THE BOSTICK REPORT-With 58% of California is in a state of “extreme drought”, researchers at UC Davis are projecting job losses on the horizon of 17,000. Our agricultural industry is taking half a million acres out of production, our groundwater levels have been depleted to the point where the earth’s crust is rising, and worse, beer prices are about to rise.
Don’t laugh too hard about the beer. It’s a big deal, employing 44,000 at $1.7 billion in wages. We glean nearly a billion in taxes off beer, but this water-heavy industry is suffering under current water restrictions.
When Governor Jerry Brown called for a 20% reduction in water use statewide, how did Southern California react? We jumped by 8% regionally in May. Worse, Los Angeles has jumped 5% in the most recent year-to-year report.
To be fair, our region and LA in particular, has made leaps and bounds in water conservation progress – mostly through low water toilets, initiating modest water restriction guidelines, and a very generous Turf Buy Back plan that pays residents up to $3 a square foot if they tear out their lawn.
A few years ago, the LA DWP even broke ground on a new group, The Water Conservation Response Unit. Details on this group are hard to come by without a good bit of digging. A victim of budget cuts during the Great Recession, it has been been staffed by one person until recently when three more people were hired.
Los Angeles has received accolades lately as many municipalities across the state have just now begun reacting to the drought while we’ve had mandated water restrictions for years, most notably a system of defined days on which you may water your lawn.
Enforcement of restrictions is on a complaint-based program, meaning that people breaking the restrictions must be reported by other people. The method for reporting infractions or water abusers is via an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling 1-800-DIAL-DWP.
You’re probably zoning out on me here, but there’s a point to my description.
Once a complaint is received, the one guy four people working in the Water Conservation Response Unit (WCRU) will visit the property reported. It is here where we find the folly of this process.
At the point of contact with the resident who has been reported, the WCRU has the discretion to issue a warning accompanied with education on the restrictions currently in place, or issue a fine. Fines are heavy, up to $600.
So far this year, the WCU has received 1,400 complaints about water abusers. Of those, roughly 850 received warnings. No one received a fine.
The confusing part, to me, is that in the face of climbing water use during an ever-worsening drought, the DWP’s Water Conservation Response Unit is being heralded in the news lately with a spate of positive coverage on their “soft hands” approach of not issuing fines, calling that a success.
I can’t personally rectify how we measure success here and the historical opaqueness of the LADWP stymies one’s ability to determine how they’re calculating success. Google “LADWP Water Conservation Response Unit” and you’ll find little information.
We must, therefore, assume that the DWP is measuring success in its soft hands approach to enforcement by measuring call volume, specifically, call volume on repeat offenders.
At a glance, it makes sense that if the WCRU receives a complaint, issues a warning, and doesn’t receive another complaint, then one would logically conclude that the warning was successful and the infractions have ceased.
However, this conclusion does not synch up with our recent uptick in water use during the same time period.
I have questions. Specifically, has the volume of reports of water wasters changed over the course of the year? Are they monitoring the water use (as reflected in the DWP’s billing system) of people who received a warning to see if that has changed? I know that the volume of water being used as a data point alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is using that water on a specific day, but I would imagine that human nature after receiving a warning would incite at least a modest change in water use. As long as that person took the warning seriously.
But, most important, how do we know that the WCRU’s policy of “warnings only” hasn’t resulted in the public’s disenfranchisement with the system of reporting water abusers? In other words, if you email the WCRU about someone wasting water, but you never see any change in their water use after reporting the infraction, then why wouldn’t you naturally adopt the pervasive cynical perspective that people already have about the DWP?
I think that the Water Conservation Response Unit is a good idea. It symbolizes the city’s intent on water use and sets the tone. Moreover, having the bureaucratic infrastructure to manage the DWP’s efforts provides the city with the ability to hold specific people accountable for performance. All in all, this is good.
The implementation of their efforts, however, is not the smartest. Having one person patrol 500 square miles is, by design, a limitation of effectiveness. Why does that one person have to be the only person issuing warnings and citations?
Wouldn’t it be more effective to have that one person manage warnings and citations produced in the field by a group of people who are trained to do such a thing…. like the police department?
They certainly have the ability to write a parking ticket. They certainly are good at monitoring what days you can or can’t park on the street, issuing plenty of tickets accordingly. Why can’t they monitor for water infractions?
What does a water infraction look like? It’s pretty simple. If the last number of your address is odd, you can water on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If the last number of your address is even, you can water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Sprinklers can run for a maximum of 8 minutes a day and no one can water between the hours of 9 AM and 4 PM. No one is allowed to water a lawn on Saturdays.
The good people currently working on parking citations have the skillset to monitor for water use infraction at least at this level. Personally, I don’t see the warnings only method as having a very long shelf life – particularly since the recent media coverage of the Water Conservation Response Unit has focused so heavily on the fact that they don’t issue fines. This broadcasting of a fact has pushed the unit into a corner where people won’t take the warnings seriously any longer (if they ever did). That’s probably a good thing.
The drought is for real. We’re all getting that idea, but not everyone is doing a good job of accommodating that fact into our lifestyle choices. Their citations can be managed by the Water Conservation Response Unit via follow up visits to ensure compliance, educate the resident on what the restrictions are, and pitch great programs like the Turf Buy Back program.
Bottom line, the soft hands approach is not working and from what I see from water abusers, the city’s bottom line could really benefit from issuing fines. Besides, the restrictions have been around, advertised widely, for years. Sufficient warning has been given to everyone by now.
And if conservation as an ideal, or $600 fines, or those pesky science-based climate change models aren’t enough for you to change your water use, think of this: we are at the precipice of a shortage in craft beer production. You know what that means.
Cue the long-anticipated remake of Smokey and the Bandit.
(Odysseus Bostick is a Los Angeles teacher and former candidate for the Los Angeles City Council. He writes The Bostick Report for CityWatch.)
Vol 12 Issue 69
Pub: Aug 26, 2014