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Water & Drought

Myth about huge California fines for shower and laundry usage won’t die. Here’s what’s true

 

California will impose new limits on water usage in the post-drought era in the coming years — but a claim that residents will be fined $1,000 starting this year if they shower and do laundry the same day isn’t true.

It wasn’t true when the state’s new conservation laws were enacted in 2018, and it isn’t true now — despite a recent report on a Los Angeles television station that riled up conservatives on social media and prompted the state Department of Water Resources to issue a statement debunking the claim.

The renewed controversy over a debunked claim comes as President Donald Trump has inserted himself into the water efficiency debate by making a misleading claim about the flushing power of modern toilets, part of his efforts to push back against environmental restrictions in general.

Around New Year’s Day, KTLA broadcast a segment on its morning news show about new California laws taking effect in 2020. A guest on the program, Southern California lawyer Richard Lee, repeated the claim that Californians could be fined $1,000 for showering and washing clothes on the same day.

A similar claim was spread by conservative websites 18 months ago, shortly after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law two water conservation bills.

Following the KTLA broadcast, the claims once again raced through the conservative blogosphere before the station took down “the video out of an abundance of caution” after learning Lee “may have presented inaccurate information,” Leila Shalhoub, a producer for KTLA Morning News, said in an email.

The segment on KTLA’s website was replaced with a correction. Lee told The Sacramento Bee he disagreed with the station’s decision, saying KTLA officials “didn’t like some of the feedback and the heat.”

He added that his on-air comments were meant to illustrate the fundamentals of the new state laws rather than “state you cannot shower and do laundry” on the same day. The laws will set residential indoor use targets of 55 gallons a day, per person, but the state won’t be issuing fines to individual customers for violating the standards. The limits begin in 2023, not 2020.

Meanwhile, someone supporting a recall campaign for Gov. Gavin Newsom made a copy of the segment and posted it on Facebook, and a copy was shared by a conservative activist with 62,000 followers on Twitter. The segment also was picked up by the conservative sites The Gateway Pundit and American Lookout. The sites falsely claimed Newsom signed the legislation, when it was his predecessor who did.

From there, the claims were shared widely on conservative social media accounts, where they dovetailed with Trump’s recent misleading statements alleging that over-regulation had ruined toilets to the point that modern, high-efficiency models require flushing “10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.”

The claims about fines got so much traction California’s association of water agencies and state regulators felt compelled to release statements debunking them again. Meanwhile, the KTLA segment continues to be shared.

“It does seem to be out there still lurking,” said Dave Bolland, the state regulatory relations director for the Association of California Water Agencies.

What do the laws do?

In 2018, with California’s historic five-year drought ended but still fresh on everyone’s minds, Brown signed AB 1668 and SB 606, which set water efficiency standards for utilities to follow in the decades to come. The bills say indoor water use needs to be reduced to an average of 55 gallons per person per day by 2023, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.

The average American’s eight-minute shower uses 17 gallons. An old top-loading washer will use approximately 40 to 45 gallons, while modern high-efficiency models only use 14 to 25 gallons, according to the Alliance for Water Efficiency.

But those are just general targets water districts will have to meet across their ratepayer bases, as part of a broader “water budget” strategy that accounts for both indoor and outdoor use. Water districts — not individual customers — could be fined if they don’t hit the targets.

Over the next two years, state regulators in consultation with local water agencies will set limits on how much water can be used to water lawns and landscaping and fill swimming pools. Outdoor use accounts for the majority of the total residential consumption in much of California.

The outdoor standards will vary greatly from one district to the next. The legislation allows for places such as Sacramento with large yards and hot, dry summers to use more water outdoors than in cooler coastal regions.

The new rules also encourage water providers to replace leaky infrastructure. Ancient pipes and crumbling water mains account for millions of gallons of wasted water statewide.

The idea behind the legislation is that all those factors — the indoor standards, the limits on outdoor water use, making water systems more efficient — will be built into a utility’s goals across a ratepayer base.

By 2027, local water agencies will have to meet these goals or theoretically could get fined by the state up to $1,000 per day or $10,000 per day during an official drought emergency.

Individual ratepayers, however, wouldn’t get any fines issued by the state. The utility would. Of course, individual ratepayers could see higher water bills as a result. But not fines of $1,000 for showering and doing laundry.

