California is preparing to order cities to reduce water use as the state girds for the possibility that its historic drought could continue through the summer into a fourth dry year.
The State Water Resources Control Board will consider voting next week on proposed regulations that would give local governments the authority to fine residents up to $500 per day for violations such as watering lawns to the point of excess runoff or using a nozzleless hose to wash a car.
"Having a dirty car and a browning lawn is a badge of honor," Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said yesterday in a call with reporters. The proposal up for consideration July 15 also includes bans on washing hard surfaces like driveways and sidewalks and using potable water for decorative fountains unless it is recirculated.
The board decided to pursue mandatory cuts for cities, which use about 20 percent of the state's water, after months of voluntary measures proved insufficient.
Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) request in January for water users statewide to reduce consumption by 20 percent has largely gone unheeded by cities. A state survey released last month found that urban water agencies had reduced their use by 5 percent on average from January through May, compared to the same time period over the three previous years.
Marcus declined to identify specific regions or agencies that need to be conserving more, however.
"We're not trying to spank people," she said. "We're trying to ring a bell and get people's attention to the importance of not wasting a precious resource when we do not know how long the drought's going to last."
Marcus emphasized the need to save for an uncertain future, rather than the possibility that more water might be made available this year for farmers, who have seen their supplies cut as much as 95 percent from normal levels (Greenwire, April 21).
"I think it's prudent to take the long view and assume it's not going to rain next year and it's not going to rain the year after that," she said. "There's tree-ring evidence of 100- and 400-year droughts in California history, so you can't count on being bailed out."
Urban water agency officials welcomed the move but said that it might not significantly affect actual water use.
Los Angeles has had mandatory reductions in effect since the last drought that have resulted in a per-capita reduction for residential use of 17 percent, from 106 gallons per day in 2007 to 89 gallons per day last year.
San Diego has also had a host of mandatory restrictions in effect since 2009, including limits on the hours that watering is allowed and restaurants providing water or refills only upon request. It added some voluntary measures July 1 that mirror the statewide restrictions under consideration, including limiting landscape irrigation to three days per week and using a hose with a shut-off nozzle or timer for irrigation.
The mandatory restrictions are "basically identical to the emergency regulations that they have proposed," except for the $500 fine, San Diego Public Utilities Department spokeswoman Robyn Bullard said. "That was the only part we were kind of interested in: What does that mean for us?" she said.
San Francisco, which is already one of the thriftiest water users in the state at per-capita consumption of 49 gallons per day, is slightly behind its goal of reducing use by 8 billion gallons by the end of the year. It reached 10 percent conservation last month.
"To date, we've saved 2.3 billion gallons," San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman Charles Sheehan said. "We should be at 3.4 billion for this time of year."
San Francisco's water storage is at 64 percent of capacity, slightly below where it was at the end of February, at 69 percent. In a normal year, now would be the time that reservoirs are being replenished by melted snowpack from the mountains.
"What the state is doing is in sync with what we're asking customers to do," Sheehan said. "We have a voluntary conservation request for all our customers. We'd have to investigate how we would call for mandatory reductions as they apply to outdoor irrigation."
A group that represents urban as well as agricultural suppliers said that the water board's move would send a message to residents statewide, whether or not they have been conserving thus far.
"We view this as an important step, because it really does trigger to Californians that we are in a crisis," said Jennifer Persike, spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies, which has 430 members that represent 90 percent of the water delivered in the state.
"It's such a strange emergency, a drought," Persike said. "It doesn't happen overnight, and it's not like so many other disasters where you know you're in a disaster, so you've got to beat people over the head a little."
If the drought continues, Marcus said, the state might seek to mandate leak repairs or urge water agencies to change their rate structures to discourage excessive water use.
"What we're proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum," she said.