California to impose fines up to $500 a day for wasting water

A jogger runs by a sprinkler that is partially watering a sidewalk in Golden Gate Park on July 15, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Reservoirs are running dry, the Capitol's lawn has turned brown, and farmers have left hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.

Even so, many Californians aren't taking the drought seriously. State water regulators are trying to change that by imposing fines up to $500 a day for wasting water.

The State Water Resources Control Board acted Tuesday amid warnings that conditions could get worse if it doesn't rain this winter. Experts are warning that California's record drought will have a long-term impact on the state's nationally vital agricultural sector, as well as its residents and environment, unless better water management policies are introduced.

City and suburban residents often are not fully aware of the seriousness of the three-year drought - the worst in California since the mid-1970s, board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in an interview after the 4-0 vote.

The vote is historic, she said, not only because the steps are unprecedented in California but because the board is trying to spread the burden of the drought beyond farmers and agencies that are trying to protect wildlife.

"We're all in this together," Marcus said.

Yet consumption throughout the state actually rose by 1 percent in May, according to a report from the board, while Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking a 20 percent reduction in water use.

"We're taking the prudent step of taking action as if it's not going to rain for more years, because we know that's possible," Marcus said.

The fines will apply only to wasteful outdoor water use, including watering landscaping to the point that runoff flows onto sidewalks, washing a vehicle without a nozzle on the hose or hosing down sidewalks and driveways.

The board estimates the restrictions, which take effect in early August, could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.

Cities and water districts were given wide latitude on how the fines will be implemented. The full $500-a-day fine, considered an infraction, could be reserved for repeat violators, for example. Others might receive warnings or smaller fines based on a sliding scale.

The rules include exemptions for public health and safety, such as allowing cities to power-wash alleyways to get rid of human waste left by homeless people, to scrub away graffiti and to remove oil and grease from parking structure floors.

If fines fail to promote conservation, Marcus said the board would consider other steps such as requiring water districts to stop leaks in their pipes, which account for an estimated 10 percent of water use, stricter landscape restrictions and encouraging water agencies to boost rates for consumers who use more than their share of water.

Even with the leeway granted to local governments and water districts, some managers were unhappy with the board's action.

Mark Madison, general manager of the Elk Grove Water District south of Sacramento, said the steps will unnecessarily punish customers who already have reduced consumption. Residents in his district have cut water use by more than 18 percent since last year.

"What you're asking me to do right now is to thank them with a sledgehammer," he told the board.

The increased usage noted in the report is attributable to two regions of the state: Southern California coastal communities and the far northeastern slice of the state. It was not immediately clear why consumption had increased in those areas.

No region of California met Brown's request for a 20 percent reduction, but some came closer than others. Communities that draw from the Sacramento River reduced consumption the most, by 13 percent, while those along the North Coast reduced consumption by 12 percent.

San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California cities that draw from the Colorado River decreased water use by 5 percent.

Cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state's water, with about half going outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of consumption in the state.

California farmers are just as guilty of using too much water as their urban neighbors, according to a separate report released Tuesday. The study by the University of California, Davis, found that some farmers could see their wells run dry next year unless the state sees a wet winter.

The study found that this year's drought and the resulting water shortage will cost the state about $1.5 billion in direct agricultural costs, including $810 million in crop revenue and over $200 million in dairy and livestock. Total drought-related costs to the California economy for the year are projected at $2.2 billion, with a loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs.

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