SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Steve Upton thinks of himself more as an "Officer Friendly" than a water cop.
On a recent sunny day, the water waste inspector rolled through a quiet Sacramento neighborhood in his white pickup truck after a tipster tattled on people watering their lawns on prohibited days.
He approached two culprits. Rather than slapping them with fines, Upton offered to change the settings on their sprinkler systems.
"I don't want to crack down on them and be their Big Brother," said Upton, who works for the water conservation unit of Sacramento's utilities department. "People don't waste water on purpose. They don't know they are wasting water."
At least 45 water agencies throughout California, including Sacramento, are imposing and enforcing mandatory restrictions on water use as their supplies run dangerously low. Sacramento is one of the few bigger agencies actively patrolling streets for violators and encouraging neighbors to report waste.
They teach residents to avoid hosing down driveways, overwatering lawns or filling swimming pools. While gentle reminders are preferred, citations and fines can follow for repeat offenders.
"We do have the stick if people don't get it," said Kim Loeb, natural resource conservation manager in Visalia, a city of 120,000 people that has hired a part-time worker for night patrols and reduced the number of warnings from two to one before issuing $100 fines.
Mandatory restrictions aren't as widespread as in previous droughts, even among the drier parts of Southern California. One reason is more cities are conserving and making it expensive for residents to guzzle water.
Sacramento, where about half the homes are unmetered, is deploying the state's most aggressive water patrols to compensate. In February, the city of 475,000 deputized 40 employees who drive regularly for their jobs, such as building inspectors and meter readers, to report and respond to water waste. Of them, six are on water patrol full-time.
Providing a boost to their efforts is a campaign asking residents to report neighbors and local businesses breaking the rules. In the first three months of this year, Sacramento has received 3,245 water waste complaints, compared to 183 in the same period last year.
"There are tons of eyes out there watching everywhere," said Upton, looking at a computerized map of suspected offenders throughout the city.
Lina Barber was among those warned by Upton about watering on the wrong day, but she said she's still drought conscious. She's already waiting for full loads to wash clothes and dishes and just needed a simple reminder, a courtesy she'd extend without dragging in the water cops.
"I'm just going to talk to my neighbors," Barber said. "I know them well enough to say they are trying to enforce the water rules."
Sacramento's suburban neighbor to the east, Roseville, also is deploying an aggressive water-patrol program.
Despite steady rain and snow in February and part of March, the state's water supply and mountain snowpack remain perilously low, meaning there will be far less water to release to farms and cities in the months ahead.
More consistently water-conscious communities have found they don't need to spend as much time or money on enforcement.
Los Angeles has just a small water-enforcement program but has mandated conservation since 2009 and has cut water use by 18 percent. Just a single inspector patrols the streets full time in a city of nearly 3.9 million that imports most of its water, a program that is expected to expand to four by summer.
The program will take a softer approach than its "drought busters" program of 2008, said Penny Falcon, a water conservation manager. The workers will no longer roam the city wearing special uniforms and driving Priuses. Standard, city-issued vehicles will be used instead.
"No one wants to be the water cops," said Lisa Lien-Mager, spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies. "When they are asked to conserve, Californians will generally respond."
Some agencies have found that it's better to maintain a culture of conservation no matter what the winter brings. The Marin Municipal Water District north of San Francisco deployed water patrols during the mid-1970s drought but has since implemented tiered water rates that spike for guzzlers.
It also focuses on voluntary home visits to catch leaks and point out appliances and other devices that are not water-efficient, said Dan Carney, the conservation manager.Comment on this story
Another emerging conservation measure is using peer pressure through bills that show how much water homeowners use each month compared to their neighbors. Studies show such programs reduce overall water use as much as 10 percent.
The San Francisco-based company Water Smart sells software to compare ratepayers' water use at eight California agencies.
"It certainly feels a lot better to take care of business yourself," said Andrea Pook, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Water District, which uses the software and does not have active water waste patrols. "Who wants a nagging mother?"
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