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What Are You Going To Do When the Water Cops Come for You?

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Aired 6/23/09

What happens when the "water cops" come to your door? We speak to KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr about a recent ride-a-long she took with a field representative from the Water Department's Conservation Program. Katie will tell us how San Diego's recently implemented water-use restrictions will be enforced, and what you can do to avoid a visit from the local "water cops".

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS Special Report

H2NO: San Diego Going Dry

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS reporter Katie Orr tells San Diego Week host Joanne Faryon about San Diego "water cops."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We start this hour of These Days with another report on our series on San Diego's water problems. All this week, we're focusing on how San Diego is dealing with continuing challenges to our water supply. One way, of course, is by mandatory water conservation and the introduction of a new field inspection service by the San Diego City Water Department or what some people are calling the water cops. KPBS Metro reporter Katie Orr is here to tell us about a recent ride-along she took with one of the water department field inspectors. And welcome, Katie.

KATIE ORR (KPBS Metro Reporter): Hi, Maureen. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: I'm happy to have you here. Now tell us about this ride-along you went on. What neighborhoods did you go to and what did you see?

ORR: We covered a wide range of the city. Our first stop was up in the Carmel Valley area. There was a complaint about water running into the street so we went and we checked that out to see what the situation was up there. Nothing was really going on but you could tell that the sprinklers had been on because the ground was a little bit damp, so we spoke with someone in that complex and we stayed around there. And we went and checked out a middle school. There was a complaint about flooding on a path behind the school. From there, we drove south down to the Serra Mesa neighborhood where the field rep I was with, Seneca Page, checked out a flooding water meter box, and then we – as we were driving into that neighborhood, we had seen some sprinklers watering after ten in the morning so we went and checked that out as well, so that was the day.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you a little bit about more – a little more about these individual stops but first let's get an overview about what do these field inspectors do? How many are there and are they out and about in San Diego all day long, every day?

ORR: Well, there are five of them and, no, they don't spend all of their day out in the field. What they do is, the water department gets complaints, people are e-mailing them or calling them with complaints. The supervisor divvies them up and from there the different inspectors get their cases and some they can – if they're specific enough, they can send out a letter based on the complaint. Others, they will go out and check out, like we did on the day I was with him, you know, and see what there is to – because a lot of these complaints are pretty vague. I mean, you know, water's running into the street on, you know, in the back of some house, or, water is being sprinkled onto the path next to the freeway. So, you know, some of these require a little more in depth investigation and so at that point they'll actually go out and check out the complaints.

CAVANAUGH: Now since the water restrictions went into effect in the City of San Diego, have – has the water department received more complaints?

ORR: Yes, I spoke with an official at the water department who said before the restrictions were in place, they received about 80 calls a month just, you know, talking about excessive water use, things like that. And he said in the first two weeks of June, they received more than 300 calls, so, I mean, obviously that's a substantial increase and you can imagine that that will probably just keep at that pace if people, you know, become more aware of the program and, you know, as the summer continues, it gets hotter.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ORR: So it looks like they're in for a busy summer.

CAVANAUGH: It does, indeed. And you alluded to some of the problems involved in this complaint system. Did they tell you about any other kind of challenges they face with the – this complaint-based system?

ORR: Well, part of the problem is that when you call and you make a complaint about someone, you can be anonymous because, obviously, they don't want to start, you know, disputes between neighbors and all of that. So, you know, if somebody calls and they have an anonymous complaint and it's vague, it can be hard to follow up on that because you can't call the person back and say can you be a little more specific? Seneca was telling me had one man who someone called in a complaint on him and he wanted to know who it was that called and complained because he wanted to talk to them, and he said, I can't tell you that, you know, this is anonymous. So just to be reassured, they're not going to give away anyone who calls and, you know, makes a complaint so you don't have to worry about that. But it is – it can be a whole – a vague situation, is what I got from it.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us what the field inspectors actually do with the complaints. What does it take for someone to get a fine?

ORR: Well, the field inspectors, they will go and check out a complaint or if they have enough information when somebody calls it in, they'll send out a letter just basically informing the property owner. That's another issue because if someone's a landlord, the property owner could be in Michigan or doesn't necessarily have to be in town. But they'll send them a complaint talking about – a letter talking about the complaint and then if they get another complaint and at that point, they can turn it over to the code compliance department and that's what Seneca said, they're the real water cops, they're the ones who actually handle the fines.

SENECA PAGE (Field Representative, City of San Diego Water Department): We're the friendly reminder to let you know of the violation that we got the complaint about and then, you know, if – You know, we send the letter. If we get another complaint that whatever violation is still going on, then it gets turned over to the code compliance. They're more like the water cops. They're the ones that are going to actually be issuing the citations.

CAVANAUGH: Now, do they really object to that 'water cop' he just mentioned?

ORR: Yeah, he was not – He stressed that he is not a water cop. And at one point I said, what, so you're more like a water ambassador? And he said, yes, I like that, I'm a water ambassador. So – Because he said he's all about the education. He's not out there to, you know, confront anybody. He is – he – they didn't – they're not water cops.

CAVANAUGH: So what – If people do not respond to these friendly reminders, what kind of fines could somebody actually be facing for not complying?

