Enforcement of Fresno’s water conservation rules is moving into the big data era.

Critics wonder if “Big Brother” might be a better description.

The Fresno City Council approved a pilot program Thursday that uses data from residential water meters to assess fines for violations of the city’s outdoor lawn watering rules.

Currently, the city enforces water usage restrictions only through visual inspections. That will change under the new approved program.

The enforcement program is designed by The University of Chicago Urban Labs, and will run for three months, from July-September.

“While automated enforcement will theoretically drive compliance, there could be high costs to customers.” — City of Fresno staff report

Under the pilot, the majority (55%) of Fresno’s 115,500 water customers will continue to be monitored through visual inspections. The remaining 45% will be subject to automated enforcement.

Big Brother Watching?

Former Fresno County Supervisor and noted water policy critic Doug Vagim wonders if this is a case of overreach.

“The whole question of Big Brother is watching and the question of whether the process that examines data from a private dwelling, is it a violation of the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?” Vagim posits.

The city’s communications office declined to discuss the plan with GV Wire.

Water Violation Penalties

Fresno installed Smart Meters in 2013 to comply with state law. The meters automatically transmit hourly water usage data to the city. In 2017, the city council established a water usage threshold of 300 gallons in an hour for residential customers on non-watering days.

“I like the goal of water conservation, however, I have concerns over the means by which to achieve the goal.” Councilman Luis Chavez

Any use beyond the 300-gallon threshold is considered a violation. The first offense results in a warning notice from the city. After that, residents are fined $50 for the second violation, $100 for the third and $200 for every violation thereafter.

If a customer violates the rules for six consecutive months, water at the address could be turned off by the city.

Starting in June, the city’s three-day-per-week watering schedule goes into effect. Even number addresses may water Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Odd number addresses may water Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday. The city allows no watering between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the designated days. In September, the outdoor watering schedule is reduced to two days a week.

More Notices and Fines

City staff expects the number of water citations and fines to increase under the new system.

“While automated enforcement will theoretically drive compliance, there could be high costs to customers,” the city’s staff report states. “Based on historic data, almost 80% of customers would have received a fine in 2016 under the current enforcement ordinance. 70% of customers would have paid more money in fines than on their yearly water bill.”

Before the pilot program begins, the city will tell customers whether their water use will be monitored electronically or by visual inspection.

Customers will be able to opt out of electronic monitoring, if they choose, during the test period.

Councilman’s Concerns

Councilman Luis Chavez has mixed feelings about changing the city’s water monitoring protocol.

“I like the goal of water conservation, however, I have concerns over the means by which to achieve the goal. I’m not going to support an approach that, right off the bat, levies exorbitant amounts of fines for our residents.”

Chavez said that the city is building a new water project for hundreds of millions of dollars: “Data shows we are conserving water. So why do we need this now?”

This story was updated to reflect the approval of the pilot program by the city council on May 17 by a 5-2 vote. Councilmembers Luis Chavez and Clint Olivier voted no. 

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