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SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - It was still dark on Kokomo Drive in Sacramento's Natomas district as Paul Brown edged his city-issued Honda Civic past a row of beige stucco houses with tiny front lawns, looking for water wasters.
He heard the scofflaws before he saw their lush green lawns amid the otherwise parched turf. The buzz of a sprinkler system gave them away on a day that the city, desperate to save water amid California's ongoing drought, had forbidden watering.
"If I can get a good picture - if there's a lot of water - I'll cite them," he said.
California is in the third year of a devastating drought that has led farmers to fallow nearly half a million acres of cropland, threatened fish hatcheries and shrunk drinking water supplies for some communities.
To get people to conserve, many municipalities and regional water agencies have hired "water cops" like Brown to enforce state conservation rules.
Cities have even asked people to turn their neighbors in, and some have created smartphone apps to make the process easier.
Brown, 46, a father of four who was hired by the city as a meter reader, said he picked this area because he has fielded numerous complaints from neighbors about water wasters.
Camera and citation book in hand, he parked the car a few houses down and got out, walking swiftly to the house where the sprinklers were on. A flash illuminated the building's facade, then all was dark again.
Brown headed back to the car and wrote up the citation. A check of his laptop showed that the residents had not been cited before, so instead of a fine of up to $500, they would get a warning. On a second offense, they would have to attend a meeting on how to save water. Third time, a fine.
The city of Sacramento has about a half-dozen employees enforcing conservation rules. Like Brown, they go out on Friday mornings before dawn, patrolling neighborhoods. When they're not patrolling, they field phone calls from residents turning in their neighbors, hopping in their cars to check out serious reports on the spot.
Water use in the city dropped 25 percent in August over the same month in 2013, the most recent month for which information is available, state data showed.
Statewide, residents and businesses cut water use by 11.5 percent in August over the comparable 2013 period, enough to fill nearly 40,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, credits new rules and tougher enforcement with much of the change.
"Regulations make better results than voluntary exhortations," she said. "People want to know that everybody else is doing it."
In August, the water resources board implemented statewide rules that prohibit watering gardens enough to cause visible runoff, hosing down driveways or asphalt, and operating non-recirculating fountains.
Regulators also allowed municipalities to set mandatory cutbacks and levy fines against those who do not comply.
In Los Angeles, the city has received 4,400 reports of water wasters this year, resulting in 2,200 warning citations, said Michelle Vargas, a spokeswoman with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
L.A. has kept one water cop on the beat full-time since the state's last big drought in 2009, but it added three more this summer after the new statewide regulations went into effect.
The Southern California city of Long Beach is offering residents a water-waster app for their smartphones, making snitching quick and easy by allowing users to report neighbors and businesses for hosing down sidewalks, watering during the heat of the day or having a break or leak in their water lines.
Sometimes, Brown says, reports from vindictive neighbors lead him to visit a property only to find that no violation has taken place.
"I tell them I'm not going to cite you just because they call on you," said Brown, who carefully documents every case with photographs and a brief report. "There has to be evidence."
Editing by Douglas Royalty