SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California water regulators voted Tuesday to approve fines up to $500 a day for residents who waste water on lawns, landscaping and car washing, as a report showed that consumption throughout the state has actually risen amid the worst drought in nearly four decades.
The action by the State Water Quality Control Board came after its own survey showed that conservation measures to date have failed to achieve the 20 percent reduction in water use sought by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Survey results released before the 4-0 vote showed water consumption throughout California had actually jumped by 1 percent this past May compared with the same month in previous years.
The fines will apply only to wasteful outdoor watering, including watering landscaping to the point that runoff flows onto sidewalks, washing a vehicle without a nozzle on the hose, or hosing down sidewalks and driveways.
“Our goal here is to light a fire under those who aren’t yet taking the drought seriously,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in an interview after the vote.
She called the vote historic, not only because the steps are unprecedented in California but because the board is trying to spread the burden of the drought beyond farmers and agencies that are trying to protect wildlife.
She said city and suburban residents are not fully aware of the seriousness of the three-year drought – the worst in California since the mid-1970s.
“We’re all in this together,” Marcus said. “This is our attempt to say … this is the least that urban Californians can do.”
The board estimates the restrictions, which take effect in early August, could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year.
Cities and water districts were given wide latitude on how the fines will be implemented. The full $500-a-day fine, considered an infraction, could be reserved for repeat violators, for example. Others might receive warnings or smaller fines based on a sliding scale.
The rules include exemptions for public health and safety, such as allowing cities to power-wash alleyways to get rid of human waste left by homeless people, to scrub away graffiti, and to remove oil and grease from parking structure floors.
California farmers are just as guilty of using too much water as their urban neighbors, according to a separate report released Tuesday. The study by the University of California, Davis, found that some farmers could see their wells run dry next year unless the state sees a wet winter.