Vigilante Water Cops And Mongolian Showers: How San Diegans Are Saving Water
Travis Pritchard and Jamie Hampton were stalking water waste through the streets of Point Loma around 7 a.m. on a recent Friday. They drove Hampton’s old Volkswagen van to find the source of a big puddle by following its trickling gutter trail.
“We just drove three blocks," Hampton said.
"And it is constantly wet," Pritchard said.
"The entire gutter system was filled with water," Hampton added with a laugh.
Pritchard, a water quality lab manager for the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper, said he's out scouring the streets for water waste because the city isn’t.
"Currently I don’t see the city doing any enforcement at all," he said. "What really they need to be doing is be out there aggressively finding the problems and following it all the way through until it’s fixed."
This month Gov. Jerry Brown ordered California to cut water use by 25 percent, with specific targets for each city. While San Diego imposed water rules in November, including only watering lawns three days a week for no more than 7 minutes, it's struggling to enforce them.
Until now, the city hasn’t had enough staff to go out and look for violators. Instead, it used water meter readers and participants in the Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol program to report water waste. Residents also were asked to rat out their neighbors for breaking water rules.
That’s why Pritchard is acting like a vigilante water cop.
"Mandatory measures without any sort of enforcement are just voluntary measures," he said.
Halla Razak, director of San Diego's Public Utilities Department, told KPBS’s Evening Edition the governor’s announcement requires the city to step up its enforcement game.
"We will need to report out how many violations we’re issuing, how many citations and so on," she said. "So we are looking into adding a couple positions to help proactively. People will be driving around looking for water waste, and then there will be formal warnings issued and then if things are not corrected possibly citations as well."
Up until now, water rule breakers have gotten three chances to fix a problem before facing fines of up to $500. No one has been fined so far, even though Razak said a fifth of violators didn’t correct their problems right away.
The state gave each city a specific reduction target, with San Diego's at 16 percent (down from 20 percent in the original proposal released April 1). Razak said to meet that directive, the city will now give water rule breakers two strikes instead of three. The city will also slash sprinkler use at parks and is restarting a rebate program for homeowners who take out their grass.
"If the lawn is used actively, kids playing in the back yard, or ball fields and so on, then obviously that is a good use for it," she said on KPBS's Evening Edition. "But if it’s an ornamental lawn in the front yard, the only time you use it is when you’re mowing it, then it really does not belong in San Diego."
Callie Mack and Phillip Roullard got rid of the grass at their San Carlos home years ago. They also save the water that runs while their shower warms up, collect rainwater in barrels and pipe their washing machine’s gray water onto their fruit trees. But Mack said there’s still more they could do.
"We’re thinking about doing something we saw in Mongolia, using a pressurized pump sprayer," she said. "You can shower on maybe a gallon or less of water."
On average, a 5-minute shower uses 12.5 gallons of water. Mack said they don’t mind the extra work.
"I don’t think we should be using a resource that’s becoming increasingly scarce, and with climate change we don’t really know what’s going to happen," she said.
Back on their water waster hunting expedition, Pritchard and Hampton found the source of the puddle that had pooled on the street: sprinklers drenching a small patch of grass at an apartment complex a few blocks away.
"They’ve just saturated it and it’s just soggy running off," Pritchard said sadly.
He snapped a picture with his phone to make a report to the city. That starts the process that theoretically could lead to a fine for the apartment complex owner if the problem isn’t fixed.
"We need to be stepping up as a leader for water conservation, and I see the city just plodding along and doing really the bare minimum or just under that," he said.
He hopes Brown’s order will spur the city into action.