Something’s not adding up.
How did St. Helena residents and businesses incur $2.9 million in penalties for exceeding their water rations in the month of June?
We frankly have no clue, but the city needs to get to the bottom of it.
It couldn’t have been lack of awareness. Terms like “drought,” “Phase II,” and “water rationing” have become part of St. Helena’s common vernacular at coffee shops, family dinner tables, and social functions.
We’re not cynical enough to chalk it up to apathy either. Certainly not even the wealthiest among us would knowingly waste so much water as to run up thousands of dollars in penalties.
Water leaks are only a partial explanation, accounting for a portion of the excess use at about one-third of the accounts.
That leaves one possibility: People and businesses knew they were supposed to conserve, but they didn’t fully comprehend how much water they were using and how much it was going to cost them.
That’s why we believe the St. Helena City Council made the right call with its forgiveness program, giving customers a chance to have their June penalties expunged if they stay within their rations in August, September, October and November.
The tough rations and the forgiveness program reflect a solid strategy: Set high standards up front, and then offer one-time clemency for those who failed to clear the bar but make a good-faith effort to clean up their act.
Granted, $2.9 million would have done wonders for St. Helena’s water fund, which is facing down a daunting list of capital projects.
But four consecutive months of compliance will be hard to achieve, and a substantial portion of that $2.9 million could still end up in city coffers. More penalties will accrue each month we remain under Phase II, with no chance of forgiveness starting in August.
Granted, it’s hard for water-conserving customers with brown lawns to watch their less conscientious neighbors get a second chance.
But the Phase II rations are ultimately intended to save water, not punish water-wasters or pit conservers against non-conservers.
If, as we suspect, the city has gotten the message out about conservation but many customers have failed to apply that knowledge to their water use, we have some advice.
First, use technology. Invest in Flume water monitors that attach to your water meter and enable you to track your water use on your smartphone. Two models are available on Amazon for $149 (currently out of stock) and $199.
They’re easy to install, no plumber necessary, and they're relatively affordable — especially if you’re one of the 290 customers who’s looking at fines of more than $10,000, but even if you met your June ration and want to maintain your clean record.
The city should consider buying them in bulk at wholesale and then giving them to water customers at little or no charge.
Second, we urge the city to determine the cause of the biggest overages and work with customers to decrease their consumption. The city should invest in technology to detect leaks and alert customers as soon as possible.
Third, empower yourself.
Incorporate water conservation into your family’s routine. Have a contest to see who can take the quickest shower and still come out smelling like a rose. Make it fun.
Ask your neighbors how they’re conserving water. Tell them what’s worked for you. Be sure the water department (968-2745) knows how many people are in your household so your ration is calculated correctly.
The city can help by acquiring and distributing more conservation kits containing low-flow shower heads and the like. Passing them out at the Farmers’ Market is a good start, but pass them out at the Chamber summer concerts too. Go door to door at Stonebridge and Vineyard Valley.
The city needs to send the message that it is a proactive partner and supporter, the captain leading an all-hands-on-deck conservation effort.
We wish you the best as you open your water bill this week. If you conserved, good work. If you genuinely thought you conserved but you didn’t, step your game up. If you just don’t care, well, thanks for your generous contribution to our water fund.
If get water-smart, we’ll get through this together.
The Star editorial board consists of Director of News Content Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Chuck Meibeyer, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.