal Beach and La Palma, three each; and Trabuco Canyon Water District, one.

For a sense of scale, the giant Los Angeles Department of Water and Power issued 68 penalties. The city of San Diego issued 131.

Penalties so far this year, just in Orange County, have generated more than $1 million.


The spring started off quietly, with only five penalties assessed in Orange County in April. In July, that exploded to 3,947.

Only the city of Clovis has surpassed San Clemente in penalties assessed from April to September, with 23,692.

“When I saw that number, I thought, wow. San Clemente and Clovis are the harshest in the state?” said San Clemente Assistant City Manager Erik Sund.

But the two cities’ tremendous penalty totals don’t mean residents have flooded the streets so that they can sail off in gondolas. Each month, San Clemente and Clovis count each instance of customers using more water than they’re supposed to as a penalty, and they report it to the state as such. Most other agencies do not.

Getting charged more for using excess water in, say, Yorba Linda, is considered an “administrative penalty,” not a violation of the conservation ordinance. Thus it is not logged.

In San Clemente, about 3,000 accounts have exceeded water restrictions for several months, and they’ve been charged “drought penalties” and reported to the state, said Tom Rendina, businesses services officer.

The city has collected $921,000 in drought penalties so far, and that total will be going up. Many accounts exceed their water allocation by only one or two units in a billing cycle, so penalties are in the $7 to $14 range, Rendina explained. A large percentage of the scofflaws are repeat offenders, with the same accounts penalized month after month “as they have not lowered their consumption to comply with the governor’s mandated 24 percent reduction for San Clemente.”


Like other agencies, San Clemente must use the penalty money to bolster conservation efforts. The city is putting together a list of options that includes turf replacement and more use of recycled water, Sund said.

Tiny Serrano Water District, which has about 2,400 customers, was told to cut use by 36 percent and has collected $117,896 in fines since April, said general manager Jerry Vilander.

Agencies that fail to meet their mandated reductions face stiff fines from the state, and Serrano simply cannot afford to fail, Vilander said. It let customers know that in April, and the agency has logged 43.2 percent savings from June through September, according to state figures.

About two-thirds of Serrano’s customers are meeting the goal, and much of the remainder have cut back – but not deeply enough.

Then there are customers “who will do anything they can to get out of the penalty,” Vilander said.

One customer stands out. “They went on Facebook and shamed the water district for being so irrational and horrible” for imposing a fine, Vilander said. “Then they admit (in that same post) they’d had a big party with a water slide and left the water on all day.”

Newport Beach has assessed more than $22,000 in penalties since the beginning of the year. The city expects the number of citations to jump from 44 in September to more than 100 in October. That number could grow exponentially from there.

According to a report on September compliance, 36 percent of single-family households, 54 percent of commercial properties and 50 percent of multifamily facilities were not meeting water-use targets. Like other agencies, Newport Beach spent months educating residents on which days they could irrigate lawns. But the time for door-hangers and pamphlets is over, as the state’s deadline for reductions looms.

“I really did try to hold off,” said George Murdoch, municipal operations director for Newport Beach. The city charges $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second violation and $500 for further violations.

Roughly 300 customers will get “notice of violation” letters warning them they’re going over their limit this month, likely followed by citations in the next billing cycle, Murdoch said. Some users are 100 percent to 200 percent over their allotted water-use limit.

“That’s a big lifestyle change for those users,” Murdoch said.

The vast majority of customers are working hard to conserve and are doing so without too much moaning and groaning, most every agency reported.

Many customers are incensed that they’re using less water but are getting fined nonetheless.


A veritable mutiny is underway in Yorba Linda, where big green lots traditionally have been watered with abandon. With a 36 percent mandated cut and rate hikes, those days are over.

The Yorba Linda Water District is simply “following every state mandate to the letter, and adopted a penalty structure to encourage conservation,” said spokesman Damon Micalizzi. “The penalties are not very punitive. We haven’t had any fines from the state yet for missing our target, and until that happens, we’re taking a gentle, educational approach.”

Mr. Nice Guy may soon be gone. Many officials are anticipating the winter with a greater-than-usual amount of dread.

Cutting back 36 percent in summer is easy, as people can stop watering outdoors, said Luke Serpa, public utilities director for Clovis, the toughest penalty-assessor in the state.

But people don’t water outdoors much in the winter. So where is that 36 percent supposed to come from in January?

In a flash of defiance, Clovis has suspended its conservation ordinance. It will not fine people who fail to conserve 36 percent through the winter months.

If the state follows through with threats to fine scofflaw agencies up to $10,000 a day for failing to conserve enough water – well, Clovis has collected $760,000 in penalties, and it will use that money to pay, Serpa said.

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