A state lawmaker wants California to smack its biggest water users with hefty fines and bad publicity.
In a bill introduced last week, State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat from the San Francisco peninsula, seeks to crack down on residential customers who are pumping huge amounts of water despite the state’s lingering drought.
While most Californians cut their use during the state’s three-year water emergency, hundreds of customers in pricey neighborhoods continued to use millions of gallons per year apiece, as Reveal reported in October.
One exceptional user – dubbed “The Wet Prince of Bel Air,” because he lives in that wealthy Los Angeles enclave – pumped an astonishing 11.8 million gallons in a year, enough for 90 families, state records show.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power refused to identify this mega-user or any of the 99 other million-gallon residential customers, citing privacy concerns.
Hill’s measure would require urban water agencies to set an “excessive use” level for residential customers and fine them $500 per 100 cubic feet of water they pump over that.
Then it would require agencies to make public the names of the mega-users who are paying the fines.
The findings undergirding Hill’s measure track closely with Reveal’s investigation.
“The ‘Wet Prince of Bel Air’ story really piqued your interest,” Hill said in a phone interview. “And for me as a legislator, I started thinking, what can we do to correct that?”
Today, Californians can be fined hundreds of dollars for such offenses as washing down a sidewalk or watering the lawn on the wrong day of the week. But in most cities, there are no rules against using as much water as you can pay for, drought or no.
“It’s only fair that those who use excessive amounts of water should be fined,” Hill said. “The fine is one deterrent, and certainly, the public notification is a deterrent.”
For many years, utility bills were public information in California. As Reveal has reported, during a 1991 drought, news stories identifying water wasters by name caused a public outcry and led to important reforms. But in 1997, the state Legislature, acting to protect the privacy of wealthy technology executives in Silicon Valley, passed a law allowing water agencies to keep utility bills confidential.
Hill’s measure would require the agencies to identify water wasters by name when they face fines.
Last year, the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland began imposing fines on customers for excessive water use and emailing press releases listing violators by name.
That prompted a flurry of news stories about the high water bills of wealthy East Bay residents, including Oakland Athletics baseball executive Billy Beane and former Safeway stores CEO Steven Burd.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of water use that would result in a fine under a proposed California Senate bill. Residential customers would be charged $500 per 100 cubic feet used over an excessive-use level.