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Water School, Penalties Threaten Santa Monica Water Wasters

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to the Lookout

September 10, 2015 -- Like traffic school for people caught violating the rules of the road, Santa Monica residents who fail to save water in the face of an unprecedented drought could be required to attend “Water School,” said the City's chief sustainability manager.

Residents will have the option of taking an online conservation course instead of being fined $250 for repeatedly ignoring warnings to cut their use by 20 percent from their 2013 water bills, after City Council members agreed unanimously Tuesday to codify new, gentler conservation regulations.

A water allowances system adopted by the Council in January included automatic fines escalating to $1,000 for each time a customer exceeded their allowance by even a “minor” amount.

But it proved too difficult and expense to implement for all 17,000 customers, using the City's existing software, said Dean Kubani, head of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

“So we started looking around for other penalty structures,” he said.

After considering residents' complaints about the automatic fines and consulting with the City Attorney's Office, his office decided to recommend the Council adopt the traditional penalty process the City has used for decades to levy administrative citations for city code violations, said Kubani.

Under that process, the City first notifies the person of the violation and often provides help to bring the violator into compliance before any fines are issued. A similar system will be used for chronic water wasters before any fines kick in, Kubani added.

Fines start at $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense if it occurs within 12 months of the first, and $1,000 for a third offense within 12 months of a second violation, according to the regulations.

First, however, wasters would get warnings, which will begin going out in October, Kubani said.

Most importantly, under the City's revised Drought Response Plan, penalties will not be automatic, will be manually issued by City staff and will be reserved for “the most egregious” wasters, said Kubani.

“We're learning,” said Councilman Terry O'Day, who called the changes a “significant improvement” over the City's previous effort to limit water use.

In response to Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, who asked if staff had identified the City's worst wasters, Kubani said officials have a list of about 100 customer who have repeatedly failed to save 20 percent from 2013 levels for a variety of reasons..

Some are absentee landlords, others are people who never see their bill and have representatives pay it,  and still others consider their water bills and any resulting penalties “a drop in the bucket.”

“I know it's difficult to convince people,” said Himmelrich.

“Maybe we should try water-boarding,” joked Mayor Kevin McKeown.

If the month-to-month savings rate continues, the City could easily coast to its state-required conservation goal of reducing by 20 percent by this coming February, statistics presented in Kubani's report showed.

Residents saved 20 percent in August from August 2013 levels, the report said.

“The response has been very positive,” said Kubani.

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