New state law mandates fines for big water wasters in drought

State Sen. Jerry Hill authored new law

Big water wasters will be subject to big fines or surcharges during drought conditions under a new state law authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday, Aug. 29.

The law, which was suggested by a constituent as part of Sen. Hill's annual "Oughta be a law…" contest, goes into effect Jan. 1.

The law says all urban retail water suppliers must set rules for identifying and cracking down on households that consume enormous amounts of water during declared droughts in the state.

“This legislation ensures that every urban retail water supplier has a tool to curb excessive water use by customers,” Sen. Hill said. "Households that guzzle water -- while their neighbors and most other Californians abide by mandatory reductions -- will no longer be able to hide and persist in their excess."

Sen. Hill's office says the law was proposed by a San Mateo resident who was outraged over news reports that hundreds of household in the state used a million gallons or more of water a year -- with one household consuming an astounding 12 million gallons -- despite restrictions in place at the time. The constituent who proposed the law asked to remain anonymous.

Water providers will have to either build surcharges for excessive water use into their rate structures or establish their own excessive water use ordinance, including ways to identify and address excessive water use by residential customers. Warnings or on-site audits are allowed before fines are assessed, and an appeals process and method for collecting fines that aren't paid are required.

The ordinance must include a fine of up to $500 for each 100 cubic feet -- 748 gallons -- above the excessive-use definition.

The new law does not define what excessive water use is, so the definition will be up to the water providers.

California is entering its fifth year of historic drought. Although the State Water Resources Control Board has lifted its mandatory 25 percent water use reduction order after the water supply improved, almost 60 percent of the state continues to be in a severe drought and more than 42 percent of the state is still in an extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Sen. Hill's office says.

According to the State Water Resources Control Board, Californians reduced their water use by a cumulative 24.2 percent between June 2015 and June 2016.

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