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California drought: Regulators extend, expand water use restrictions for cities

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
File: A drought sign on the highway.

With no end in sight for a drought now four years old, California water officials have voted to extend urban water use restrictions, and expand them. New regulations approved today by the State Water Resources Control Board include:

  • Banning outdoor watering for 48 hours following a rain;
  • Preventing restaurants from putting water down on your table until you request it;
  • Limiting towel replacement at hotels and motels; and
  • Requiring city water suppliers to notify the public “promptly” about leaks, and upping suppliers’ reporting requirements, including about enforcement.

In addition, any urban water supplier that has not already limited the number of days its customers can water lawns, must now set a weekly limit.
The new regulations don't specify how those weekly limits must be set. Some suppliers have chosen more stringent limits: in Long Beach, the water department has tightened outdoor watering to two days a week, 10 minutes per zone of landscaping. But other water departments have allowed landscape watering six days a week. Both local rules meet the state's standard. 

That's one reason questions linger about the state's actions to save water, and if the restrictions are making enough impact. Regulators predicted the state would save 156 billion gallons of water when they rolled out their first set of restrictions back in 2014. But so far, suppliers report a water savings that the state calculates at only around half that amount. These new regulations, according to state officials, would help the state achieve that original goal set last year. 

And it's not immediately clear how. Restaurants, hotels and motels around the state already have made some voluntary conservation decisions. According to the water board's own report, "It is...not possible to finely calculate the water saving resulting from new versus existing conservation actions."

Individual penalties for violating watering regulations are $500 a day. Some Southern California communities, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, have long had fines, even before the state’s effort. But while these communities have claimed the right to levy fines, actual penalties are rare. 

Last year, in the city of Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power issued just two $200 fines. DWP officials have said that LA is achieving conservation gains already, and that they prefer a carrot to a stick when it comes to enforcement.

Regulators pointed out that the U.S. Drought Monitor considers the entire state to be in “severe to exceptional” drought conditions. 

Water board chair Felicia Marcus said she was "impatient" to get restrictions in place. "I think it's unusual we're the only state that has done statewide conservation regulations because urban agencies did not step up," she said.