SB 606 does give local water agencies the authority to impose fines — and even 30-day jail terms — for individual water scofflaws. But the authority is limited to residents who violate local ordinances on water use during an official “water shortage emergency” that’s so severe it’s threatening “human consumption, sanitation, and fire protection,” according to SB 606. That has nothing to do with the state-imposed indoor and outdoor water budget standards currently being hashed out.

Trump’s toilet claim

The president’s claim last month that modern toilets require up to 15 flushes also was misleading.

It’s true that when high-efficiency toilets were first coming on the market in the 1990s, many customers weren’t thrilled by how they worked since some models required multiple flushes to get waste to go down.

California Gov. Jerry Brown s holds up the California Water Action Plan during his remarks at the Association of California Water Agencies conference, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Brown continued his call to build a $15 billion twin tunnel system to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Rich Pedroncelli AP file

“I live in a home with three new toilets, and I estimate that I spend 23 percent of my waking hours flushing them,” Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry wrote in 1997.

In the years, since manufacturers have changed the way they make the high-efficiency models, and experts say they now flush as well as a high-water, low-efficiency model.

Environmentalists argue that low-flow toilets are a necessary part of a water-efficient future, and Trump’s claims deserve to get flushed.

“There are occasionally reasons why a person may need to flush a toilet more than once, but if you need to flush it 10 to 15 times you may want to see a doctor,” Tracy Quinn of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in an email.

The 55-gallon, per person, per day threshold shouldn’t be too hard to meet, according to regulators and experts. They say indoor water use across California has trended downward for years as people replace aging toilets, faucet heads and water-using appliances like dishwashers with high-efficiency models when old ones wear out.

Many California cities are already cumulatively using less than 55 gallons indoors. One environmental group says it’s likely even lower statewide. Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, estimates that Californians currently are using about 51 gallons, per person, each day.

The 2018 legislation does call for regulators to go back to the Legislature to change the standards if they think the 55-gallon cap on indoor use isn’t going far enough, and some regulators already are suggesting it isn’t.

“We’ve done some preliminary analysis that shows 55 is way too high,” said Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager with the State Water Resources Control Board. Given the advent of low-flow fixtures, Gomberg said he thinks a target of 40 to 45 gallons is probably more reasonable.

But any further tightening of the water rules makes some water agencies nervous. Communities with “older housing stock” are worried about hitting that more stringent 50-gallon target by 2030, said Bolland of the Association of California Water Agencies.

Is California backsliding?

During California’s five-year drought, which officially ended in 2017, the state’s residents cut back their water use substantially. But water use has ticked up in the years since. Per capita urban water use in California rose by about 11 percent from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2019, the latest state figures show.

During the height of the drought in the summer of 2015, as residents let lawns turn brown and put buckets in their showers, they used about 99 gallons of water per person per day, a sharp drop from the prior summer, when they used 129 gallons per person each day.

When rain increased in 2016, the state regressed, with summer water use rising to about 111 gallons per person per day. In summer 2019, the state’s urban water districts averaged about 110 gallons of residential water use per person per day.

Some of the state’s largest backsliders are in the Sacramento area.

Per capita residential daily water use in Roseville jumped from 113 gallons in summer 2015 to 165 gallons in summer 2019, an increase of about 46 percent, state data show. Per capita residential daily water use at the Sacramento County Water Agency rose from 125 gallons in summer 2015 to 178 gallons in summer 2019, an increase of about 42 percent, state data show.

Some districts appear to have stopped reporting water use to the state. For instance, the San Juan Water District serving wealthy Granite Bay reported in July 2018 that its residents used 554 gallons per person per day, the highest water use per capita in the state that month and a 54 percent increase from July 2015. The state hasn’t listed data for San Juan since.

The city of Sacramento has been more consistent. Its customers used about 132 gallons of water per person per day in summer 2019, compared to 130 gallons per person per day in summer 2015.

Amy Talbot, water efficiency manager at the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said the uptick should be expected because people know the drought is over.

“We don’t call it backsliding,” she said. “We call it recovery.”

The important thing, state officials say, is that Californians are still using less water than they did before the drought.

“Usage dropped dramatically during the drought and it really hasn’t come back that much, which is a testament to people taking it seriously and not going back to their water-wasting ways,” said Gomberg of the state water board.

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