THE WA­TER PO­LICE

With con­ser­va­tion mon­i­tors and strict ir­ri­ga­tion rules, Fresno is at the fore­front in push­ing res­i­dents to ad­just to the drought

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Rosanna Xia

FRESNO — Don Wells spot­ted a trail of pool­ing wa­ter and slowed his van. Runoff from a sprin­kler gone rogue streamed down a long block of thirsty brown lawns, wa­ter­ing the side­walk.

“There it is,” he said, pulling up to a house with grass too wet for this time of day. He grabbed his city- is­sued clip­board and a small dig­i­tal cam­era. He was ready to snap a photo of the wa­ter vi­o­la­tion be­fore he even ap­proached the prop­erty, just in case things got con­fronta­tional.

“You don’t want peo­ple see­ing you take a pic­ture, ba­si­cally,” Wells said. “They don’t like that too much.”

Wells tuned out a dog whose bark­ing punc­tured the morn­ing lull. He straight­ened his shoul­ders and reached for the door­bell.

With wa­ter mon­i­tors like Wells on the prowl, Fresno is tak­ing a more ag­gres­sive tack than most cities in Cal­i­for­nia’s bat­tle against the se­vere

drought. In one month, Wells and his wa­ter con­ser­va­tion team handed out 347 of the 838 penal­ties is­sued by all the wa­ter dis­tricts statewide.

Across the state, Los An­ge­les is­sued eight f ines and Long Beach gave out two in the same time pe­riod, while dozens of other cities is­sued none. Sacra­mento pe­nal­ized 191 vi­o­la­tors, the sec­ond- most in the state. At least 97 wa­ter dis­tricts don’t even have out­door wa­ter­ing re­stric­tions to en­force, state of­fi­cials said.

In Fresno, the cuts have come pri­mar­ily from out­door wa­ter­ing re­stric­tions that are mon­i­tored, en­forced and tick­eted by a hand­ful of city staff who go face- to- face with wa­ter vi­o­la­tors and en­cour­age neigh­bors to re­port of­fend­ers.

The cam­paign is work­ing. Af­ter Gov. Jerry Brown’s un­prece­dented or­der for ur­ban Cal­i­for­ni­ans to use 25% less wa­ter by next year, Fresno scaled back its con­sump­tion 33% last month.

The color brown dom­i­nates the land­scape, as if the city has been put through a dusty photo fil­ter. Yel­low­ing lawns, parks and miles of street me­di­ans bake in the 106- de­gree weather.

Patches of green grass stick out, and neigh­bors are quick to re­port any yard that seems too lush.

Teach­ers, res­tau­rant work­ers and gas at­ten­dants can re­cite from mem­ory the city’s new mantra: “Don’t frown on brown.” TV weather re­porters re­mind ev­ery­one about the days when lawn wa­ter­ing is pro­hib­ited.

“Our peo­ple get it,” said Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public util­i­ties di­rec­tor. “The other thing we’ve no­ticed, though, is there are still some peo­ple who don’t get it.... We still have work to do.”

Things got se­ri­ous for Fresno last sum­mer af­ter the city’s ground­wa­ter dropped four feet and its al­lo­ca­tions of im­ported, stored wa­ter dipped 50% from one reser­voir and all the way to zero from the other. Fresno gets about 90% of its sup­ply from ground­wa­ter, so of­fi­cials knew they had to act. Be­gin­ning in Au­gust, lawn wa­ter- ing was re­stricted to twice a week, one rule among many.

Of­fi­cials this year be­gan comb­ing through wa­ter me­ter num­bers to back up dis­putes and pin­point vi­o­la­tors. In March, about 3,000 house­holds were wa­ter­ing lawns ev­ery day of the week. By June, 2,600 of those house­holds had cut back. The warn­ings are work­ing, Esqueda said. He’s proud of what the city and its 515,000 res­i­dents have ac­com­plished so far.

Of­fi­cials of­fer drought­friendly land­scape con­sult­ing and ad­just sprin­klers and wa­ter timers free of charge. A push to talk to the city’s large Hmong and Latino com­mu­ni­ties has also made a dent. Thou­sands of dol­lars have been put into full- page ads, air time and col­or­ful mail­ers and no­ti­fi­ca­tions.

But the work’s not f in­ished. In his of­fice, Esqueda con­sults rolls and rolls of par­cel maps with col­or­coded dots pin­point­ing ar­eas that could cut more wa­ter.

