Thousands complain of water waste – but how is it enforced?

May 23, 2022, 10:15 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 9:54 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — When the weather gets hot, KSL hears from many viewers, frustrated to see excessive watering, broken sprinklers, and other acts of disregard for the drought encompassing most of the state.

Utah’s Division of Water Resources has a contact form to report those frustrations – the Hall of Fame or Shame. Anyone can detail where, when, and how water is being wasted within the state. All submissions are private, so neighbors can’t be outed as the one complaining.

Utah Division of Water Resources runs the Hall of Fame or Shame water waste website.

Christie Urquijo didn’t know about this database. Instead, when she saw a business watering its grass just after a rainstorm, she reached out to the city where the business is located.

“There was not a real clear, ‘This is who you need to talk to,’ or ‘This is what you need to do,’” lamented Urquijo. “It’s always, ‘Umm, well, let me have you talk to this person.’ But then something doesn’t happen with that.”

The experience left Urquijo wondering about the best way to report water complaints, and what, if anything, is done about those complaints.

Christie Urquijo focuses water usage on vital plants.

Hall of Fame or Shame by the numbers

Data obtained by KSL Investigators showed complaints to the Hall of Fame or Shame have skyrocketed, from just a few hundred per year when the program started in 2017, to a whopping 8,772 tips in 2021.

As of May 17, the state had received 535 complaints in 2022, before summer had begun.

Complaints increased exponentially to the water waste website

Of those complaints, single-family residences held the top spot, accounting for 4,103, or 41%, of all complaints made to the website since 2017.

Businesses came next at 2,276, or 23% of all complaint types.

While the state’s website acts as a central gathering location for these tips, the Division doesn’t have the power to do anything about the complaints.

In an email, a spokesperson told us “the Division forwards waste reports to the local water provider to make them aware of the issue. The goal of the program is to save water and raise awareness of actions that are wasteful and also efficient water use. How the complaint is handled varies from area to area but is best handled on a local level.”

Voluntary Compliance and Education

Of the complaints made to the Division, Salt Lake City had by far the most — racking up 1,767 tips in that five-year period, which accounted for 17% of all complaints. The number two spot went to West Jordan, with 560 tips.

Salt Lake City Public Utilities’ Stephanie Duer is the person who hears the complaints in her city.

“Every single call, I call back the complainer,” Duer told KSL Investigators.

She estimated she received even more complaints, as some folks reach out to her directly rather than through the state website.

Duer said she is a department of one, responsible for reaching out and investigating the thousands of water waste complaints by herself. When it comes to violators, she finds simple education works best.

“I think most people honestly just don’t know what to do,” said Duer. “When you explain the circumstances to them, and what they could be doing, the impact both for the environment, but also their water bill, usually they’re responsive.”

Stephanie Duer from SLC Public Utilities investigates water complaints.

Duer said some people she contacted didn’t know there was a problem, like sprinklers watering too long in the middle of the day when they’re not home. For the most part, voluntary compliance helped Salt Lake City reach conservation goals last year.

“Only very rarely do I encounter someone who is outwardly and belligerently wasteful and gleeful about it,” said Duer.

When she does encounter those rare types, Duer said there’s not much she can do about it. Unless the city enacts certain drought restrictions, which allows for punitive actions like water shut off or fines, the user can keep wasting water so long as they are paying for it.

Punitive actions could be something the department does in the future, but Duer said that takes resources and staff.

“You have to be prepared to spend the money to manage the enforcement,” she said.

When education fails, fines and shut offs

Some large entities, like Las Vegas Valley Water District, have implemented strict watering rules. Breaking those rules mean residents get hefty fines or have their water shut off for non-compliance.

Enforcement in Las Vegas also means more staff.

“[They] have 26 people on their enforcement team, just the enforcement team,” said Duer. “I mean, they’re huge.”

Here in Utah, secondary water provider Weber Basin Conservancy District serves approximately 23,000 direct retail customers. In recent years, Assistant General Manager Jonathan Parry said they flipped the switch from only education to some enforcement.

Their current plan involves education first, followed by progressive fines of $250, $500, and $1,000 for subsequent warnings. Failure to comply at that point means shutting off their system the rest of the season.

“There’s 15%, 15% that just need a little bit more prodding,” Parry said. “That’s when we get into these shut offs.”

Weber Basin Conservancy District’s Jonathan Parry explains overuse fines.

In the last year, 80 customers had water shut off after repeatedly being asked to lower their usage.

“In order to get your water back on, you’re going to go and complete this four-question water use management plan,” said Parry.

The plan includes water use allocations and adjusting water usage.

Before Utah lawmakers this year passed a measure creating statewide mandates of secondary water metering by the year 2030, Weber Basin had been installing these meters for more than a decade. Shifting people’s mindsets from seemingly limitless secondary water use to how much they’re actually using on their lawns has been one educational pain point eased with metering.

“Almost immediately, as soon as the irrigation season comes on, we’re getting calls,” Parry explained. “’The meters are wrong, there’s no way I’m using this much water.’ With the meter, we can pull up the data. We’ve got the data being collected on hourly intervals, where we can just have a staff run a query on our databases to identify people that need extra education.”

Complaints private, but not anonymous

If you’re scared to make a complaint about water wasters, it may be comforting to know the contact details of the complaints are not public information.

However, Duer said the most important information she needs to investigate a complaint is contact information from the person making the complaint.

“I follow back with the person who called me or contacted me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve talked to the property owner, they say they’re going to this and this and this. If it’s not inconvenient, would you mind touching base with me if you don’t see an improvement?’”

Duer mentioned giving specific information — like the address of the incident, what exactly is happening, and time of day it was observed — is vital to helping remedy the waste.

KSL Investigators found many cities do have their own water waste complaint forms on their public utilities’ websites, for those that would rather reach out directly to the water retailer involved.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Thousands complain of water waste – but how is it enforced?