PLEASANTON -- Residents are deluging the city with hundreds of calls a day about new drought water penalty charges they say are confusing, poorly explained and unfair to those who have already cut their water use.

Unlike neighboring Livermore and Dublin water supply agencies that approved higher drought rates without basing penalties on past use, Pleasanton decided this month to slap customers with hefty penalties if they fail to reduce water use 25 percent below last year's use.

Some residents complain the penalties are unfair to families who diligently saved water only to find out they now must cut back by the same 25 percent as big water guzzlers.

Daniel McVey, right, Greg Renniger and Troy Smith, back to camera, talk to city of Pleasanton residents about the 25 percent cut in water usage imposed by
Daniel McVey, right, Greg Renniger and Troy Smith, back to camera, talk to city of Pleasanton residents about the 25 percent cut in water usage imposed by the city on May 6, 2014 at the cities drought iinformation center on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 in Pleasanton, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

"I worry I will be penalized because I saved before," said Art Tenbrink, a longtime Pleasanton resident. "I replaced my front lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping and cut back in many ways. Now what do I do?"

He worries he will lose fruit trees or face big penalties that can be avoided much more easily in this affluent city of 71,000 by big lawn owners who cut use without much sacrifice.

Some Pleasanton residents also are upset because it wasn't until the past few weeks that the city began sending out water bills that listed how much water customers used in the past year.

This omission of past consumption has led to a flood of calls from Pleasanton residents puzzled over how much they have to save to avoid penalties.

"When government tells people to do something," Tenbrink said, "it's important to clearly explain the target or goal of what's expected, rather than to leave them in the dark."

The complaint is not unusual, city officials acknowledge. But they say they are doing their best to answer calls and provide more information to residents about the new penalties aimed at getting Pleasanton through water shortages.

"Our main goal here is to get our residents to reduce their water use 25 percent," said Dan Smith, Pleasanton's director of operational services. "We don't want that message to get lost in the details of the program. We want to make sure there is enough water to meet basic needs, including flows for fighting fire."

The Tri-Valley area faces some of the harshest water cuts in the Bay Area because it relies heavily on state water supplies cut 95 percent this year.

Some 200 water-related calls a day were made to the city in the days after the City Council's May 6 approval of drought rates, which became effective May 7.

The figure escalated to more than 300 a day this week following a city mailer being sent out to residents and businesses with general information about the drought program. More than 400 called Monday.

Smith said many callers asked for an exception or variance from the penalties, but no such exemptions in advance are allowed. Instead, the city will consider appeals for relief from residents after the first two-month bills with penalties are sent out in early July.

"There is nothing to appeal now," he said.

Smith added that the city will consider granting relief from the penalties if households recently added a baby or had a son or daughter returning from college to live at home.

If customers plead that they saved water in the past, the city will look back at several years water bills, Smith said. "We are going to work with people," he said.

But some residents say they worry there are vague grounds to seek relief.

"It seems like the city presumes you're guilty, and you have to prove your innocence," Tenbrink said. "That seems backward."

Pleasanton officials this week declined a Bay Area News Group request to spell out how customers' monthly water charges for various consumptions levels would differ if they met or failed to meet water reduction targets.

"We're not going there because it distracts from the message that everyone needs to save," said Daniel Martin, the city's utility superintendent.

Under the city of Livermore's drought rates, a household using 200 gallons a day would pay $65.76 a month if they failed to cut water use and $45.49 if they cut water use 35 percent.

Under its drought rates, the Dublin San Ramon Services District reported a household using 200 gallons daily would pay $45.87 per month if they failed to cut use, and $32.41 if they cut 35 percent.

Staff writer Jeremy Thomas contributed to this story. Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.

Pleasanton water penalties and drought program
Pleasanton water conservation hotline: 925-931-5504
Pleasanton customer service center: 925-931-5500
Link to city's water conservation page: http://pleasantonwaterconservation.com
Link to Pleasanton utility billing Web portal: https://cityofpleasanton.epayub.com