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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Imposes Limits on Watering Lawns

SACRAMENTO (CN) - California's water regulator Tuesday imposed statewide mandatory water restrictions, limiting outdoor watering to two days a week for millions of residential and commercial customers.

For the first time in its history California will regulate and enforce outdoor water restrictions for every urban water district in the Golden State, the California State Water Resources Board said.

"These restrictions should have been in place six months ago," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Board.

The sweeping water regulations stem from California's continuing drought, which has dropped precipitation and snowpack levels to an all-time low.

January was the driest in the state's history and March is tracking to be the driest ever as well, said John Lehigh, manager for the Department of Water Resources.

"There's practically nothing in our snowpack, whatsoever," Lehigh testified. "I think we're looking at record-breaking lows for April as well."

While many urban water districts already restrict outdoor watering, the new rules will require all 411 districts to limit watering days, the water board said.

Some districts limit watering to twice a week; others allow daily watering. Districts will have 45 days to adapt to the new restrictions once an administrative law board approves the emergency drought legislation.

"Now that you've extended the emergency regulations, I think that sends a powerful message to Californians, regardless of the specific amount of water saved by these regulations," said Greg Weber, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council.

Along with limiting watering to twice a week, the restrictions also prohibit outdoor watering for 48 hours in areas that get rainfall, and require restaurants and bars to serve water only if customers request it.

A hotline will be created for citizens to report leaking water units and sprinklers.

Violating the new restrictions could bring fines of up to $500 per day.

The water board hopes the restrictions will help California meet Gov. Jerry Brown's drought order of 20 percent water conservation, which the state has met just once, in December 2014.

Landscape watering accounts for about 70 percent of urban water consumption in California.

"If the drought continues through next winter and we do not conserve more, the consequences could be even more catastrophic than they already are. Today's action is just a tune-up and a reminder to act, and we will consider more significant actions in the weeks to come," Chairwoman Marcus said in a statement.

A consistent high-pressure weather pattern nicknamed the "ridiculously resilient ridge" is to blame for extreme winter heat and lack of rain during California's drought. Last week several cities set records for high temperatures, including Los Angeles (90), San Francisco and Sacramento (84), all of which saw temperatures 20 degrees above normal.

As customers turn off the sprinklers, water districts will lose millions in revenue as they bring their districts up to code and hire the resources to enforce the new rules. Local government and water suppliers could suffer up to $439 million in lost revenue, the water board estimates.

"It costs in a drought in many cases to provide the same water, so if consumers conserve, they will pay less than they would otherwise," Marcus said.

"More districts should be moving to the kind of rate structure where they're working with their consumers to figure out how to understand the water system and to see it as the service provision it is, versus the provision of a commodity that you might just buy on the open market."

Cutting back urban consumption is the latest step for a state mired in its worst drought since 1977. California is the first state to impose such urban restrictions.

The emergency water restrictions will reduce water bills for customers, and improve water quality in receiving waters and improve water districts' ability to track usage, the water board said.

With the West suffering a multiyear drought, lawsuits over water rights have intensified.

Ranchers in Texas have sued the state, challenging its right to make them join a water conservation district.

In California , litigation is likely over a $25 billion plan to send water from the Sacramento-Bay Delta southward through two giant tunnels. Environmentalists this month told lawmakers that corruption in regulatory agencies threatens the water supply with contamination from fracking .

Farmers in western Nevada sued the state for ordering them to cut their groundwater pumping by half.

And states throughout the West continue to fight over rights to river water , which has been over-apportioned virtually everywhere, particularly the Colorado River.

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