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California Cities Struggle To Meet Water Conservation Targets


In the next couple of weeks, California will finalize its emergency water conservation plan. Cities will have to cut water use anywhere from 15 to close to 40 percent. In many parts of the state, it's already becoming clear that calling for aggressive water conservation is one thing and actually implementing plans is complicated, messy and political. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Trish Ray has her work cut out for her.

TRISH RAY: I'm assistant director of Public Works Services for the city of Beverly Hills.

SIEGLER: She has to figure out how to cut her city's water use by 36 percent. Beverly Hills has been called one of the worst of the worst by the state when it comes to water use in this drought. The city's sprawling green lawns, supersized swimming pools, the lush, tropical landscaping in a climate that gets 13 inches of rain in a good year - easy job, right? Thing is, Ray's sounding surprisingly optimistic.

RAY: We can meet those targets. It's going to be hard. I mean, 36 percent is an ambitious target for us. I won't say it isn't.

SIEGLER: The first order of business is tackling outdoor irrigation. Up to 70 percent of all of Beverly Hills' water goes to this. The city council has given initial approval to an emergency ordinance, so no more refilling pools or fountains, no more car washing and outdoor watering will be limited to two days a week.

RAY: It's a change of culture, a change of thinking and a change of weighing how you do your daily life that we're trying to instill.

SIEGLER: A lot of Beverly Hills' compliance plan will rest on tougher enforcement, higher penalties for repeat offenders. There's debate in the water world over just how effective this is. Mark Lubell directs the Center of Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California Davis.

MARK LUBELL: It's just of kind of like with speeding, right? If you had to give a ticket to every single person on the highway in order to get the speed limit down, then we would have, you know, a very bad problem that's extremely costly.

SIEGLER: Lubell predicts that most cities will cut their water use and change that culture through a mix of strategies. Consider the case of the Moulton Niguel Water District. It delivers water to a handful of coastal cities in suburban Orange County. Back in the drought of 2009, the district tried to cut water use by hiring water cops and patrolling neighborhoods, slapping violators with tickets.

JOONE LOPEZ: And it didn't work. We didn't see a reduction in usage. And if anything, the customers were not very happy with us because we were issuing fines.

SIEGLER: Since then, the district's general manager, Joone Lopez, says they've changed the way they bill customers for water. If you use more, you're going to pay more - a lot more, especially if you're wasteful. As western states like California have gotten drier, the population has kept rising, so this tiered-base billing system has emerged as an important conservation tool.

LOPEZ: It puts the responsibility in the hands of the customers. It puts the choice in their hand.

SIEGLER: But there's a hitch. Next-door to Lopez, the city of San Juan Capistrano's tiered system was just ruled unconstitutional. An appeals courts said it violated a state law that's meant to shield utility customers from price gouging. So Lopez says utilities like hers will have to be very careful about how they set-up tiered systems and how they justify the price increases to their customers going forward. And there's a sense of urgency here.

RAY: I think the snowpack, or lack thereof, was a real sobering reminder to everyone that this is real and it's not getting any better. The drought, the mega-drought that you hear about, this is our new world going forward.

SIEGLER: California's emergency conservation order is expected to be finalized early next month. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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