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Water rationing may become a way of life in California drought

State sets tougher restrictions as water districts consider stricter enforcement, penalities

LOS ANGELES — After the driest January on record and dire predictions of the worst and most persistent drought in 1,000 years, California is once again cracking down on water wasters and reminding residents that water rationing may be a way of life for years to come.

The State Water Resources Control Board sounded an alarm this week by mandating tougher restrictions, forcing local water agencies that don’t already limit outdoor watering to institute a two-days-a-week maximum. All restaurants are now required to serve water only upon request and hotels must offer guests the option of not having towels and linens laundered every day.

A majority of the state’s 415 urban water districts already have drought emergency plans, but the state’s call to action is expected to generate tougher rules and stiffer enforcement statewide. Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to announce $1 billion in emergency drought funding. Last year he called on Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent, but residents cut back only 10 percent.

Local water districts “are now required to begin reporting to us all enforcement activity,” said George Kostyrko, spokesman for the state agency. “How many complaints, how many they respond to, how they handle it, do they fine them.”

The Metropolitan Water District, which supplies the Los Angeles area, will vote next month on whether to cut water allocation, said Marty Adams, the senior assistant manager of water at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Depending on how much of a cutback, that’ll helps us decide whether we need to do more,” he said.

The agency is evaluating its current drought emergency plan to add another drought stage that would require cutting lawn watering from the current limit of three days a week to two days a week.

“We’re already evaluating it,” Adams said. “It could get worse this summer.”

More will be known next month, after the final snowpack survey is released April 1. The East Bay Municipal Utility District has been limiting outdoor watering — which uses up to 18 percent of water supplies statewide — since August, and its board will consider tougher rules in April. “It’s time to step up and increase conservation,” said spokeswoman Tracie Morales.

The agency will consider excessive-use fees for residents who use more water than the community average.

The district received 2,447 reports of water waste since August but has not issued any fines. Instead, offenders were paid a visit at home or received e-mails and phone calls. “We found that the carrot works better than the stick,” Morales said.

Customers used 13 percent less water last year than the year before, but conservation slipped after the driest January on record and only one rainstorm in February.

The state’s actions aim to jolt residents and raise awareness of the dire conditions California faces.

“We are experiencing the lowest snowpack and the driest January in recorded history, and communities around the state are already suffering severely from the prior three years of drought,” said State Water Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus in a press release. “If the drought continues through next winter and we do not conserve more — the consequences could be even more catastrophic than they already are.”

She called this week’s action “just a tuneup and a reminder to act.” She said the board will consider more severe actions in coming weeks.

“We are very concerned about individual property owners being mindful that we are in the fourth year of a drought,” Kostyrko said. “If we get into a fifth year of drought, we’ll definitely be more prescriptive.”

Statewide, water use from July to January was down 9 percent compared with the same period the year before. In December, it was down 22.5 percent.

“We have a lot more to go,” Kostyrko said.

Visalia, in the San Joaquin Valley, has had mandatory restrictions since 1991. It tightened them last year when it moved to a stage 4 drought emergency and is poised to enact deeper cuts again this year.

The City Council is considering barring all outdoor watering during three winter months instead of two, prohibiting washing of buildings except for paint priming and requiring drought-resistant landscaping for all new commercial and residential construction.

The city also wants to add a fourth part-time employee to enforce restrictions.

Visalia issued 2,831 notices of violations last year and 189 citations, with fines ranging from $100 to $500. The first two months of this year, 485 notices and 52 citations were issued, said Kim Loeb, the natural resource conservation manager for the city.

“Most people will get the message when they get their first notice of violation,” he said. “It’s working. We need to keep at it … We all have a long way to go.”

Water use dropped 10 percent last year but picked up again during record dry winter months.

The push for conservation through fines is raising questions of the potentially disproportionate financial impact on low-income Californians.

“There are equity issues that are deeply ingrained in the water policy landscape that precede the drought, but the drought exacerbated them,” said Colin Bailey, the executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

Conservation incentives, for example, are given to those who can afford to install low-flow devices in their homes or replace their lawn with drought-resistant plants, he said. “There’s inequity in the way they’re structured,” he said.

Revenue drops when water usage goes down, but infrastructure costs are fixed, and everyone pays, whether they conserve water or not. “We’re likely to see low-income households struggling to meet the requirements of the penalties,” he said.

“The more important focus needs to be on big water users rather than individual households that don’t have low-flow toilets or water-efficient dishwashers,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the interim executive director of Baykeeper, a nonprofit water pollution watchdog for San Francisco Bay that advocates for alternative water sources and recycling wastewater.

Until now, the state has left it up to water agencies to manage restrictions. She said the latest action is good but is “worried it’s a little late.”

“They should prepare us not just for dealing with this current drought but really to be thinking long term as well,” she said. “If this drought lasts 10 years, we better be in a good position to say where the water is going to be coming from.”

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