Water wasters in Palo Alto who ignore the city's warnings to conserve could face fines of $100 per day under an enforcement strategy that the City Council adopted on Monday night.
The Council unanimously approved the penalty mechanism proposed by the Utilities Department as part of the city's response to California's prolonged drought. So far, the department has relied largely on carrots rather than sticks to encourage water savings, recently doubling rebates for customers who make their outdoor irrigation systems more efficient and sending out "home water reports" that compare customers' usage. Even with the penalties in place, the focus on educating customers rather than punishing them will continue, a staff report from the Utilities Department notes.
"Staff does not anticipate there will be many instances where a customer purposefully disregards warnings and a fine will be necessary," a Utilities Department report states.
At the same time, the new enforcement strategy gives the city a tool for fining those customers who repeatedly ignore warnings. Under the newly adopted enforcement process, a water waster would be hit with a door hanger or an educational email upon the first two violations. The third violation would lead to a certified letter from the Utilities Department citing the violation and warning of the fines ahead. After the fourth violation, the fines would kick in.
The penalties were adopted despite a recognition by staff and the Council that residents are already making some strides to cut back on water. Nico Procos, senior resource manager at the Utilities Department, said the city used 13 percent less water this year between February and June than during a comparable time last year. This is well above the 10 percent in savings that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has asked its customers to achieve, Procos said.
"We are very happy to report that Palo Altans are successfully conserving," Procos said.
Procos said staff has detected close to 50 violations since the Council adopted the new restrictions on Aug. 4. These include customers who violate the new prohibition on landscape irrigation between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., except for drip systems, soaker hoses and hand watering.
The Council quickly agreed to accept the staff proposal.
"It's a difficult time and it doesn't look like we're coming to the end of this any time soon," said Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who made the motion to go along with the penalty schedule. "And I think it's very important that we do the absolute best we can in that area of conservation."
Councilman Greg Scharff called the penalty process "timely" and commended staff for doing "a good job thinking this through."
The staff proposal also includes hiring a water waste coordinator, a part-time employee who would log incidents, coordinate field reports and track incidents and the city's responses, according to a staff report. Councilwoman Karen Holman was skeptical about this new position, which will cost about $29,000, and said it would be "premature" to hire an enforcement person at this time. Utilities Director Valerie Fong assured her that the new employee would not be an enforcer but more of a coordinator.
Councilwoman Gail Price, meanwhile, said she supports having a more systematic response in place to fine violators and take action.
"If we're in a situation where on the books we say we're doing something and our enforcement is periodic or complaint based, I don't think we're as effective," Price said.