Enforcing water rules no longer a priority

A year into the most stringent water-use restrictions in memory, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities no longer flexes the enforcement muscle it once did.

Call it enforcement fatigue. Most users have answered the call to conserve, the utility says. Ticket-writers diverted to water patrols when restrictions took effect Aug. 28, 2007, have returned to their regular duties.

But well before last week's epic rain, Observer readers say, it was common to spot lawn sprinklers whirring when they weren't supposed to.

“I live in Dilworth and all you have to do is drive down Dilworth Road in the early hours of the a.m. and you will see sprinklers going off,” Sarah Curme reported by e-mail. “You can also look at the greenness of the various yards and it is not hard to see who is watering.”

As drought deepened late last summer, the utility first limited outdoor water uses to two days a week. Last September, it enacted it's first-ever ban on lawn watering. Once-a-week watering, on Saturdays or Sundays depending on the home's address, has been allowed since April.

Utility workers wrote 2,425 tickets in the past year. Homeowner fines start at $100 and can reach $300 for repeat offenses.

Average daily water demand has dropped 13.5 percent compared to the previous year.

The utility at first threw two or three dozen workers at enforcement, patrolling neighborhoods and responding to complaints.

Patrols ended late last year, spokesman Vic Simpson said. Now about two dozen workers carry ticket books and six or fewer are available to be dispatched. The number of tickets written has slowed to about 10 a week.

A Huntersville man who didn't want to be identified said he reported one chronic violator 20 to 30 times, apparently to no effect. The home's sprinklers spewed away as usual Friday before last, he said.

Response to complaints depends on who's available to investigate and what information they have, Simpson said. To write a ticket for illegal lawn irrigation, a utility worker has to see the sprinkling or evidence that it occurred.

“We will not be able to catch everybody, but we will follow up on reported violations,” Simpson said. “It's not always practical to dispatch an employee every time.”

Despite last week's deluge, Simpson said, restrictions probably won't go away soon.

“We feel the level of enforcement is appropriate for where we are right now,” he said. “No one wants these restrictions to be gone any more than the folks who work here.”