California enacts drought rules that prohibit wasting water


To discourage wasteful water practices like hosing down driveways or draining irrigation water onto streets, California water officials have enacted new drought rules for cities and towns across the state.

The rules, passed Tuesday by the state Water Resources Control Board, ban overwatering yards, washing cars without a shut-off nozzle, hosing down sidewalks or watering grass within 48 hours of rainfall.

Even after December brought downpours across California and record snow in parts of the Sierra Nevada, state water officials have warned that a drought is persisting and that water conservation efforts should continue.

“These are just the practical, everyday things we can all do,” said Sean Maguire, a member of the state water board. He said the measures in the drought emergency regulations would “help with that water-saving mindset.”

The new rules also ban, among other things, the use of drinking water to irrigate grass on public shoulders or landscaped areas between the road and the sidewalk; Use of potable water for street cleaning or construction purposes; and the use of potable water for decorative fountains or filling artificial lakes or ponds, with some exceptions.

The regulations are statewide and there are no exceptions for golf courses and other recreational facilities, said Jackie Carpenter, director of media relations at the state water agency. There is a general exception in the regulations for water required for public health and safety.

Violators face fines of up to $500. The temporary regulations, which will apply for one year, are similar to measures introduced during the last severe drought of 2012-2016. The regulations also prohibit homeowners’ associations from fining local residents if they stop watering their lawn or other landscaping.

Eric Oppenheimer, deputy director of the water agency, said the new rules should help promote conservation and raise awareness of the need for conservation.

“Despite record rainfall this winter in some areas, we’re not over the hill yet,” said Oppenheimer.

The new rules are “common sense measures to conserve water as California faces more extreme cycles of wet and dry conditions caused by climate change,” he said.

The state water agency’s conservation rules focus on urban areas and do not apply to agriculture, which, according to state data, consumes nearly 80% of the water diverted and pumped for human use in an average year.

This aspect of the government’s approach drew criticism from Nataly Escobedo Garcia, a policy coordinator for the nonprofit group Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

“We continue to warn that without accompanying regulations to overinflate agriculture, the gains from regulating municipal water will be tiny at best,” Escobedo Garcia told board members.

Groundwater overpumping has been a chronic problem in agricultural areas throughout the Central Valley, and the drought has seen a spate of new well drilling while pumping limits under the state’s Groundwater Act of 2014 have yet to come into effect. Meanwhile, at least 975 households saw their wells dry up last year, according to government data. Many of these wells were located in agricultural areas in the Central Valley, where groundwater continues to be depleted.

The water agency did not address the agricultural overpumping issue on Tuesday, but it was responding to Escobedo Garcia’s concerns that fines could create problems for low-income households.

Oppenheimer said the regulations were not intended to create “an undue burden” on low-income individuals. He said that during the recent drought, local authorities mostly dealt with complaints about water wastage by notifying customers and offering help, rather than issuing fines.

While no data was provided on fines imposed during the recent drought, Oppenheimer said the few that were imposed “didn’t come close to the $500 mark.”

The state water agency will be able to fine any water utility or city for violations, he said, but will be reaching out to those local agencies “to take the lead in enforcement at the individual household level.”

Board member Laurel Firestone said she was concerned about the lack of protections for water customers and the possibility that low-income residents could face water shutoffs or tax liens on their homes.

“Defaults can have really significant consequences,” Firestone said. “I want to make sure that we as a board are not making this equity issue worse with our actions.”

Other board members agreed, and the regulations were revised to address the concerns. An added provision in the final version states that the Water Board would base all fines on a determination of customer solvency, would not result in a water shutoff or tax lien, and would consider a 12-month payment schedule. The state water association also encouraged cities and water suppliers to follow the same path.

With these changes, the Board voted unanimously to adopt the Water Waste Rules.

“These are pointless actions. And we need to make sure we help ensure that message is heard across California,” Firestone said. She said she hopes the measures will help spur other efforts to develop long-term standards for water conservation and efficiency and establish a “more appropriate and effective approach to emergency preparedness.”

The board approved the rules after announcing that Californians cut water use nationwide by 6.8% in November compared to the same month last year. Governor Gavin Newsom in July called on Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, but much of the state has fallen short of that goal.

People in the Bay Area reduced water use by 20.2% in November, but other regions saved less. Water use in the south coast region of Southern California increased slightly in November.

After two of the driest years on record, the state’s reservoirs remain at below-average levels. Wet and snowy December helped somewhat, but the state’s water administration is bracing for the possibility that the rest of the winter might not be nearly as wet.

“It looks like things are going to be dry after coming through this weather system this week and expectations are a dry-than-average January, February and March,” said state climatologist Michael Anderson. Much will depend on whether a high-pressure system builds over the Pacific that is likely to drive storms north into Oregon and Washington.

With the state-declared drought emergency still in effect, California water authorities are hoping the new rules will help reinforce their protective message. They pointed out that people can report a water waste complaint through the government website, The web form includes the type of water wastage, an address field and a photo upload field.

At the local level, some cities and water districts offer similar opportunities to report water waste online.

As for enforcing the drought rules, Oppenheimer said cities and local water boards had previously hired additional staff to investigate complaints and help people comply with the restrictions. For example, he said, people often don’t realize that their sprinklers are overwatering and leaking water onto the street. Just letting them know is enough to fix the problem, he said.

The fines are an option for repeat or blatant violations, Oppenheimer said, but “there won’t be a statewide squad of water cops or anything.” California enacts drought rules that prohibit wasting water

Tom Vazquez

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