Although nearly 3,000 daily lawn wa­ter­ers im­proved, 1,500 other house­holds started wa­ter­ing ev­ery day when the sum­mer- like heat kicked in this year. In one gated com­mu­nity, about 1 in 3 home­own­ers still need a re­minder that the days of green lawns are over.

The city al­lows homes with odd- num­bered ad­dresses to wa­ter on Tues­days and Satur­days and even- num­bered ad­dresses on Wed­nes­days and Sun­days, only be­fore 9 a. m. and af­ter 6 p. m., to re­duce eva­po­ra­tion. A penalty costs $ 45, and af­ter four ci­ta­tions, the city has the right to cut off the wa­ter.

Things haven’t got­ten that ex­treme yet, and Esqueda said he hopes they won’t, adding that the goal isn’t to pun­ish but to ed­u­cate. The f irst f ine is waived as long as the vi­o­la­tion doesn’t re­cur within two years. The sec­ond penalty can be de­ferred if the of­fender agrees to at­tend a free wa­ter con­ser­va­tion class.

“Hope­fully that spurs a con­ver­sa­tion,” Esqueda said. Most of these of­fend­ers didn’t know about the new wa­ter rules or had no idea how to set their wa­ter timers.

Back out in the neigh­bor­hood, Wells rang the door­bell and was met by a sturdy man in a vintage mil­i­tary hat.

“Sir, hi, I’m with the city of Fresno,” Wells said to Kim­mel Kin­ion, 59. “Are you fa­mil­iar with the wa­ter­ing sched­ule?”

Kin­ion walked with Wells out to the lawn.

“I don’t have them on a timer. I made a mis­take this morn­ing of go­ing back to sleep,” he said, look­ing at his sprin­klers. “I turned it off when the street sweeper asked me to.”

Wells ex­plained the rules and told Kin­ion he can learn more about ad­just­ing his sprin­klers and, per­haps, some drought- friendly land­scap­ing.

“Ac­tu­ally, I’m con­sid­er­ing turn­ing part of my yard into a desert mo­tif,” Kin­ion said. “I’m think­ing about putting a palm tree over there, a cac­tus by this gar­den here, maybe some red chips.”

Good idea, Wells said. “My yard’s just dirt. The eye­sore of the neigh­bor­hood.”

Kin­ion ini­tialed a doc­u­ment on Wells’ clip­board. It’s his f irst of­fi­cial write- up, so he got off with a gen­tle warn­ing.

“Well, I’m glad you came by,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

On a good day, Wells — yes, he’s heard that wa­ter joke about his name be­fore — talks to 20, maybe 25, peo­ple. He’ll start the day with as many as 300 emails and helps the team tackle more than 100 calls each day from peo­ple re­port­ing wa­ter waste.

Wa­ter con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cials ex­pect the penal­ties is­sued in May will to­tal more than the 347 from April. And they’re test­ing a new smart­phone app that will be yet another way for res­i­dents to re­port wa­ter waste.

City of­fi­cials are con­fi­dent they will be able to meet the gover­nor’s man­date to keep their wa­ter con­sump­tion down. The av­er­age res­i­dent in 2014 used 152 gal­lons of wa­ter a day. In 2013, it was 171. Esqueda thinks Fresno can cut it down to 121 gal­lons by the end of this year.

But he wor­ries about what will hap­pen if it doesn’t rain by next sum­mer. For a city once known in the state as a heavy wa­ter user, more cuts will mean even more sac­ri­fices.

Around town, res­i­dents say other cities need to do their part. Fresno can’t be the only one with ugly lawns and parks.

On a cloudy, hot af­ter­noon at Wood­ward Park, Sharon Krause, 69, am­bled along with her grand­son and watched dozens of kids play on f ields of dry grass and dead leaves.

Krause said she thinks about the drought a lot. She hasn’t planted f low­ers in two years and times ev­ery shower. She’s down to 31⁄ min­utes.

Look­ing around at all the brown and yel­low, she nod­ded in ap­proval.

“When I see this, you know what I feel? I’m glad. Peo­ple are fi­nally start­ing to get it,” she said. “We’ve been aw­fully spoiled.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

WA­TER MON­I­TOR Don Wells holds a photo of the runoff from a bro­ken sprin­kler at a home in Fresno be­fore check­ing to con­firm that it had been f ixed. The city handed out al­most 350 wa­ter penal­ties in April.

RES­I­DENT Kim­mel Kin­ion, left, talks with Don Wells about the runoff from his sprin­klers, which he had ac­ci­den­tally left on, and in­stalling some drought- friendly land­scap­ing at his home in Fresno.

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