State weighs $500 water fines to reduce consumption

July 9, 2014 

Brown lawns and dusty cars could become the norm in California as state regulators consider unprecedented $500-a-day fines for water wasters, after acknowledging that voluntary steps to reduce consumption amid a historic drought haven’t worked.

Water regulators are set to consider the draft emergency regulations when they meet in Sacramento next week, invoking for the first time mandatory statewide restrictions on residential outdoor water use.

A combination of mandatory and voluntary restrictions has resulted in a statewide water use reduction of 5 percent through May, far short of the 20 percent sought by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Regulators are hopeful that Californians, with some nudging, will respond as they did during the drought of 1976 and 1977.

Brown happened to be governor then, as well, and called for statewide conservation measures. About a third of the state’s residents responded, enough to voluntarily reduce water consumption by about 20 percent, according to an archived report from the state Department of Water Resources.

“I like to say, having a browning lawn and a dirty car is a badge of honor,” State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said.

About 30 percent of the state’s water suppliers have imposed mandatory restrictions that include limits on outdoor irrigation, washing vehicles and filling ornamental fountains and swimming pools.

The regulations the board will consider Tuesday aim to put muscle behind conservation efforts and would give more authority to law enforcement to impose the restrictions, though it will be up to local governments on how and when to act.

Urban water agencies would have to require mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use, if they have not done so already. Agencies without water plans would have to restrict outdoor irrigation to no more than two days each week or take other mandatory steps to conserve the same amount of water.

Statewide regulations would prohibit landscape watering that causes runoff onto sidewalks or streets, washing sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, using a hose to wash a vehicle unless the hose has a shut-off nozzle and using drinking water in a fountain or decorative water feature unless the water is recirculated.

Violations would be punishable by fines of up to $500 a day, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and builds for repeat violations.

Several Merced County cities adopted similar water restrictions earlier this year, though with maximum fines and penalties that are significantly less than those proposed by the state.

News of the state proposal prompted criticism from Merced Mayor Stan Thurston.

“The state should go do something else more constructive with their time; we already took care of this,” Thurston said Wednesday. “Many, even most, cities in the Valley that I’m aware of have already implemented the restrictions they want to mandate.”

In April, officials in Merced and Atwater adopted new restrictions limiting outdoor water use for residents. Both cities imposed financial penalties for violators – up to $150 for repeat offenders in Merced and up to $100 in Atwater.

Livingston adopted new drought-related restrictions in January with a $100 maximum fine for repeat offenders. There has also been a push in many Merced communities to install water meters on older homes to help conservation efforts.

All three cities pledged to beef up informational outreach in an effort to help residents avoid the fines and save water.

No mandatory water limitations have been imposed in Los Banos or in unincorporated areas of Merced County. Officials representing those areas have asked residents to voluntarily conserve water.

Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta said he had not ruled out the possibility of future discussions on water conservation. “We implemented (voluntary) restrictions in March and if we need to do anything else in the future, we’ll look at that and consider everything,” Villalta said. “We’re very serious about water conservation.”

Proposed restrictions from the state come on the heels of the driest year for rainfall in Merced County’s recorded history, according to National Weather Service records.

The state board is initially targeting outdoor use because that accounts for much of the water waste, Marcus said.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state’s water in most years. About half of the urban water use is outdoors.

Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state’s consumption.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said he doesn’t expect fines to be imposed by local agencies on a large scale, but that the regulations would push Californians to take the drought seriously.

“The word ‘voluntary’ doesn’t say ‘serious’ to most people; the word ‘mandatory’ does,” Quinn said.

Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said the proposed regulations are reasonable steps that all residents should take.

“What we’re proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum,” Marcus said.. “If it doesn’t rain later this fall, we certainly will consider more stringent measures.”

She said board members might require efforts to stop leaks that account for an estimated 10 percent or more of water use, or stricter landscape restrictions, or encouraging water agencies to boost rates for consumers who use more than their share of water as a disincentive.

“We’re not trying to spank people. We’re trying to ring a bell and get people’s attention,” she said.

“We have communities struggling for water and bathing out of buckets,” Marcus said. It’s fair, she said, for the state to require that at a minimum, “people don’t water sidewalks, that people don’t let their water run when they’re washing their car.”

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