If you have been living in California for the past few years, you know that one of the biggest problems in the state is a prolonged period of drought. While it may rain from time to time, these little showers are merely a drop in the bucket, and will not come close to solving California’s water crisis.
The severity of the drought has gotten the attention of lawmakers. Governor Jerry Brown and state water officials have decided to allow local water districts to set new regulations on water usage, including imposing new fees on people who use more than their share of water. The question is: How long before cities threaten to send water wasters to jail?
Will Old Ideas Become New Again?
This is not California’s first drought, and nor would it be the first time people have been threatened with criminal sanctions for wasting water during emergency conditions. In the late 1970s and early 1990s, the state faced similarly desperate water shortages. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is the largest provider of treated water in the nation, and covers most of the land between Ventura and San Diego counties. In 1977, the MWD proposed sending offenders to jail for 30 days and/or fining them $300. Many cities, including Los Angeles, adopted the recommendation as municipal ordinances, and even made a second offense a misdemeanor.
Penalties for water wasting during drought conditions continue to exist, but most no longer include the possibility of jail time. For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s water conservation regulations impose a $300 fine on excessive use of water, but contain no provision for jail time, even for repeat offenders. Last July, the State Water Resources Control Board enacted a $500 per day fine for water wasting. The regulations cite these acts as wasteful:
- Allowing water used in landscaping to spill onto the streets and sidewalks
- Using water from a hose to clean driveways and sidewalks
- Washing a car while leaving the hose running
- Using drinkable water for aesthetic purposes, such as in a fountain (unless the fountain recycles the water
However, because the state is in the midst of its worst-ever dry spell, and with the governor announcing a goal of a 20% reduction in water use this year, the department notes that the threat of jail sentences for the most wasteful Californians could soon become a reality. Said spokesman Doug Carlson, “I can imagine that it might happen if the water conditions continue to degrade to an unprecedented level.”1
Would Jailing Water Wasters Benefit the State?
If the goal is to save water usage, it is difficult to say that locking up wasteful citizens in jail is a viable solution. First, the state would have to provide those people with drinking water, and water for hygienic purposes such as showering and restroom usage. So, it is unclear how much water would actually be saved.
Secondly, enforcement of this crime would be difficult because identifying who is responsible for the waste could be problematic in houses with multiple occupants. Would the homeowner automatically be the person sent to jail, even if someone else in the house actually wasted the water? What if a tenant who is renting the house from the homeowner hoses down the driveway?
Proponents of jail time for water wasting would likely say that making an example of a few people for wasting water could deter people from doing likewise. However, fining is a better solution. A $500 fine will just as surely get the attention of people who waste water, and not cause the counties to spend any of their limited resources on crowding even more people into their jails.
We Would Like to Hear What You Think
We at Wallin & Klarich would like you to share your feedback on this topic. Should California force citizens who use excessive amounts of water into jail? Or does this punishment go too far? What are some alternative punishments that you feel could help California’s water wasters change their ways? Please feel free to leave your comments below.
1. [Matt Stevens, “Should California water wasters face jail? A drought debate,” The Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2015, available at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-california-jail-water-wasters-20150330-story.html.]↩