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Drought: 5 things to know about California's new water rules

The above map breaks the state into hydrologic regions and shows May water use in California compared to the average use over the previous three Mays. Overall the state used 1% more water compared to the three-year average.
The adjacent map breaks the state into hydrologic regions and shows May water use in California compared to the average use over the previous three Mays. Overall the state used 1% more water compared to the three-year average.

State water regulators have made wasting water unlawful in California: The California Water Resources Control Board has voted to implement mandatory restrictions on certain outdoor watering practices in cities.

Now prohibited:

  • Overwatering lawns to the point of creating runoff 
  • Washing a car with a garden hose not fitted with a shutoff nozzle
  • Hosing down driveways and sidewalks
  • Using drinking water for ornamental fountains that don’t recirculate  

An infraction can carry a $500 fine per day of violation.
Along with Tuesday’s vote, the water control board announced that the state’s water use actually rose 1 percent in May compared with the average May use for the years between 2011 and 2013. Previously, water board staff had reported that statewide water use had dropped 5 percent.

Here are five things you need to know about the restrictions and California’s water use: 

1. We’re to blame.

As mentioned, water use in the state was actually up in May — 1 percent — despite pleas from Gov. Jerry Brown to reduce water use by 20 percent. A big reason for that was an 8 percent jump in water use in coastal Southern California or what the state calls the South Coast Hydrologic Region. It covers the coastal zones of San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

San Diego County’s water use has risen 10 percent in the first five months of this year over the same period last year. One possible reason for the South Coast jump this year is a much drier spring compared with previous springs. But that’s not the whole story of the 1 percent increase…

2. Lake Tahoe’s at fault, too.

The North Lahontan Hydrologic Region is the other offender, according to the water board. Use there rose 5 percent over last year. That region includes Lake Tahoe and stretches of the state along the Eastern Sierra north to the Oregon border. Much of the region is arid high desert, and most of the water use is irrigation for cattle and agriculture.

3. Don’t wash down your driveway with a hose (unless maybe you’re Disneyland).

The new restrictions are aimed at water wasting in cities, mostly stemming from overwatering of “ornamental” landscapes (read: lawns). Regulators discussed exceptions for some activities, including pressure washing buildings before they’re painted, residential vegetable gardens (which, if you’re doing them right, is not considered “ornamental”).

And the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim asked for an exception. Every night “cast members” wash down asphalt and concrete surfaces within the park, but Disneyland argues the water is captured and recycled.

4. Who’s going to write water tickets isn’t clear – but fearing a ticket is probably an overreaction.

The prohibitions have been met with different reactions at California’s 440 urban water agencies – including a yawn in Santa Monica, where some similar prohibitions have been in place continually for a quarter of a century. Some 58 cities already had enacted outdoor restrictions before this vote, including Long Beach, which instituted prohibitions earlier this year.

The City of Los Angeles has had mandatory outdoor restrictions since 2009. And the L.A. Department of Water and Power reports it has reduced water use 17 percent during this time. DWP officials say they employed a “carrot” during most of that time to clamp down on water waste, largely relying on warnings and fix-it tickets and issuing very few fines.

The city now seems to be weighing the use of “the stick.” DWP officials say they've hired three new employees for its Water Conservation Response Unit. The division is tasked with enforcing compliance with the city’s watering restrictions. But L.A. currently has no plans to have actual cops write tickets for water wasting.

5. The new regulations may require cities to report how much water they’re using on a monthly basis.

A draft of the new regulations required water districts to monitor how much water their customer use on “a gallon per person per day” basis. Water agencies point out that “gallons per person per day” can be misleading in measuring water use because it doesn’t take into account regional rainfall, temperature, humidity or population density.

The state may also be requiring monthly reporting on “water production” — essentially the amount of water the big agencies provide their customers. The San Diego Water Authority left that part of the water board’s recent water use survey blank. Some, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, are recommending that, in addition to providing these production numbers going forward, agencies should also provide them for previous years 2011-2013.

Either way, the state’s requiring its water agencies to cough up data for the first time ever. It’s an indication the state is trying to get a handle on just how much water Californians use and where.