By Ian Lovett / New York Times / July 15, 2014
With rainfall this year at historically low levels and reservoirs quickly dwindling, California officials on Tuesday approved the most drastic measures yet to reduce water consumption during the state’s increasingly serious drought, including fines of up to $500 per day under some circumstances for watering a garden, washing a car or hosing down a sidewalk.
The new measures come in response to an apathetic public that has ignored repeated pleas to save water since Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January. Though the governor asked all Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, water use actually increased by 1 percent statewide in May, according to a state survey released Tuesday.
“People really don’t understand the gravity of the drought, particularly in urban California, where people are hundreds of miles from their water source,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which voted on Tuesday to impose the new regulations. They are expected to take effect around Aug. 1.
Persuading people in urban areas to take the drought seriously has proved difficult, Ms. Marcus said. “They’re not seeing the fact that there are communities on the verge of running out of water all the time,” she said. “We can’t afford to let any more areas get into that situation.”
While none of the state’s 10 hydraulic regions have conserved as much as the governor asked for, most cut back at least 5 percent in May. The biggest exception is the South Coast region, which includes the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, as well as Orange County. There, water use increased 8 percent over previous years.
After a lengthy hearing on Tuesday, the water control board imposed a series of mandatory restrictions on the use of potable water that will limit outdoor watering to two days a week, largely prohibit washing sidewalks and driveways, and ban washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose. Violations may be punished with fines of up to $500 per day.
The drought has already pummeled farmers in California, which is home to the nation’s largest agricultural sector. So far this year, about a third less water than usual has been available to the state’s farmers, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. The report projected that the drought would cost about $2.2 billion in statewide revenue this year, and that 17,100 farm-related jobs would be lost.
Richard Howitt, an environmental economist at the university and an author of the report, said that while much of the state had been able to deal with the drought economically, parts of the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland, were being hit hard. Huge portions of farmland have been left unplanted.
“In certain parts of the Central Valley, it’s extremely bad,” Mr. Howitt said. “And if you’re one of the 17,000 people who lose their jobs, it’s extremely bad.”
The report projected that the drought would continue through 2015, even if this fall brings El Niño conditions, which sometimes lead to heavy rainfall.
Ms. Marcus said that California could not count on the drought’s letting up, and that it was important to increase conservation measures right away. “There has been a misapprehension that El Niño will save us,” she said. “The key lesson is acting earlier.”
Before the vote on Tuesday, only about 30 percent of the water suppliers in the state had imposed mandatory restrictions. Now, various kinds of outdoor water use — like fountains that use potable water that is not recirculated — will be banned outright.
Officials estimate that half of residential water use in the state is outside the home. And if the new measures fail to produce results, Ms. Marcus said, even stricter restrictions on outdoor water use could be adopted.
Some water suppliers complained that the new rules would unfairly hit residents who had already worked hard to cut back. Agriculture accounts for about 75 percent of water use in California, but the board’s regulations target use by urban Californians.
Mark Madison, general manager of the Elk Grove Water District near Sacramento, said his customers had already reduced their water consumption by more than 18 percent. Imposing fines for water waste is like asking him to “thank them with a sledgehammer,” Mr. Madison said. “I think, in general, the approach is heavy-handed.”
Lisa Brown, the water efficiency administrator for Roseville, Calif., echoed his concerns. She said that during a less severe drought in 2009, her city had issued hundreds of tickets to people wasting water and found that it was not an effective strategy.
“We find if we cite them, they turn off their irrigation just to get us off their case,” Ms. Brown said, “but as soon as we leave, they turn it back on again.”