California clears water cutbacks
California regulators have adopted sweeping, unprecedented restrictions on how people, governments and businesses can use water amid the state's continuing drought.
The State Water Resources Control Board approved rules that force local authorities to limit watering on public property, encourage homeowners to let their lawns die and impose mandatory water savings targets for the hundreds of local agencies and cities that supply water to California customers.
Governor Jerry Brown sought the more stringent regulations, arguing that voluntary conservation efforts have not yielded the water savings needed after a four-year drought.
He ordered water agencies to cut urban water use by 25% from levels in 2013, the year before he declared a drought emergency.
"It is better to prepare now than face much more painful cuts should it not rain in the fall (autumn)," board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said as the panel voted 5-0 to approve the new rules.
Although the rules are called mandatory, it is still unclear what punishment the state water board and local agencies will impose for those that do not meet the targets. Board officials said they expect dramatic water savings as soon as June and are willing to add restrictions and penalties for agencies that lag.
But the board lacks staff to oversee each of the hundreds of water agencies, which range dramatically in size and scope. Some local agencies tasked with achieving savings do not have the resources to issue tickets to those who waste water, and many others have chosen not to do so.
Despite the dire warnings, it is also still not clear that Californians have grasped the seriousness of the drought or the need for conservation. Data released by the board showed that Californians conserved little water in March, and local officials were not aggressive in cracking down on waste.
A survey of local water departments showed water use fell less than 4% in March compared with the same month in 2013. Overall savings have been only about 9% since last summer.
Under the new rules, each city is ordered to cut water use by as much as 36% compared with 2013. Some local water departments have called the proposal unrealistic and unfair, arguing that steep cuts could cause higher water bills and declining property values, and dissuade projects to develop drought-proof water technology such as desalination and sewage recycling.
Representatives of San Diego-area water agencies have been especially critical of the water targets, noting that the region has slashed consumption and agencies have spent 3.5 billion dollars (£2.3 billion) to prepare for dry periods after facing severe cuts in earlier droughts.
"San Diego has lived the horror of what the state is going through right now," Mark Weston, board chairman of San Diego County Water Authority, told state regulators.
Residents and businesses use less than a fifth of the water withdrawn from the state's surface and groundwater supplies. Farms in the state's agricultural heartland have had deliveries from government reservoir systems slashed and some have been ordered to stop diverting water that is normally available to them from streams and rivers.
Mr Brown said last week he would push for legislation authorising fines of up to 10,000 dollars (£6,500) for extreme wasters of water, but he needs legislative approval to do so and no bill has been introduced.