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Californians Using More Water, Not Less During Drought; Statewide Fines Approved For Water Wasters

SACRAMENTO (KCBS) -- State water managers have approved mandatory fines for water wasters as calls for conservation in drought-plagued California have apparently fallen on deaf ears.

The State Water Resources Control Board released updated results Tuesday of a water-use survey showing overall consumption has increased one percent in 2014, despite pleas from Gov. Jerry Brown for residents and businesses to voluntarily cut back use by 20 percent.

The report corrected survey results from last month that showed water use statewide had declined by five percent.

On Tuesday, the board approved fines of up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, washing cars without a shut-off nozzle or other outdoor uses.

"There's a long way that urban California can do to help add to the flex in the system and be part of the solution," said board Chair Felicia Marcus.

Californians Increase Water Consumption During This Year's Severe Drought

The water board painted a grim picture for the state with conditions of the drought expected to intensify as the summer wears on.

The board accepted public comment on proposed restrictions such as water lawns past the point of saturation, banning the hosing down of streets and sidewalks (except in cases where it would be a health and safety hazard), and banning car washing unless you have a shutoff nozzle, before the motion was approved.

Marcus said for those in urban areas away from shrinking reservoirs, many don't realize what an emergency this is.

"They're not seeing the fact that their community is on the verge of running out of water all over the state, more all the time. There are people bathing out of buckets. There are folks that are getting water trucks delivered to them through the office of emergency services. It's a state we can't let more and more areas get into that situation if it doesn't rain this fall and heaven forbid if it doesn't rain the fall after that," Marcus said.

10 million Californians already live in areas where there are already proactive conservation methods in place and they are in compliance with restrictions, according to the board. The key is to conserve early, a lesson learned from the drought in 1977.

Local water districts understand California is in a drought, but they also say water is a local issue. For example, San Bernardino has different water needs from San Francisco and some district managers say the state should not roll out one-size-fits-all water rules.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District says it hasn't fined anyone in its history and have simply limited water flow to customers who are deemed water wasters.

The Alameda County Water District says it has gotten about 350 complaints of water being wasted – and most are handled with a simple letter asking the customer to conserve more water.

In San Francisco, water conservation is less dire for customers who rely on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir than in Sacramento, where the severe water shortage has led to a 10 percent cutback in water use.

Marcus told Associated Press the water board will consider other steps if the $500-a-day fines don't work. Those could include requiring water districts to stop leaks in their pipes, stricter landscape restrictions and asking water agencies to hike rates for residents who show increased water usage.

The fines begin taking effect on August 1st and last for 270 days, after which the board could renew them for an additional 270 days or until the drought ends.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about 20 percent of the state's water, with about half going outdoors. Agriculture accounts for 75 percent of consumption in the state.

Dan Cosgrove, president of Welcome Building Maintenance, a pressure washing company voiced his concern during public comment about the ambiguity of what entails a "hard surface".

"I need some guidelines as to what we can and can't clean, because hard surface is everything we clean. Painting of houses— they all are pressure washed prior to painting," he said.

Others suggested graffiti-scarred buildings and multi-story parking garages could become eyesores if they aren't pressure washed regularly.

In Contra Costa County, the town of Danville's mayor said his community has voluntarily and dramatically cut down on consumption and so has he.

Town of Danville Voluntarily Conserves Water During California's Severe Drought

"My water bill was over $350 every two months and by changing to a drip system. My water bill went down to $76 every two months," said Mayor Robert Storer.

Danville City Councilmember Karen Stepper said she hopes someone who unknowingly has a broken sprinkler is spared.

"My neighbor was so upset yesterday by people that don't turn them off and they're over-watering and it's flowing down the street. That's water wasting and nobody should be doing that. Water is too precious a resource," Stepper said.

Some residents are even letting their lawns go brown, knowing that just because it's dry, it isn't dead. But they hang on to hope that some day rain will come and turn it green again.

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