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November 27, 2014

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For now, valley’s ‘water cops’ focused on education, not enforcement

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Steve Marcus

Robert Kern, a meter services field representative for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, documents water waste at a home near South Rancho Drive and West Oakey Boulevard on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. The lawn sprinklers were running at a prohibited time (between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.) and overwatering so that water flowed into the gutter.

Fighting Water Waste

Robert Kern, a meter services field representative for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), looks for water waste as he drives through a neighborhood near Rancho Dr. and Oakey Blvd. Thursday, August 29, 2013. Launch slideshow »

It’s 2 p.m. on a hot August afternoon and the sprinklers at a home in the Rancho Sereno neighborhood near West Oakey Boulevard and South Rancho Drive are on at full blast.

There’s so much water spraying over the well-manicured lawn that it runs into the gutter.

As Robert Kern, a field technician for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, drives by in his pickup truck, he pulls over and hops out, video camera in hand, to document the incident, a violation of the valley’s waste ordinances that prohibit watering between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. during summer months.

Although most of Kern’s time is spent checking and servicing meters, he and the 70 other water district technicians who roam the streets during any given work day make up an informal force of “water cops” responsible for investigating and policing water waste in the valley.

After recording the sprinkler and getting a shot of the running meter as proof, Kern files a report and leaves a door hanger notifying the resident of the infraction.

As Kern prepares to leave, the homeowner pulls up into the driveway and Kern instead explains the issue to her, face to face.

On top of watering at the wrong time of day, Kern tells the homeowner it’s illegal to let run-off flow from the yard into the gutter. Kern suggests the homeowner cut the sprinkler cycle by about a minute.

“She was very understanding. She said her landscapers manage the sprinkler system and it usually runs in the morning,” Kern said.

The homeowner will have two weeks to fix the problem before a water district technician returns for a follow-up inspection. If the issue isn’t resolved, the homeowner could face a fine of $80.

Dennis DeMera, field services supervisor for the water district, says most residents are unaware they’re violating the valley’s anti-waste regulations and happily make the changes suggested by technicians, whether it’s watering at different times of the day or fixing a broken drip system.

“We’re going to help people work through the water-waste issue,” he said. "We’re going to try to educate you as much as possible and get you on the right track."

The Las Vegas Valley Water District, which serves Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, has investigated 830 water-waste incidents this year, but fewer than 5 percent of those have resulted in fines. It’s impossible to calculate how much water is wasted locally per year, but water officials say every drop counts as an extended drought chokes the Colorado River, the valley’s predominant water source.

The coming weeks will be especially busy for water-waste investigators. Each Sept. 1, the valley switches from a summer schedule that permits daily yard irrigation to a fall schedule that limits it to three days per week. It’s a change many residents will miss, DeMera said.

Seven types of infractions can lead to a citation for wasting water; they range from overwatering or a broken drip emitter to leaving a running hose unattended. Businesses that use mist systems or have water features also are regulated under the ordinance.

Reports are generated by tips from neighbors or by field technicians who witness waste firsthand.

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the water district, said the district thoroughly documents each incident with video, field reports and follow-up letters to residents to make the process transparent and fair.

“They’re common-sense measures that don’t impact people’s quality of life,” Davis said. “What we’ve found is all people really want is equity. They’re overwhelmingly supportive of conservation, but they want to feel like it’s fair.”

Davis, who also represents the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said local water agencies preferred to incentivize rather than enforce conservation, which is why the water authority has pumped $200 million into various rebates during the past decade to help offset the cost of xeriscaping yards, installing pool covers and other water-saving measures.

The effort has largely paid off, as the valley has cut its water consumption by 28 billion gallons per year since 2002 — even while adding 400,000 people to the population.

“We have more carrots than sticks,” he said.

However, with levels at Lake Mead continuing to plunge with no sign of stopping — the Bureau of Reclamation last month announced a record-low discharge from Lake Powell downstream to Lake Mead — enforcement could take a step up as conservation becomes even more of a focus.

“I think we still have a ways to go before we’re as tight as we want to be,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the water authority. “I think one thing Southern Nevada is going to see, which we’ve hesitated doing: We’ve used our water cops as educators rather than enforcers; we may have to get really snarky about enforcement of water waste.”

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