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Surprise, Fresno City Council Was Wrong On Computer Generated Water Fines

Fresno City Hall

Surprise, Fresno City Council Was Wrong On Computer Generated Water Fines

City of Fresno struggling with computers as a super-charged water enforcement system, which is a byproduct of Sacramento water mandates.

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I spent much of Tuesday – first at Fresno State, next at City Hall – listening to smart and civic-minded people discuss water issues in our region and our fair city.

That made for a fascinating day.

Let’s begin with the 1 p.m. news conference at City Hall. Mayor Lee Brand was joined by Council Members Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld. Their aim: Tout their co-sponsored resolution calling for an immediate moratorium on water consumption fines.

A special council meeting has been scheduled for Thursday to debate this lone issue. If passed, the resolution would also dismiss fines issued since Oct. 1.

In a nutshell, the city of late has been issuing fines to single-family residential water customers based on computerized water meter data. Use too much water within an hour during periods of prohibited outdoor irrigation and presto! City Hall computers, using real-time data from each home’s water meter set in motion the issuing of a warning or a fine.

There are about 115,000 single-family residential water accounts. In the old way of doing things, a city employee had to actually see the homeowner/renter watering his lawn at the wrong time before a citation was issued. The way I understand it, the old way is still in place. What’s changed is the dominance of computers in the enforcement equation.

Under the old way, I learned on Tuesday, the city was issuing about 1,000 such warnings/citations per month. With computers now joining the fray and issuing a warning/fine once a benchmark has been passed, that number has jumped to the 25,000 range.

Fines can be $50, $100 or $200. Many Fresnans are angry. Some at City Hall want to take a step back and figure out what to do next. Hence the call for a moratorium on computer-generated fines through the end of 2018.

“This recent round of fines is infuriating Fresno residents” Brandau said in a City Hall news release. “I am calling for an immediate moratorium on fines until we get our act together.”

Said Bredefeld:

“Fresno’s current water usage policy has caused great concern for many of our constituents and they question the fairness of having received violations for excessive water use. When they call City Hall requesting an explanation for their violations, they are not getting a timely response if they get a response at all. That is why Councilmember Steve Brandau and I are co-sponsoring a resolution calling for a moratorium on all water use violations until the City can properly investigate its flawed water usage policy. We are pleased to be joined by Mayor Lee Brand in this effort.”

Said Brand:

“While it’s important for the City of Fresno to set guidelines for responsible watering and have a mechanism in place to effectively enforce those regulations, it’s equally important for our customers to have confidence in the data we use to calculate their bills and send notifications of violation. We’re asking the Council to support our request to suspend all fines until we can answer our customers’ questions in a timely manner with the goal of finding solutions that best serve the needs of both the citizens and the City.”

City officials said they didn’t see the ratepayer backlash coming. That confuses me.

We in Fresno love to use our water. Strike that – we in the Great Central Valley love to use our water.

And why not? Our climate on the Valley floor may be of the Mediterranean type – a modest rain season for half the year, dry and toasty temperatures for most of the other half. But in a typical year the great Sierra Nevada to our east catches a lot of snow. The snowmelt sustains us in the dry period. Add to that natural water sustainability formula a pioneering spirit among most Valley residents and the result is 20,000 square miles of economic greatness stretching from Bakersfield to Redding that belies any description of the region as a “semi-desert.”

Keep in mind that not all parts of the Great Central Valley have access to equal amounts of good water. I’m from Lindsay in Tulare County. Lindsay doesn’t have two major rivers flowing near its boundaries. Lindsay is always struggling for water. Fresno does have two major rivers nearby – the San Joaquin and the Kings. Fresno is blessed in a way that Lindsay isn’t.

Still, we in Fresno know how to appreciate every drop of water at the same time we enjoy using them liberally. Water meters in single-family residences symbolize our attitude. We don’t like them and all they represent. We even wrote our dislike of them into our City Charter. In 1992, we banned the city from requiring them in single-family residences.

That’s an extremely strong hint to city officials that water ratepayers in Fresno’s single-family residences understand instinctively all of the possible uses and abuses of home water meters in the hands of government.

Time moved on and things changed. We all know the story of the past 25 years. To trot out another nutshell and condense things, the state and the feds put big-time pressure on us to install water meters in all single-family homes, both existing and new. Some of us howled, but we did it and accepted the new regime.

Lo and behold, conservation mandates from Sacramento soon took center stage. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has become our guide to water consumption. The act’s focus is found in its name – save the aquifer. And for some strange reason in a state of nearly 40 million people using water in a stunning variety of ways, it seems that SGMA figures the key to success is to be found in changing the consumption habits of people who live in single-family residences and like to water their lawns.

SGMA is complex law. Its implementation is currently ongoing. That being said, Fresnans for many decades have been all too aware of the meddling and heavy-handed ways of Sacramento legislators. That, too, is an extremely strong hint to city officials that Fresno’s ratepayers instinctively understand the possible uses and abuses of home water meters in the hands of government.

