Drought Conditions: Balancing Landlord and Tenant Obligations

On the credenza behind my desk, I keep a confectioner’s scale that I found years ago. On one side, there’s a brass tub into which you can put peppermints or taffy or any kind of candy you want to weigh. On the other side, to balance it off, are brass weights that would determine the volume and the cost of your purchase. I keep that scale to remind me of the need for balance, in both my career and my life.

Balance is a real concern right now in the state of California, because we are in the midst of a drought. The drought is so severe that Governor Brown has authorized legislation allowing community utilities to fine customers for the wanton and reckless waste of water. This raises a question: who is responsible for what? Many of our properties are single family residences, where the tenants are responsible for monthly water billing.

The regulations that passed, and our application of those regulations, do not allow tenants to simply shut off the water to the landscaping. The tenants still have a responsibility to maintain the landscaping so that it is sufficiently healthy. It doesn’t have to look like world class landscaping, but the tenant should not allow existent landscaping to die.

The regulations say you cannot use so much water that your irrigation use is wanton and wasteful. You cannot have water running out onto the sidewalks and streets. You cannot wash vehicles on your property with a garden hose, unless that hose has a nozzle that will automatically shut off when it’s not in use. If you have a water feature, like a fountain, you can’t have it fed from the water supply. It needs a re-circulating pump so it has its own contained water source.

What are the requirements of landlords? As the landlord, if your tenants are responsible for the water usage and billing, you need to anticipate that your tenant may call you with an irrigation system problem. Water might be overrunning the yard, or sprinklers are poorly situated, resulting in wasted water. It could be that when the timer turns the water on, a sprinkler head has broken, resulting in what looks like a geyser flooding the yard. If part of the system is broken or working improperly, you need to fix it, and you must be proactive in addressing potential high water usage. If you are not, your tenants, when they get fined $500 or more per day for wanton water use, could conceivably say they told you about the problem, and you did not address it. If so, they might have a valid claim.

So this does become an issue of balance. Tenants have a responsibility not to intentionally ignore the landscaping. Unwatered Droughtgrass and foliage will suffer harm. Owners have a responsibility not to presume that, just because the tenants pay the water bill, the landlord is off the hook. The landlord must ensure that irrigation systems are functioning properly. Consider what’s fair to everyone, and also what will ultimately help us in the state of California. We need to use our water wisely and we need to do some long-term planning when it comes to landscape design. We are deep into a drought, and we can’t expect that an El Nino weather system will suddenly solve our problems, permanently eliminating the need for conservation and intelligent water use.

If you have any questions about what is fair on this or any subject, please contact us at DeDe’s Rentals. We’d be happy to help.

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