The Long Beach Utilities Department is looking to update its water shortage contingency plan, which outlines what activities are prohibited during different stages of drought—and a new proposal could lead to steep fines for water wasters in the future.

After an exceptionally wet winter, most of the state, including Long Beach, is out of drought-like conditions. With water agencies projected to get 100% of their requested water supplies from the state, many are looking to rescind some restrictions.

Long Beach is currently in a declared State 2 shortage, which limits what days of the week plants and lawns can be watered and prohibits things like rinsing of hardscape and washing vehicles without a hose that shuts off.

The Utilities Commission is expected to revise its shortage stage in June.

Commissioner Frank Martinez said during a Wednesday meeting that he wouldn’t want to fully rescind the water restrictions even though the state is not currently in a drought.

“If we jump two stages, it would give the impression that we’ve solved all our water issues,” Martinez said, adding that it could be difficult to get buy-in when the department might have to reimplement restrictions.

Updating the plan, which is required by the state, would provide new guidelines for when the state does return to drought conditions—a scenario that could be more prevalent in the future due to climate change.

Dean Wang, the department’s manager of water resources, told the commission Wednesday that the department currently doesn’t have guidelines for what happens when it hits Stage 3, the last step of its current plan.

A screenshot of proposed water shortage stages and some of the restrictions that would be imposed when the city enters those stages of drought.

The state has a six-stage plan, and Wang unveiled a proposal that could help the department align with the state Wednesday morning. The current Stage 2 would be like the proposed Stage 3, where residential and commercial irrigation is limited to Tuesdays and Saturdays, and golf courses, schools and parks would have to reduce their usage by 10%.

Stage 4 would drop irrigation to one day per week, with reductions of 30% for schools and parks. Golf courses would only be allowed to water fairways and greens. Stage 5 would require residents and businesses to hand-water trees and food crops, with 50% cuts for other water users.

Stage 6, the last stage, would ban all irrigation in the city.

“Stage 6—that is really critical conditions, where we’re just looking to serve public health and safety with water,” Wang said.

The updated plan would also include other requirements for outdoor water use like when pools can be filled or drained and when and where cars could be washed. It would also introduce a new fine structure that would see increasing penalties for both the tier of a violation and how many violations a user has accrued.

A person found violating the department’s rules when there is no shortage could face a $25 fine, which could escalate to $200 for a third violation. However, Stage 6 violations would start at $500 for a first offense and escalate up to $2,000 after a third offense.

A fourth offense in any tier of the proposed plan would result in water service being shut off, according to the plan presented by Wang. The department’s current maximum fine is $1,000.

Some commissioners expressed concerns about the number of stages and the proposed penalties assigned to them, saying that having so many might be confusing to the public.

The department doesn’t have to have the same amount of stages as the state as long as it has a “crosswalk” to translate local shortage stages to the savings goals outlined by the state.

Commissioners could vote on the proposed water shortage contingency plan during a public hearing at its June 8 meeting, where it could also set the water shortage stage. Both would take effect June 18.

Setting the budget 

Commissioners also got their first glimpse of next year’s $323 million budget for the water, sewer and natural gas services Wednesday, which includes $60 million in infrastructure work on pipelines, wells and tanks.

Rate changes could come as part of a new budget, and the commission is expected to discuss any potential adjustments at its May 25 and June 8 meetings. Adoption of the budget, which has to be approved by the City Council along with the full city budget later this year, could happen during the June 22 meeting.

While it’s unclear what rates might change, if any, some increases could be on the way.

Brandon Walker, the department’s director of finance, said that inflation could affect future infrastructure projects, as labor and material costs go up and citywide conservation efforts have reduced the department’s revenue stream, which accounted for about 76% of revenue for the water utility this year.

The department is working to decrease its reliance on more expensive imported water from the state water project and the Colorado River by expanding its ability to pump groundwater in the city. Walker said that a drier year could lead to more water usage and provide a bump to the department’s current projections for water sales.

The commission will face another key decision, thanks to a vote the panel took Wednesday to implement a minimum and maximum level of financial reserves for the gas utility. The commission now has a few options to meet that obligation, including potentially raising natural gas rates for customers or reducing the amount of funds the department transfers to the city.

Reserves are a tool the department uses to keep cash on hand to address emergency repairs, or to help pay down historically high commodity prices like the city saw earlier this year. The commission could raise natural gas rates for customers to help build up the gas reserve fund, or it could reduce the amount of funds it transfers to the city.

The natural gas utility was not part of the Measure M lawsuit that blocked future transfers from water and sewer funds to the city’s general fund. The department is projecting a transfer of about $13 million to the city in the next fiscal year, a mark that utility officials said could change as the department’s needs evolve.

Long Beach looks to invest more in groundwater as Colorado River shrinks

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.