ORR: Well, it's really – there's a lot of discretion, I think, and it seems like there's a lot of flexibility in these cases. The maximum fine is about $1,000.00. But from what I picked up in my reporting, you'd have to be a pretty egregious violator to get up to that level of a fine. It's – You know, they want to work with people. They want people to understand that you can't water. It doesn't seem like they're out to, you know, grab money from residents. They really just are trying to let you know about the restrictions and to conserve water.

CAVANAUGH: Because the big thing is to conserve water not to pay a fine.

ORR: Right.

CAVANAUGH: So is there any sort of like grace period? Do people have until a certain point until the fines will start being issued?

ORR: No, you can receive a fine right now. I mean, the program started and – on June first, and it's in place and if you keep violating, you can receive a fine. But, again, it doesn't – you know, that's not – doesn't seem to be the primary objective. It really does seem to be to save water.

CAVANAUGH: Now is there an actual standard? Like you get three letters and then you get a fine? I mean, how is that set up?

ORR: It seems like, from what I could tell from Seneca, you get a letter. Someone makes the complaint, you get a letter. If you get a second complaint, at that point it's turned over to the code compliance division and then they'll start working with you and they're the ones that come out and assess you the fine. And it seems like they have pretty broad discretion.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder, when you were on this ride-along, as you say, you passed by this house where you saw evidence…

ORR: We did. We did.

CAVANAUGH: …of late morning watering. Tell us about that.

ORR: Well, we were driving to check out the overflowing water meter in Serra Mesa and as we were driving into the neighborhood, about a block up, there was sprinklers running and it was after ten o'clock and, you know, that's – you can only – Your sprinklers can only run between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. on your designated day. And this house was on the right day but it was just after the designated time. So, you know, we go back a little while – a few minutes later and the sprinklers were off. It was an automatic shutoff program. But the ground was all wet and you could see that they'd obviously just been watered. So we walk up to the door and the man was a renter and he was very, you know, he was very nice and he just said, okay, I'll fix that. And that is the people are learning how to use their automated sprinkler systems, you know, and they probably can be pretty complicated to figure out.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of response generally do these field inspectors get?

ORR: Well, Seneca said that so far people are usually pretty calm.

PAGE: That's pretty much the type of response we get, is the 'we didn't know.' Or you get the one like down the street where, you know, he knows what's going on, he's, you know, cool about it. We haven't really had anybody 'get off my yard' or, you know, any of that type of thing. Everybody's pretty much been, you know, cool about it and, you know, responsive. I think pretty much everyone's trying to do their part.

CAVANAUGH: Now based on your ride-along and your talking with people in your reporting, do people generally seem to be aware that there are, indeed, water restrictions in place?

ORR: It seems to be kind of a mixed bag. When we went to the first call, the water running off behind the condo complex, we talked with the resident there and he said, we know, we've been trying to water less, we've been trying to shut off our fountains. But then when we were in the other neighborhood, and when we were getting ready to go up to the house with the sprinklers, a woman from across the street came up and said, what's going on, I didn't know about these restrictions. So you kind of get a mix. Some people know. Obviously, the man who had the overflowing water meter box knew because he was worried he was going to get a fine. It turns out that that was the city's problem and not his, so he's okay. But I think it's maybe one of those things that once you have a problem, suddenly you realize, oh, you know, I better fix this or I could end up paying for it.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, indeed. And I'm wondering, does the city plan to bring on any more of the field inspectors? You said there were only five.

ORR: Yeah, and I don't – I didn't hear about any plans to bring on any more. Obviously, there are budget concerns in the city. It does seem like it could be overwhelming. I mean, the city is fairly large and five people, it can be a little overwhelming but Seneca was saying that there's handing – they're handling the work so far and they feel like – They don't feel too overwhelmed right now.

CAVANAUGH: Now we've been having this very pleasant conversation and there's been some laughter and the clips that you brought in has been very sort of San Diego laid back, you know, we want to make sure everybody's friendly and happy with these water restrictions and so forth. I'm wondering, in your reporting, did you get the impression of how seriously city officials are actually taking the enforcement of the water restrictions?

ORR: Oh, yeah, they are serious about it. I mean, the mayor has been talking for months leading up to this about the watering restrictions. You know, fortunately, it wasn't the 20% cutbacks that we had, you know, feared we were going to have to see. But it is a serious issue and, you know, they do want to inform people. They want, you know, everyone to know but if you – if you keep violating these and if you get the complaints—and it is neighbors that are, I think, they're really relying on because there are only five field representatives so, you know, they can't be everywhere and it really is they're depending on their neighbors to call in and say, hey, listen, there's a guy on my street who is not following these at all. And they say it usually takes about two weeks to follow up on a complaint but they are, and they – they're serious about it. If you don't modify your behavior, you'll be seeing some fines.

CAVANAUGH: Somebody is watching you.

ORR: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Katie Orr, thank you so much.

ORR: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Katie Orr is Metro reporter for KPBS News. More about water tomorrow on These Days as we talk about why there are so many different water districts in San Diego and explore the do's and don'ts of low water landscaping. And you can see all the reports in our series called "H2NO: San Diego Going Dry" online at KPBS.org.

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