Some Coachella Valley homeowners and communities are saving water and meeting new state-mandated water conservation targets by taking a number of dramatic actions to avoid costly drought fines.
But in an I-Team In-depth report, some higher-than-expected monthly bills from the Coachella Valley Water District, or CVWD, are taking customers by surprise.
Jeff Stahl spoke with people who are converting their lawns to dryscape as the state’s drought picture shows no signs of easing. It’s paying off. The Coachella Valley Water District’s latest monthly update reveals customers used less water in September.
The blue line represents water use. It meets a dotted red line showing the desired 15% percent target cut.
As for savings by customers of the Desert Water Agency, a spokeswoman Ashley Metzger said, “It is too early to say for October but in September by the State’s metrics we’re at 10% less than 2020. As you know, 2020 is a hard baseline year for a tourism-driven economy.” Metzger added, “It’s worth noting that September 2022 is the lowest water use September since 2015, the height of the last drought.”
Carol Trentacosta is a Rancho Mirage resident in the Mira Vista community off of Ramon Road. She’s also a member of the community’s landscape committee that’s been busy converting turf areas within the HOA to desertscape. Trentacosta said, “There’s just a little bit of grass left to remove, but the whole sides and the interior were all grass” while describing the development’s newly remodeled front gate entranceway.
There is less landscaping to water at Mira Vista in Rancho Mirage as their latest turf conversion project is nearly completed. Residents say it’s been a no-brainer to move to desertscape. “Where you see all this black tarp here and they put these rocks in, there was grass like what we passed,” said Boardmember Guido Portante as he and Trentacosta showed Jeff Stahl around their development.
The Homeowners Association says this two-month project is costing residents $5.92 a square foot, but they're getting rebates to cover the entire expense. Rock, cactus, and a variety of drought-tolerant plants have replaced what used to be large swaths of non-functional turf.
In June, the state ordered HOAs not to water decorative lawn areas, not used for recreation or events. “It’s 20 years old now, so it needed refreshment and things. And it really helped with the cost,” Trentacosta said. Over the past 10 years, the Mira Vista HOA board says they’ve recouped more than a half million dollars in rebates from the City of Rancho Mirage and the Coachella Valley Water District.
Lorraine Garcia with the Coachella Valley Water District said people are often shocked to see a drought penalty on their monthly bill. “Initially it is shocking when you see drought penalties are going to happen,” Garcia said.
CVWD says it’s serious about customers saving 15% of the agency’s overall water use when compared to 2020. It’s a statewide requirement of all water agencies as of March when Governor Gavin Newsom mandated Water Shortage Level 2 water conservation efforts to begin. The March 28 Executive Order N-7-22, resulted in the California State Water Board mandating all water suppliers implement Level 2 of their Water Shortage Contingency Plans. “Level 2 means even if we don’t have a shortage, we have to do our part to save water during the statewide emergency,” Garcia said.
In August, the water district started imposing fines for customers who don’t save 10% percent of their Tier 2 outdoor irrigation budget. The fines are on top of progressively higher water rates so the more water you use, the more you pay for that same amount of water. The fines kick in at 29 cents for Tier 2 water use at use over 90%. The fines then rise to $1.80 in Tier 3, $3.16 in Tier 4, and a whopping $6.44 for a total price of $12.88 per unit in Tier 5.
Garcia said, “Our data and research showed 60% of our customers wouldn’t be affected because they’re already using water efficiently.”
The water district isn’t allowed to profit from its water sales, despite charging higher rates for different tiers. Instead, it’s using that extra fine money to pay for more people to do turf renovation projects.
Now is a good time to conserve or convert turf to dryscape in the desert. The state’s water picture isn’t bleak, but it’s not good either. The Sierra’s precipitation chart is above our worst droughts, but still well below average. The cities of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and Indian Wells all offer grants to match rebates from the Coachella Valley Water District or Desert Water Agency.
Bill Heitzenrater has found money and fines to be good motivators in conservation. “Me being a cheap person, I didn’t want to keep paying those water bills,” Heitzenrater said adding, “Especially now with the tiered rates.”
His latest desertscape project is two flowerbed conversions from water-intensive plants to dryscape cacti and succulents. Heitzenrater says it should pay for itself, and then some. Still, his latest bill was a surprise. It said his water use is inefficient and subjecting him to fines. So he’s shut off his backyard water feature to see if there’s a leak in it.
“After my little experiment I’ll have to wait and see if I need to get the water department out here to test the meter,” Heitenrater said.
Garcia said, “We can always schedule a water audit if there’s something going on with that water bill.”
Back at Mira Vista, residents have a number of past turf conversions they are still enjoying. The HOA board is letting the community know there will be some brown grass in other common areas. “We’ve notified our homeowners we’re going to have some golden brown areas throughout the community,” said Portante. They’re also urging those same residents to convert their lawns to desertscape if they can.
More information in addition to Jeff Stahl’s TV report.
CVWD has committed $2 million for turf conversion rebates since July 1. That includes turf conversions involved with the District’s partnership with the City of Rancho Mirage offering $6 per square foot to customers who live within its city. CVWD is seeking other partnerships to encourage a reduction in water use and participation in cost-share rebate programs for customers.
The Desert Water Agency told Jeff it does not have fines based on billing information, budgets, or tiers. Conservation fines at the agency come when violations are observed at customer properties, according to a spokeswoman, Ashley Metzger.
Some simple tips to remember to save water include taking advantage of local turf conversion programs, not watering during the day, and cutting back your outdoor watering times as our temperatures cool.
CVWD also has a guide to finding leaks on its website and urges customers to call if they have questions about their water use. http://cvwd.org/261/Drought-Updates. Here are frequently asked questions for CVWD customers. https://www.cvwd.org/FAQ.aspx?QID=203
Desert Water Agency drought information https://dwa.org/conservation/water-use/drought/
Watch and read about other I-Team Investigations and In-Depth reports.