I-Team In-Depth: CVWD water fines cutting water waste as customers seek to conserve and save money

Fines for excessive outdoor watering appear to be working for the Coachella Valley Water District as the state requires water agencies up and down California to reduce water use during the drought. But in an I-Team report, Jeff Stahl finds some higher-than-expected Coachella Valley Water District monthly bills are still taking customers by surprise.

Many people are taking measures to reduce their water usage while avoiding overuse penalty fines which have been imposed on Coachella Valley Water District customers since August.

Source: Coachella Valley Water District September consumption report

The water district’s latest monthly update reveals customers used less water in September and met the state’s desired 15% percent target cut.

At the Mira Vista Community in Rancho Mirage, a Landscape Committee Member Carol Trentacosta said, “There’s just a little bit of grass left to remove,” while showing off the homeowner association’s latest turn conversion project. The project is nearly complete, and residents say it’s been a no-brainer to move to desertscape.

“Where you see all this black tarp here,” said HOA Boardmember Guido Portante adding, “They put these rocks in, there was grass like what we passed.”

The Homeowners Association says this two-month project costs them $5.92 a square foot. But they’re getting rebates to cover the entire expense. “Basically, all the money we’re spending will be rebated,” said Trentacosta.

Rock, cactus, and a variety of drought-tolerant plants have replaced what used to be large swaths of non-functional turf at the HOA’s front gate entrance. In June, the state ordered HOAs like Mira Vista not to water decorative lawn areas not used for recreation or events.

Trentacosta said, “It’s 20 years old now, so it needed refreshment and things. And it really helped with the cost.”

Over the past 10 years, the HOA board says they’ve recuped more than a half million dollars in rebates from the City of Rancho Mirage and the water district through turf conversion projects.

CVWD says it’s serious about customers saving 15% of the agency’s overall water use, compared to 2020. It’s a statewide requirement of all water agencies as of March. That’s when Governor Gavin Newsom mandated Water Shortage Level 2 water conservation efforts statewide.

“Level 2 means even if we don’t have a shortage, we have to do our part to save water during the statewide emergency.”

Lorraine Garcia, Coachella Valley Water District

Lorraine Garcia of the Coachella Valley Water District said, “Level 2 means even if we don’t have a shortage, we have to do our part to save water during the statewide emergency.”

In August, the water district started imposing fines for customers who don’t save 10% percent of their Tier 2 outdoor irrigation budgets. The penalties are on top of progressively higher water rates so the more water you use, the more you will pay for that water. Fines kick in at 29 cents for water use over 90% of Tier 2 budgets. The penalties then rise to $1.80 in Tier 3, $3.16 in Tier 4, and a whopping $6.44 adding up to $12.88 dollars per unit in Tier 5.

“Our data and research showed 60% of our customers wouldn’t be affected,” Garcia said continuing, “because they’re already using water efficacy.”

The water district isn’t allowed to profit from its water sales, despite higher charging rates for different tiers. Instead, it’s using that extra fine money to pay for more people to do turf renovation projects. There’s a lot more to this story, including how a conservation-minded resident is dealing with a surprisingly high water bill, how other local water agencies are trying to meet the state’s conservation mandate, and how you can save water and money on your next bill during California’s latest statewide drought.

See Jeff Stahl’s complete I-Team report on CVWD water fines Thursday at 6 pm on News Channel 3.

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