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California approves fines for wasting water

The $500-a-day penalties seek to limit activities such as lawn watering and sidewalk washing during severe drought

California water regulators have voted to approve unprecedented fines of up to $500 a day for residents who waste water as the state burns through its third year of record-breaking drought.

The new restrictions passed by the State Water Resources Control Board prohibit watering gardens enough to cause visible runoff onto roads or walkways, and using water on driveways or asphalt or in non-recirculating fountains.

"An emergency requires action, and today's announcement is a much-needed response to California's drought emergency," said Ed Osann, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supported the regulations.

The new restrictions will take effect on Aug. 1. Many counties and cities in the state have already imposed voluntary restrictions, but the new rules will allow municipalities to impose mandatory cutbacks and issue fines to those who do not comply.

The rules include exemptions for public health and safety, such as allowing cities to power-wash sidewalks to get rid of human waste left by homeless people.

"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 Tuesday vote by the water 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 that water consumption throughout California had actually risen by 1 percent this past May compared with the same month in previous years.

But water experts and statistics indicate that the restrictions that surface every time the state is in a water emergency reduce water use over time.

“Statewide water use has not gone up in 30 years in California, even though our population has gone up dramatically,” Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water-policy research group in Oakland, told Al Jazeera earlier this year.

The drought is expected to cost the state an estimated $2.2 billion this year, with an estimated crop revenue loss of $810 million, along with a loss of more than 17,000 jobs as farmers are forced to fallow some valuable crops, a report (PDF) by scientists at the University of California, Davis, showed on Tuesday.

"The 2014 drought is responsible for the greatest absolute reduction in water availability for California agriculture ever seen," the report said, adding that the results "underscore California's heavy reliance on groundwater to cope with droughts."

UC Davis scientists Richard Howitt and Jay Lund, who co-authored the report, said pockets along the state's Central Valley, where farmers are relying on emergency groundwater reserves as other water resources have run dry, would be hit especially hard by economic losses.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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