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Paso Robles kills penalties for excessive water use 

The Paso Robles City Council decided against pursuing passage of an ordinance that would set monetary penalties for water users who exceed mandatory conservation limits.

The council’s Aug. 4 decision to reject the plan followed a process of revising the ordinance that was designed to help the city meet mandatory conservation requirements issued by the state. California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an April 1 executive order that gave further use reduction requirements for urban water use, in which Paso Robles was placed in a tier that mandates a 28 percent reduction from 2013 usage levels.

The city has already reduced its use, but an additional 19 percent reduction is required in order to meet the new limits. In May, the council approved restrictions that issued a water allowance of 2,500 cubic feet per month for single-family residences and a requirement for 19 percent reductions for landscape meters.

Because the city was on track to fall short of state requirements, the city proposed penalties to customers who exceeded the limits. Over the course of two meetings, that discussion, however, got away from the council.

The water penalty ordinance was first proposed at the council’s July 21 meeting, prompting a discussion about fairness after residents and some councilmembers expressed concern that the penalty would unfairly target large families and homes with large lots. The issue returned to the council on Aug. 4, with a new provision that would create an appeal process, in which a residence wouldn’t be penalized for exceeding the allowance if they could demonstrate that they have previously reduced their water use by 19 percent. That new provision would have required additional funds to hire a temporary position to process the appeals.

That suggestion further complicated the fairness question, eventually leading Mayor Steve Martin to recommend that the ordinance be rejected because it wasn’t fair.

“The ordinance in front of us [on Aug. 4 was] actually less fair than the one we were looking at,” Martin told New Times. “This convoluted formula of crediting some people and not other people for the water they saved means that two people can live side by side, use the same amount of water, and have different water bills.”

Martin decided to suggest rejecting the ordinance, rather then further amend it, because the city has already missed the window of opportunity, as reductions are only feasible if irrigation is decreased in summer months.

Caught between the state’s last minute mandate and the city’s procedural delays, the council voted 4-1 to deny the ordinance and leave it dead in the water. Councilmember Fred Strong was the lone dissenting vote.

Strong said he agreed with the mayor and the rest of the council that the ordinance was problematic, but added that without the penalties, Paso Robles “has an unenforceable ordinance on water usage.”

“I couldn’t support doing nothing, which is a violation in the laws of the state,” Strong said. “But, I agree with what [Martin] said.”

Now, with the city facing the possibility for penalties from the state if the strict conservation targets aren’t met, city officials are hoping that the community steps up more than they already have.

“I’m putting my trust in the people of Paso Robles and their intelligence and their sensitivity on this issue to reduce their use so we’re not paying stiff fines,” Martin said.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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