California’s State Water Resources Control Board raised the stakes on wasteful water use Tuesday, adopting emergency drought regulations that require mandatory conservation and authorize local officials to impose fines of up to $500 a day.
In taking what the board believes to be an unprecedented action, its five appointed members made it clear they wanted all Californians to understand the magnitude of the current water crisis and to act collectively to preserve water supplies in case there are more dry years to come.
But under the leadership of Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, they underscored the discretion granted to local officials to pursue conservation goals according to locally formulated plans and preferences. They said the board wanted to avoid interfering where existing efforts are working well, while maintaining the ability to intervene.
“We’re not trying to supplant what you do,” Marcus told a roomful of stakeholders who attended a daylong hearing in Sacramento. “We’re trying to give you extra tools.”
At the same time, state officials cited an alarming “disconnect” in some areas, where water customers have seemingly indicated an alarming lack of awareness about the severity of the state’s water shortage. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency directed Californians to cut water use by 20 percent.
A voluntary survey of urban water suppliers conducted in the spring resulted in a projected 1 percent increase in water consumption statewide in May 2014 compared to the same month in 2011-to-2013. The increase statewide came because high water use in some areas of the southern California coast offset reductions of 10 percent or more in other regions.
The North Coast was among the best performing regions, conserving 12 percent in May, compared with previous years, board staffers said. The Sacramento River area reduced consumption by 13 percent.
The new regulations specifically target outdoor water use, based on state figures that estimate 44 percent of urban water use is dedicated to landscape watering.
The board’s Tuesday vote specifically prohibits overwatering turf and ornamental landscaping that causes visible runoff, use of potable water to wash driveways and sidewalks, home washing of motor vehicles with hoses that do not have shut-off valves and use of fountains and water features without recirculating water.
Violations are deemed an infraction under state law, “akin to a traffic ticket,” punishable by a fine of up to $500 for each day of violation, board attorney Carlos Mejia said.
But the fine is only an option, officials said, and local agencies are within their rights to issue warnings or use progressive enforcement, officials said.
The state board also is requiring urban water suppliers with 3,000 connections or more to invoke the first stage of mandatory conservation measures. The conservation steps are contained in local drought contingency plans mandated by the state and already adopted in cities around Sonoma County.
Combined with water waste ordinances most cities have on the books, the measures include the kinds of outdoor water waste prohibitions the state board put into place Tuesday. They also restrict landscape irrigation to certain days and hours, depending on the community.
In Santa Rosa, for instance, watering will be limited to between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily, and water patrols will be roving to ensure compliance, said David Guhin, the city’s utilities director.
“I think the biggest change is going to be going from voluntary to mandatory,” Guhin said.