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California is rationing water amid its worst drought in 1,200 years

Southern California imposes water restrictions
Southern California imposes water restrictions as state struggles with megadrought 05:26

Southern California is imposing mandatory water cutbacks as the state tries to cope with the driest conditions it has faced in recorded history. Starting Wednesday, about 6 million people in parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties are limited to watering outdoor plants once a week — an unprecedented move for the region. 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to about 19 million people, declared a water shortage emergency in April and voted unanimously to curtail water use, either by restricting outdoor watering or by other means. 

"Metropolitan has never before employed this type of restriction on outdoor water use. But we are facing unprecedented reductions in our Northern California supplies, and we have to respond with unprecedented measures," Adel Hagekhalil, the district's general manager, said in a statement. "We're adapting to climate change in real time."

Nearly all of California is experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Very little rain fell in January, February and March, when the state typically receives half its annual precipitation. As a result, the state is facing its driest ever start to the year, with one recent study calling the current drought the worst in 1,200 years.

Nevada bans "non-functional" grass amid megadrought 02:05

Governor Gavin Newsom last week called on Californians to reduce their consumption, saying, "Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions" to save water. 

The Metropolitan Water District has imposed its harshest restrictions on Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, which depend on the State Water Project, a distribution network that brings water from Northern California to the state's southern region. During the ongoing drought, the SWP delivered just 5% of the water local municipalities had requested.

Areas of California that depend on the Colorado River for water have so far been spared conservation measures, although water levels in the river are also unusually low.

"Wasteful" lawns

The Metropolitan Water District is a wholesaler with 26 member agencies covering nearly 80 cities and communities in the state. Those smaller agencies are tasked with enforcing water conservation plans and charge stiff fines if localities go over their allocations.

Local agencies that fail to meet the state's reduction goals are fined up to $2,000 per acre-foot of water.  An acre-foot is about 326,00 gallons. The district will monitor water usage, and if the restrictions don't work it could order a total ban on outdoor watering in the affected areas as soon as September.

Most utilities have focused cutbacks on outdoor watering, which is responsible for about half of a city's water use. In parts of Los Angeles, for instance, residents are limited to two 8-minute periods of outdoor watering per week, with specific days based on their address, the LA Times reported.

"Using our precious water resources to irrigate thirsty grass that serves no function is wasteful, particularly during this severe drought," Hagekhalil said in a statement. "Our priority must be to preserve and stretch our limited supplies to ensure we have enough water to meet human health and safety needs."

An exception to the rules allows for hand-watering trees to maintain "ecologically important tree canopies," the district noted.

ClimateWatch: Millions in Southern California forced to cut water use amid drought 05:54

The state is also encouraging residents to replace water-guzzling lawns with native California vegetation or rock gardens that are more resistant to drought.

Drier conditions across the U.S. West are also increasing the risk of blackouts in different regions this summer, the nation's electricity regulator said last month. Lower-than-normal water levels in reservoirs mean that California will produce just half the hydroelectric power of a typical year, the Energy Department warned on Wednesday. 

This summer is also expected to be hotter than normal, which would create higher demand for air conditioning and strain the power grid further. Drought conditions also helped cause the "Coastal Fire," which broke out near Laguna Nigel on May 11 and destroyed 20 homes, the Drought Monitor said.

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