Fresno City Hall over the past five years has risen to the challenge of SMGA. City Hall did so in the form of a half-billion-dollar water infrastructure project called Recharge Fresno. Water rates over a five-year period shot up dramatically to begin paying for the long-term, low-interest state loans that fund construction of all of the project’s elements. More rate hikes are on the horizon.

Meters tell City Hall how much each ratepayer in a single-family residence should pay each month in way of consumption charges. Meters for years have been telling City Hall when each single-family residence uses water and how much is used. There are no water consumption secrets in this era of Big Data.

The ratepayer’s monthly bill explains to he ratepayer how much water has been used in the most recent billing period. That bill also explains the city’s outdoor irrigation schedule – certain days and hours are OK, other days and hours aren’t. That bill also explains, or provides Internet links to such explanations, the penalties for breaking these outdoor irrigation rules.

Again, all this monthly information is an extremely strong hint to city officials that Fresno’s ratepayers understand the possible uses and abuses of home water meters in the hands of government.

Then, in October 2017, we came to a turning point in the history of water consumption among single-family residences in the City of Fresno. That’s when the City Council approved a new way for turning water meters and City Hall computers into a super-charged water conservation/enforcement system (the change was spurred by state mandates).

The October 19, 2017 staff report said in part:

“The first month of an incident of water waste (that) is recorded by City staff or the City’s water meter reading system for a customer during the calendar year, the City shall issue a Notice of Water Waste to the customer. On the second month including an incident of water waste during the calendar year, the City shall fine the customer $50, which shall be added to the customer’s monthly utility bill….” (my emphasis).

To review, the process for issuing a violation in the old days was a city employee actually seeing a ratepayer watering the front lawn (for example) during the wrong hours on the right day or at any time on the wrong day. To that in October 2017 was added the 300-gallon-per-hour limit – if the computers identified a customer using more than that amount of water within 60 minutes at any point other than the prescribed period for outdoor irrigation, then City Hall would automatically deem it an excessive use incident. A warning or a fine would automatically follow.

The City Council and the Administration knew what they were doing in October 2017.

Finally, this use of home water meters connected to City Hall computers to spit out fines didn’t take effect until this past summer. That’s when City Hall embarked on another remarkable water conservation journey. City officials teamed with University of Chicago urban experts to conduct a three-month experiment (July through September) involving varied fine levels and varied consumption thresholds to trigger those fines. These variables were applied to varied groups of ratepayers in single-family residences. Some ratepayers were subject to the old enforcement method (visual). Some ratepayers were subject to the new computer enforcement method. The purpose: Maybe there’s a “sweet spot” in consumption threshold and size of fine that generates little or no ratepayer backlash.

The City Council and the Administration knew what they were doing when they teamed with the Chicago experts.

Then came October 2018. The City Hall/Chicago experiment has ended (a report is due in early 2019). The use of computers to generate fines goes full speed ahead. Fresnans are inundated with fines. Angry Fresnans make their feelings known to elected officials. Elected officials hold a news conference. They say they didn’t see any of this coming. They say they’ll put a hold on computer-generated fines for a while. They say they’ll tell Public Utilities to do a better job of answering ratepayer phone calls.

Again, City Hall claims to have anticipated none of this.

I don’t buy it.

Here’s my guess as to what’s going on: City officials are fully aware of Fresno’s water history. They know full well what’s coming out of Sacramento in the way of water regulations. They understand all too well the psychology of human behavior when it comes to water consumption, the pocket book and soulless computers impinging on people’s daily lives. The spike in citations was inevitable. So, too, was the howl. So, too, in my opinion, was the call for a fine moratorium. It’s all part of City Hall’s effort to educate ratepayers to the inevitable Brave New World of water conservation in Fresno. In other words, Tuesday’s news conference, in my opinion, wasn’t a reaction to events. It was part of a script long in the making.

I attended Tuesday’s City Hall news conference. Mayor Brand said the city wants to do the “right thing” by way of water consumption and water conservation. I wish him and other city officials the best. It will be a tall order since the education and enforcement responsibilities reside with City Hall while so many of the mandates come from Sacramento.

Finally, I spent late Tuesday morning at a Fresno State workshop sponsored by the International Environmental Communication Association and the University’s California Water Institute. The Public Relations students of Professor Nancy Van Leuven (Media, Communications and Journalism Department) delivered a multi-media lesson titled “Environmental Communication: Talking to the San Joaquin Valley!”

Tommy Esqueda, former director of Fresno’s Department of Public Utilities and now director of The California Water Institute, also took part.

Tommy very kindly asked me to say a few words. My main point to the students: Too bad you can’t join me at the City Hall news conference; I’m guessing the event would be a boost to your education on the real-world complexity of institutions attempting to explain environmental/political challenges to a public with limits on its free time and familiarity with the issue.

Turns out my guess was correct.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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