The Berkeley Hills seen in March 2021. File photo: Pete Rosos

A Berkeley Hills homeowner with a job related to environmental sustainability has been fined for using too much water during California’s current severe drought

The East Bay Municipal Utility District voted in April to mandate a 10% water use reduction from 2020 and instate “excessive use” penalties for households using more than 1,646 gallons of water per day — the strictest policy around water conservation in the Bay Area.

The Berkeley homeowner’s name was included in a list of hundreds of violators across the East Bay that was released by the district Tuesday in response to a public records request by Berkeleyside. 

Her six-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom home not far from John Hinkel Park used an average of 2,815 gallons per day this summer, and she’ll be fined about $180. 

The average EBMUD customer uses roughly 200 gallons of water per day, though usage tends to creep up in the summer. The seven worst offenders on the list each used more than 5,000 gallons per day and include former Chevron vice chair George Kirkland and former Safeway CEO Steven Burd. 

The excessive use fines have an effect of drought-shaming heavy water users, though EBMUD spokesperson Andrea Pook says that’s not the intention of the policy; naming violators is a requirement of California public records laws. 

The Berkeley homeowner told Berkeleyside she was incredibly frustrated to find herself on the list. She thinks the culprit might be a leak, and she’s waiting for EBMUD to send an expert to her house to look for it. 

“I have not been able to put my finger on the leak, so it looks like I’m some kind of scofflaw, when in fact, I’m not,” she said. “I’m frankly a little desperate … I’m somebody who cares deeply about my impact on the environment.”

Berkeleyside is not naming the homeowner because she is not a public figure.

She said she’s owned the home since 1996, and lives there with three family members. She said that she doesn’t own a pool, pond or dishwasher. She uses her washing machine “judiciously” — once a week — and takes showers, not baths. In 2017, she said, she even spent $20,000 redoing her irrigation system and re-landscaping her yard with drought-tolerant plants: California poppies, prickly poppies, moss rose.

When she first received a courtesy letter from EBMUD regarding her water use in July, she was caught by surprise, and suspected her yard was the problem. She stopped watering her lawn to the point it turned brown, but her water bill wouldn’t budge. And toilet tests didn’t reveal any silent leaks. 

If the cause of her high water bill is in fact a hidden leak, she wouldn’t be alone: “One in four customers in our service area has a leak of some sort,” Pook said. Other primary causes of excess water use include inefficient irrigation systems and overirrigation — that is, watering more than three times a week, according to EBMUD.

Pook said that customers looking to avoid ending up on the list should consider opting into the district’s My Water Report Program, which lets you know how much water you’re using relative to similar homes in your area and can help identify potential leaks. She also recommended customers order a free WaterSmart Home Survey Kit from EBMUD, a pamphlet with instructions to help customers locate leaks.

Drought surcharges and outdoor water restrictions are still in place

An East Bay Municipal Utility District water meter.
An East Bay Municipal Utility District valve cover. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

EBMUD’s water conservation mandate is just one part of the agency’s multi-pronged approach toward drought management. 

In July, EBMUD customers saw their water bills grow more expensive as the agency began imposing an 8% drought surcharge. Money from the surcharge goes toward the $64.5 million cost to the agency of managing the drought this year, including purchasing water from outside sources. 

Ordinarily, 90% of EBMUD’s water comes from Pardee Reservoir, which is filled by the Mokelumne River. But in April, following a second dry winter in a row, EBMUD declared a Stage 2 drought emergency and decided to purchase $19 million of supplemental water supplies from the Sacramento River and deliver to the East Bay Area through the Freeport Regional Water Facility, according to Pook.

As part of the drought emergency declaration, EBMUD’s 1.4 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties have been ordered to comply with the following outdoor water restrictions:

  • Limit outdoor watering to three times per week, before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m., with no runoff. No irrigation within 48 hours of rainfall.
  • Don’t wash sidewalks and driveways.
  • Don’t irrigate turf on public street medians.
  • Don’t irrigate non-functional turf on non-residential sites.
  • Turn off non-recirculating decorative fountains.
  • Use hose shut-off nozzle when washing motor vehicles.

Restaurants are required to only provide drinking water upon request, and hotels must offer patrons the option of not having towels and linens washed daily.

EBMUD’s water conservation efforts have been effective, Pook said. In September and October, EBMUD customers have reduced water consumption by 14% compared to 2020 levels — more than the 10% the district mandated. 

But until the drought emergency is over, the water use restrictions will remain in effect. EBMUD’s reservoirs are now 67% full, compared with 71% in April.

“They’ll get a warning, and then if they continue, they’ll get an excessive water use penalty on their bill,” Pook said. “It’s a community effort. Some people are already doing a lot and there are others who have more room, so to speak, to take more actions.”

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...