The Water Cop keeps Tucson in line

Tony Almodova is a water conservation inspector, one of two hired by the city of Tucson, Ariz., and though his job is more informational than judicial, everybody who is busted by him calls him the water cop.

Almodova says the biggest offenders are usually people who manage landscaping around properties such as apartment buildings, shopping centers, strip malls, schools and commercial buildings, and allow their irrigation systems to waste water. One might have thought that big turf facilities such as parks, sports facilities and golf courses would be the biggest offenders since they use so much water. That’s not the case.

Tony Almodova is one of two city of Tucson Water Conservation Inspectors, but he’s called a water cop by those who violate the city’s water ordinances.

“I found that the golf courses have been doing pretty good, but more needs to be done. I haven’t seen too many golf courses that have been violators,” he says.

Starting his job in April, he began making his rounds by driving the big lateral streets. He monitors the east side of Tucson, while his partner, Art Castro, works the west side, and they focus on commercial properties.

If a commercial property in Tucson allows water to pond or cover an area greater than 150 square feet on public property, the owner can be cited for violation of city ordinances.

Almodova looks for any runoff or ponding on public property, whether it be from a private or public source. The mandate is to help the city conserve water by reducing the amount of water lost to inefficiency or damaged delivery systems. At first, he saw water running down many streets “every single day.” It’s a tribute to his diligence that now he has to drive a ways to find water in the street.

This all started with a 2000 Tucson water waste ordinance that declared that “the waste or unreasonable use, or unreasonable method of use, of water be prevented.” Tucson has followed the precedents set by other cities such as Las Vegas and Albuquerque, and many cities around the country either have water police or are considering them. The ordinance, which goes along with the city’s Beat the Peak conservation program, cites six prohibited areas that Almodova addresses when he sees them in commercial areas:

• Allowing water to escape onto public property, such as alleys or streets, or upon any other person’s property.

• Allowing water to pond in any street or parking lot to a depth greater than .25 inch, or to permit water to pond over a surface area greater than 150 square feet on any street or parking lot.

• Washing driveways, sidewalks, parking areas or other impervious surface areas with an open hose, or a spray nozzle attached to an open hose, except for public safety or welfare.

• Operating a misting system in unoccupied, nonresidential areas.

• Operating an irrigation system with a broken head or emitter, or with a head that is spraying more than 10 percent of the spray onto the street, parking lot or sidewalk.

• Failing to repair a controllable leak, including a broken sprinkler head, a leaking valve or a leaking faucet.

Almodova investigates the cause of leaks—his experience with landscaping being a benefit, as is his training in areas such as water auditing—and gives either a verbal or written warning with digital photos as evidence. He usually gives three to five days for the property manager or owner to make repairs, then comes back to inspect the area again. He will give two warnings, usually, before issuing a citation, trying primarily to provide the information the violator will need to get his water system under control.

“I give them as much opportunity as possible to correct the problem,” he says, and that often means a consultation with the property’s landscape maintenance company. He’s found that getting landscapers involved leads to more diligent management of irrigation, and the companies find it beneficial to comply because they want to keep property owners happy.

There are always some facilities that offend repeatedly, and some that try to avoid detection by watering in the middle of the night or at other hours they think the water police won’t be around. Some people set their timers for 3 a.m. to avoid detection of overwatering. What they have discovered is that Almodova sees the evidence of water running or ponding even after it has dried, and he will change his hours to catch these offenders in the act.

There are also offenders who just keep wasting water even after being busted repeatedly. One large home improvement chain in Tucson was overwatering its garden center plants with hoses, for example, and received a $4,000 fine, as well as a year on probation for multiple violations. That results in constant monitoring from the water cop. The first offense can bring a fine of $250 (and often several violations occur at one site), with subsequent offenses being subject to a minimum fine of $500 and maximum of $2,500.

“I work with them, but we do have the enforcement stick we can bring out,” Almodova says. Reflecting the amount of counseling and leeway they are given, commercial properties received only 26 citations in the first six months of policing. “We’re yet to lose a case,” he adds. The city understands that there may be difficult water supply problems, and more time can be given to remedy those.

Property owners, not landscapers or managers, are the ones liable for fines, so Tucson Water is trying to educate them about modernizing their irrigation systems, placing buffers of turf or landscaping between sprinklers and the sidewalk to collect runoff, watering at the proper times, reducing irrigation on slopes, as well as other means of reducing water usage and runoff. Of course, overall reduction of turf is a goal, since grass is the biggest water user, and it is always advisable to improve distribution uniformity and install sensors on timers so that irrigation will be stopped during rains.

There really is little excuse for wasting water, Almodova says, because the city will execute a free water audit of a property. That will show where the supply and irrigation system is deficient. Educating landscape managers is important, because they can use that information to press owners to upgrade systems. That means more work for landscapers and less water used in Tucson.

The city has a data logging system that can tell much about a property’s water supply history. Almodova can use that as an educational tool for the owner, and if that fails to eliminate waste he can use it in court to prosecute. “They can look at it as enforcement or as a service to them. Some appreciate it, some don’t.”

Almodova is a good-natured guy who carries a camera instead of a gun, and he tries to provide just the proper amount of gentle persuasion and information sharing to bring property owners in compliance. But, make no mistake, the city is serious about reducing water use and will come down hard on violators (see its water conservation Web site at www.tucsonaz.gov/water/conservation.htm for the complete program). Almodova gets his share of irate water customers, but he also gets a lot of calls from concerned citizens who don’t like to see water running down the streets.

With cost savings resulting from runoff reduction, businesses should be enthusiastic about conservation efforts, Almodova says. That isn’t usually the case, because water isn’t seen as a big expense. In addition, some owners don’t live in the city, and they either don’t care or are too far removed from the problem. That’s one reason that the education of landscape managers is so important.

Tucson is technically in a drought situation, and of course it lies in a desert. Almodova says the rationale behind water conservation should be apparent to every citizen. There are other benefits, as well. For example, there have been deaths from West Nile virus in Tucson, and that is carried by mosquitoes breeding in ponded water.

Almodova says he is also dedicated to reducing runoff from city mains and valves in the street and on other public property. One of the most intransigent, oddly enough, has been Tucson Water itself, which has been slow to fix its own valves when notified by the water cop. He says this situation is being remedied, though, and he gets support when needed.

The job of a water conservation inspector isn’t an easy one, though Almodova has pleasant assignments such as manning water information booths at fairs and other events. He likes the idea of helping to conserve water in a city where he has lived most of his life, and he likes to see the streets where water once ran daily now having very few wet spots.

“I love to see where everything is dry,” he says, adding that he has gotten to know every street on the east side of town, including the back alleys and new construction sites.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.