By Sharon Bernstein and Jennifer Baires
(Reuters) - Hosing down a driveway in drought-stricken California could soon mean a visit from the "water cops," as agencies throughout the state begin beefing up staff to enforce strict new conservation rules set to take effect next month.
The water district serving the state's Silicon Valley tech hub is considering spending half a million dollars on enforcement agents. Los Angeles' water utility said it would also be hiring more people to investigate reports that residents are wasting water.
"Our members are up to their ears in reports that people are wasting water," said Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Water District, which sells water to public utilities and municipalities in Silicon Valley.
California is in its third year of a devastating drought that is expected to cost its economy $2.2 billion in lost crops, jobs and other damage. Last week, state regulators approved sweeping new restrictions on outdoor water use that allow cities and local water districts to impose fines on violators.
The new regulations prohibit washing a car with a hose that does not have a shutoff valve, watering the lawn more than twice a week and washing down streets and sidewalks.
If as expected, the Santa Clara district's board of directors on Tuesday night approves hiring enforcement staff, popularly known as "water cops," the district would make the new employees available to individual cities or public utilities within the region to investigate allegations - often from neighbors - that people are violating conservation rules.
In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power is hiring four full-time people and two part-time staff for its water-waste response unit, said Jim McDaniel, the agency's assistant general manager. Depending on the enforcement activity, he said, the team could be expanded to nine. The LAPD will also help identify violators, he said.
Other cities with water enforcement teams include Pasadena and Sacramento.
Water agencies are also making it easier to report water wasters online, and preparing emergency conservation orders for consideration by their boards, said Lisa Lien Mager, spokeswoman for the California Association of Water Agencies.
Violators can be fined, but George Kostyrko, spokesman for the California Water Resources Control board, said the agency was discouraging the use of fines most of the time.
"Our goal here is not to generate infractions for homeowners," Kostyrko said. "Our goal is to get their attention."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif., and Jennifer Baires in San Francisco; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)