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State to ban wasteful uses of water, but it won't actually save that much

A gardener walks past a row of sprinklers watering plants and foliage in front of an apartment complex in South Pasadena, California on Jan. 21, 2014. Water is running off the plants and onto the street. This kind of wasteful use of water could soon be permanently banned in California.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
A gardener walks past a row of sprinklers watering plants and foliage in front of an apartment complex in South Pasadena, California on Jan. 21, 2014. Water is running off the plants and onto the street. This kind of wasteful use of water could soon be permanently banned in California.

You’ve seen them: the sprinklers that only water the sidewalk, or the people who let the hose run while they wash their cars. On Tuesday, state water officials are expected to vote to ban those and other wasteful uses of water—for good. But the catch is, it won’t actually save that much water.

Here’s what you need to know about the new rules.

What is the state proposing to ban?

  • Watering your lawn so much it runs off into the street
  • Using a hose to wash your car, unless it has a nozzle or shut-off device
  • Washing your driveway or the sidewalk with clean drinking water
  • Any non-recirculating fountain that uses clean drinking water
  • Watering your lawn within 48 hours after “measurable” rainfall
  • Serving drinking water in restaurants without asking first
  • Irrigating grass in medians and between the street and the sidewalk
  • Hotels automatically providing fresh towels: they must ask whether you want to re-use your towel

Wait a minute. Didn’t the state do this before?

Yes. Between June 2014 and April 2017, these restrictions were in place as part of California’s emergency drought response. During that time, Governor Jerry Brown also asked for a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use statewide, something that had never been done before. He did this because the drought was the state’s worst in 500 years.

The Instagram account This Green Lawn documented wasteful water uses during the drought.

So why did the prohibitions go away?

They ended last April when Governor Brown called off the drought after a historically wet winter. More snow fell in the Sierra Nevada last winter than in the previous four winters combined. But he warned residents not to become complacent.

“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,’’ Brown said in a statement. “Conservation must remain a way of life.’’

To that end, Brown issued an executive order asking the State Water Resources Control Board and other state agencies to come up with a long-term plan to use water more wisely. Making permanent the prohibitions on wasteful uses of water is one of the first steps.

How much water will the regulations save?

Not very much, actually. The last time they were in place, during the drought, they were only responsible for one percent of the total water saved, or as much as about 18,000 California households use in a year.

“They’re not in and of themselves going to lead to huge reductions in the amount of water used,” said Max Gomberg, the water conservation and climate change manager at the State Water Resources Control Board, “but the I think benefit beyond what we estimate the savings to be is also just in that public education and awareness aspect.”

Seeing someone hosing down a sidewalk sends a message that water is neither a valuable nor a scarce resource. The state wants to avoid that perception. In addition, not every city in California has conservation rules on the book. By passing statewide rules, it ensures everyone, everywhere, will have to think about saving water.

How will these new rules be enforced?

Currently, cities and water agencies can only enforce local water conservation ordinances. But a bill in the Assembly, AB 1668, would allow them to enforce the new state rules.

In cities that already have local conservation rules, like Santa Monica and Los Angeles, “water cops” drive around looking for sprinklers spraying wildly, for water running into the street, or for other things that break the rules. They also respond to tips. But LA only has three cops for the whole city, and Santa Monica has one, and they tend to focus on information and education more than penalizing people for breaking the rules.

“I think enforcement can be difficult,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We want to make sure people are cognizant of what is water waste and take efforts to avoid it.”

What else is being done to save water in Sacramento?

Although the state’s ban on wasteful water is largely about messaging, there are plans to figure out more substantial ways to save water long term.

Two bills, AB 1668 andSB 606, would ratchet down water use in cities by setting a limit of 55 gallons per person, per day for indoor use (for context, residents of Huntington Park and East Los Angeles consume less than that, total, indoors and outdoors).

But the bigger problem is outdoor use, which is where half of urban water goes in California. Here, the bills would set limits for how much you can use that depend on where you live. So a hot, suburban community like Riverside, with big houses on large lots, would get to use more water than Santa Monica, a denser city with smaller homes and lots in a cooler, coastal climate.

How much are cities doing on their own to save water?

It really depends on the city. After the Governor called off the drought last April, some Southern California cities backed off of conservation, and saw their water use rebound quite a bit. Cities like Santa Paula, Montecito, Vernon, Santa Barbara and the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District saw their water use spike more than 25 percent between May and November 2017.

But other cities kept up their water-saving ways. The California Water Service Company of Antelope Valley slashed water use more than 40 percent even after the drought was called off. And Perris and Big Bear each cut their use by more than a third.

In Los Angeles, water use only rose seven percent during that time. And that’s likely because the city decided not to back off their own conservation rules, like limiting outdoor watering to three days a week.

“This is how we are defining ‘water conservation as as a way of life,’” said Rich Harasick, a senior assistant general manager of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, referencing the Governor.

Harasick said the city is unlikely to ever return to the days when Angelenos could water their lawns whenever they want. And that’s because LADWP is expecting to have to provide water to another 400,000 people in the next 20 years.

“The way we’re going to provide that water is basically to lower the demand, lower the amount of water everyone uses,” he said.

Harasick said banning, and enforcing, wasteful uses of water is a small part of that overall effort. A larger focus is continuing to slash outdoor water use through rebates to remove grass, and to focus on switching out high water using appliances, like washing machines.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.