In the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic executive order last week mandating a 25-percent statewide reduction in water use, it’s clear from usage data that in Orange County the city of Newport Beach and the cities making up the East Orange Water District have the most work ahead of them.

Newport Beach guzzles 162 residential gallons per capita per day, while the number is 173 for the East Orange district, which serves residents between Orange and North Tustin. Meanwhile, Santa Ana consumes about 38 residential gallons per day, less than a quarter of the Newport Beach total.

Individual users who fail to hit the Governor’s new water reduction marks could face fines of up to $500 per day, while local water districts that don’t sufficiently crack down on water waste could pay a price tag of $10,000 per day.

This will almost certainly bring more scrutiny to places like Newport Beach. However, for the county’s richest cities, financial penalties may not be the best way to reduce water consumption, said David Feldman, who teaches social ecology at University of California, Irvine.

“We do silly things. We plant non-native vegetation. We irrigate our sidewalks,” said Professor Feldman, who studies water access as a social justice issue.

Do Higher Rates Mean More Conservation?

It has long been thought that a good way to force households and businesses to conserve water is to sell it on a sliding scale in which those who use the most pay the highest rates.

The Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD), which serves a total population of 383,305 people and covers most of South Orange County, has had such a rate structure in place since 1991. The district allocates gallons per household based on the type of property and number of residents. Residents who use more than their allocation pay a higher price.

The IRWD mostly provides water for the City of Irvine, a planned city known for its pristine landscapes. Residents have an average income of $92,663, according to the Census Bureau, which might explain why 24 percent of the IRWD clients are over their allocation.

However, that theory is not necessarily born out by the data. Beth Beeman, the Director of Public Affairs at IRWD said it isn’t the same households that use more than their allocation from month to month.

“They may need to look for leaks, fix faulty sprinklers or adjust their watering schedule. Customers usually act quickly to resolve these problems and reduce their bill,” said Beeman.

The majority of the water used by IRWD for landscaping is recycled, which helps matters but will not solve the problem on its own. The IRWD, for example, still receives roughly a third of its water from outside sources, according to its website.

“People say we are using reclaimed water, but it’s still water,” said Professor Feldman, noting that UCI is irrigated with recycled water.

Many water agencies in Orange County draw at least a fraction of their water from outside sources, which is why reducing consumption is becoming more crucial for all cities —regardless of whether residents can afford higher water rates —as the drought persists.

By law, water districts are required to report their consumption levels to the State Water Resources Control Board. The Governor’s order takes water regulations a step further by enforcing strict requirements on campuses, golf courses, cemeteries, and other spacious landscapes to cut down on consumption. The law also prohibits the watering of grass on public street medians, and requires new developments must use drip watering systems.

A drip watering system directly applies water to plants’ roots, it uses roughly less than 10 percent of the water an aerated sprinkler system.

Newport Beach began restricting its residential water use in November by giving each household two designated water days per week during the winter months. From April 2015 to October 31, households will have four water days per week. But some residents run their sprinklers at night, making enforcement of the regulation incredibly difficult.

Take a drive around Newport Beach and notice that most lawns remain green, despite the drought. The city delivers water to over 65,000 residents and the average annual household income is roughly $110,000.  Within the January reporting period, only three residents in Newport received citations for over consumption.

Since the City of Newport Beach enacted the designated two-day watering rule, the city has actually seen an increase in consumption, up from 135 residential gallons per capita per day in November and December to 162 residential gallons per capita per day in January.

Valerie Marcotte, a landscape architect who lives Costa Mesa and works with clients throughout Orange County, said residents could be doing more to save water.

“Homeowners, they’ve got landscaping that’s fairly slow to shift for updating their irrigation,” said Marcotte. “It happens when people move or when they retire. To do it, they have to have money and reason.”

Planting one or two drought resistant plants isn’t going to help reduce water consumption, said Marcotte, who sees many residents make just a few small adjustments.

“It’s more lush than a lot of Orange County,” said Marcotte. “There’s a lot that can be done, but isn’t.”

Jenny Cain is a Costa Mesa-based freelance journalist. You can reach her at jnncain@gmail.com.

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