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Water wasters will get a break on initial fines this year thanks to an update to Santa Monica’s water shortage response plan.

At their Sept. 8 meeting, the City Council approved modifications to the plan that codified formulas for setting water allowances, restructured fines for overages, allowed for an exemption to the first fine under some circumstances and modified the way water cuts are measured in the school district.

Santa Monica declared a Stage 2 water supply shortage in August of 2014 requiring a 20 percent reduction in usage by most customers. At the same time, the state of California imposed cuts on all water districts to fight the ongoing drought. Santa Monica has exceeded its state and local goals so far, averaging a savings of 22.5 percent over the first three months of measurements.

Those savings have been achieved largely through voluntary steps by water users such as reductions in irrigation, installation of improved appliances and better maintenance.

“What we have seen in my office from residents and businesses is Santa Monica is taking the drought very seriously,” said Dean Kubani, director of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

However, the City’s plans do allow for fines if water users exceed their allowances, and the structure of those fines has change.

Initial plans for the fines called for a fee per cubic feet of overage. However, staff said the implementation and automation of that system proved both difficult and controversial. Instead, they said a series of fees per violation would be easier to manage and would allow staff to focus on the most significant violators.

“We will use [fines] as one of several tools to control exceptional water waste and to meet or exceed our water conservation goals, but we’re going to focus on the most significant water wasters,” Kubani said.

The fine for a first violation will be $250, a second violation within 12 months of the first will be $500 and a third in a 12-month period will be $1,000. Customers that reach three violations could be required to perform a water audit, and those that exceed seven violations could have a flow restrictor installed on their meter.

Customers can avoid the first fee if the attend a live or web-based water school that explains the need for regulations and provides information on how to meet water conservation goals.

Kubani said the new system would allow staff to differentiate between users who are trying but may have exceeded their allowances by small amounts and those that are making no efforts whatsoever.

“The top 100 users use a lot of water, some of those users have made very strong efforts to cut their water use; some have cut their water use by 20 percent or more, some haven’t quite got there but are really trying,” he said. “Other ones haven’t made an effort at all. So in that top 100 list, the users that haven’t made any effort are likely to be the ones that we’re going to use this tool of a penalty to try to help convince them that they should be conserving more water.”

Fines will begin to accrue in October and could be issued in December of this year.

Some public speakers questioned the need for water conservation given an impending El Niño, and one asked for tougher measures on for profit businesses.

Andrew Hoyer said El Ni√±o wasn’t a bankable solution to the crisis and praised the City’s efforts. “I see a lot of great things in this plan,” he said. “I think you should move forward with it whole heartedly, the fines if anything are not high enough, especially as you can get out of the first one free.”

In addition to the fee restructuring, the council codified language that defines user limits. While those limits are already in place, formally adopting the formulas provides a point of reference for future discussions.

The formal language defines those limits as, “The average daily baseline use per billing period x the % of water available or the residential threshold; whichever is higher.” In this case, that equates to 80 percent of the 2013 usage, or their residential threshold. The thresholds are finite caps on usage that vary by housing type and are a means of protecting residents that implemented significant water savings prior to the mandatory cuts.

The council also approved a modification to the way the schools count water savings. Previously, the district was required to cut by a specific amount per meter. Now they are required to cut by a total amount and can balance those cuts across meters as they choose.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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