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What Are Your Legal Options If A Neighbor Is Violating Drought Restrictions?

by Theresa Hoffman

Living in an area prone to seasonal droughts has likely made you very conscious of your water usage. While many Americans take their ability to enjoy long showers or a lush green lawn for granted, those on the West Coast and in the Southwest have been facing water shortages for years -- and many state and local governments have begun cracking down on residential water usage. What can you do if you become aware a neighbor is violating water use restrictions? Do you have any legal options if your neighbor's water restriction violation is affecting your own water supply? Read on to learn more about your potential remedies at law.

Is it against the law for your neighbor to ignore restrictions on water use?

Many states undergoing a severe drought, including California, have instituted mandatory water restrictions that place strict limits on water usage based on the size of a home and its lot. Once a homeowner exceeds his or her rationed usage for the billing cycle, some very steep fines and costs may be assessed -- up to $500 per each day the violation continues to take place.

These water restrictions are classified as ordinances, which means that your neighbor cannot be criminally charged or jailed for violating a water restriction; just fined or subjected to other fees and costs. However, a failure on your neighbor's part to pay any fines or fees imposed by the courts could subject him or her to a contempt of court sanction. In addition, stealing or siphoning a neighbor's water supply as a means to get around the restriction is illegal and classified as a misdemeanor in most areas.

How can your neighbor's actions affect your water supply? 

In some cases, homeowners eager to avoid water rationing may go so far as to tap into neighbors' water supplies, just like splitting an auxiliary cord to get "free" cable. It can be difficult to identify issues that are due to illegally siphoned water and not the drought, but if you've noticed significantly reduced water pressure during odd times of day (like in the morning or late at night), or can see that your neighbor appears to have been digging around the water lines on his or her property, you may want to investigate further. 

You should also be able to gauge your daily water usage and notice any major increases that don't appear to be related to your own lifestyle. In some cases, a water thief can even subject you to fines and fees by using up your water allotment him- or herself and forcing your normal water usage into the overage category. If your water bill is inexplicably higher than usual for several billing cycles in a row and you've ruled out a leak or water main burst, your neighbor may be to blame.

What should you do if you suspect your neighbor is siphoning off your water?

While this action is considered a crime in most areas, your best bet to recover any costs associated with the inconvenience of having your water lines altered is to file a civil lawsuit against your neighbor. If you're able to present enough credible evidence to show that your neighbor has tapped into your own water supply to help avoid abiding by restrictions (or dodge any violation charges), you should be able to recover both compensatory and punitive damages. 

Your neighbor will be financially and physically responsible for restoring your property's plumbing to its original state, and you could receive an additional cash payment on top of this amount. However, you'll need to engage the services of a law attorney, such as Bayer Jerger & Underwood.