A Day in the Life of a Water Cop
By Ben Carlson
Whatever your beat—drugs, arson or simple water violations—one unfortunate rule always seems to apply: Some people never learn. No matter how often they're slapped with fees, fines and penalties, these ne'er do wells continue to break the same law that landed them in trouble in the first place. By now, Carol Edwards, one of only three full-time "water cops" in the city, knows these repeat offenders all too well. Every day she confronts their reluctance to curb water waste. For her sake and the sake of our beleaguered aquifer, it's time to introduce them to their friends, neighbors and the city at large.
Edwards took me out on one of the Water Use Compliance Office's routine patrols to show me some of the worst violators and the procedure for reprimanding them. The inspectors leave early in the morning with a list of zip codes and the number of open cases in each at a given time. They then drive around the city, looking for signs of irresponsible water use—puddles, streams and large pools of water collecting on the street. After tracing the waste to its source, they videotape the violation and notify the property owner of the problem and assess a fee. Unfortunately, the inspectors must catch a violation in action to enforce it, which is particularly difficult because watering with sprinklers takes place usually in just a 15-minute window. As a result, inspectors must repeatedly visit a violating property to catch it at the exact moment.
Of course, some properties make it easier than others. On Edwards' patrol, she videotaped four violations and had two near misses where the offending sprinklers shut off before they could be recorded.
"Welcome to the life of a water cop!" she joked. In one of the violations, a stream of water three blocks long pulled us off of Wyoming Boulevard, leading to a hose that workers were using to wash gravel off the pavement. For first time violators such as these, the $20 penalty is mild and, hopefully, instructive. If a violator gets to the ninth warning, however, the fee balloons to $1,000 for every subsequent fine (unless they install a water flow restricter, which, amazingly, no commercial property has been willing to do). Edwards' administered one such fine during our patrol—the 11th violation for the property in question.
The lush, grassy medians along Academy technically belong to the city of Albuquerque, but the Tanoan area neighborhood associations control them. Because they desire to keep these fragile oases as verdant as the local golf course, they irrigate the medians every morning. Yet when we drove past, the sprinklers were watering not only the islands but also the street on both sides, as they had done 10 times in the past when a water cop was around. "Who sits out there and picnics?" Edwards wondered. "If I saw people picnicking, I wouldn't mind as much." This is one of her pet peeves. If appearance is the group's only concern, they should invest in xeriscaping, which easily looks as pretty as grass and costs everyone significantly less. Unfortunately, Edwards said, a common misperception of disgruntled violators is that "the city wants to turn everything into gravel and cactus."
Edwards has been called a "water nazi" and has taken more than her share of taunts and obscenities. She has seen teenagers (videotaped them, in fact) gleefully snapping off the heads of sprinklers for no reason except to watch the water gush out. Her office's Wasted Water Hotline received calls three or four times a night for months from a man who said nothing, but flushed his toilet continuously and let the faucet run.
Yet Edwards is mostly pleased with people's compliance with the rules. She remembers how bad it was when she started 10 years ago and could hardly see the city from I-25 because of the glare from water in the street. She believes that those who deliberately flout water waste regulations are in the remote minority. But Edwards has no fears that her job will be rendered obsolete by complete success any time soon. "If people all did what they were supposed to," she said, "we wouldn't need the police either."
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