California drought: Will public shaming stop water-use violators?

California is enforcing its water conservation measures more aggressively as it faces a severe drought, aiming for a behavioral shift in water use via public shaming and hefty fines. 

Gregory Bull/AP
Tom Merriman stands behind a monarch in his butterfly atrium at his nursery in Vista, Calif. He has begun selling milkweed, which uses last water and attracts butterflies, to drought-ridden states at an increasing rate for the last five years.

The water fights in the drought-plagued Golden State have escalated from social media snitches to public shaming and sizable monetary fines as California works toward a lasting reduction in water usage. 

Four months into a state-mandated push to save water, California is making good on a promise to penalize scofflaws, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Four different water districts in southern California – Beverly Hills, Indio, Redlands and the Coachella Valley Water District - have each been hit with $61,000 fines. The districts have 20 days to appeal the fines, but the fines could also grow, so the state told the water districts to start going after individual residents who are violating water conservation rules.

The state apparently hopes that the publicity will help shame people into compliance, if the financial incentives do not. Cris Carrigan, enforcement director for the State Water Resources Control Board, had strong words for Beverly Hills residents.

"I'm sure there are people there who are very conscientious and doing their part," Mr. Carrigan said, according to San Jose Mercury News. "For those who aren't and who are wasting water, I would say you should be ashamed of yourselves."

Some communities are taking things a step further and putting individuals to trial in the court of public opinion. The water district serving the counties of Alameda and Contra Costa – which includes the Oakland area – has published names of residents who have not met the conservation quotas, including several pro athletes and CEOs, including San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain, former NBA star Brian Shaw, and former Golden State Warrior Adonal Foyle, reports the San Jose Mercury News

In California's unique cultural climate, such steps make sense, Trevor Duncan, a Brit now living in California, told The Christian Science Monitor.

"I’m convinced that because of the kind of celebrity entitlement you see around Los Angeles, their kind of abuse won’t desist until it comes with a social disadvantage – until they are named and shamed in innumerable ways, from hashtags to stickers or graffiti," Mr. Duncan said. 

The state water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus was asked whether other counties could follow suit with similar drought-shaming tactics. "I wouldn't have any objection," Ms. Marcus told the San Jose Mercury News. 

Despite what the government's aggressive tactics this month might imply, the state has actually succeeded at meeting the California Gov. Jerry Brown's goal of saving 25 percent more water than in the comparable months of 2013. The state overall saved 26.1 percent in September, 27 percent in June and August, and 31 percent in July, according to the Associated Press. 

The long-term goal, though, is to inspire the public to effect lasting change in water use, said David Feldman from the University of California in Irvine, drawing on lessons from Australia, where people successfully learned to reduce their individual water usage by 25 percent. 

"You have to engage, educate, and bring along," Mr. Feldman told The Christian Science Monitor. "It’s more than just water management. The Australians learned that what got them through the drought was massive conservation but what sustains them going forward is that they implemented steps that make them resilient."

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