SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California regulators on Tuesday approved emergency statewide rules that for the first time allow fines against water-wasters after a call for voluntary reductions failed to curb enough use as a three-year drought worsens.
The California State Water Resources Control Board passed an emergency measure that sets fines of as much as $500 a day on residential and business property owners if they overwater lawns to the point that runoff flows onto streets or sidewalks. Residents washing cars without shutoff nozzles on hoses would also face penalties.
After three years of record-low rainfall, 80 percent of the most populous U.S. state is now experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website. Reservoirs are 45 percent below normal levels, and farmers have left fallow an estimated half-million acres in the nation’s most productive agricultural region. The dry spell is likely to boost the prices of food nationwide, and farm and shipping interests stand to lose billions in revenue.
“This is an historic action because of the historic nature of this drought,” said Water Resources board chairwoman Felicia Marcus.
Some communities have been forced to restrict water use to a fraction of normal levels and truck in bottled water as supplies dwindle. Campfires have been prohibited, and wildfires are on the rise, as millions of acres of dry brush are primed to burn. Salmon and steelhead trout populations are at risk as river levels decline.
California isn’t alone. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared drought emergencies in nine counties. Lake Mead, the man-made reservoir in Nevada that supplies 90 percent of the water for 2 million people in the Las Vegas area, has been reduced by drought to the lowest level since it was filled in 1937, according to the federal government.
Water use in California rose 1 percent since Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency in January and called for a voluntary across-the-board cut of 20 percent, the water board said.
The proposed state regulations would prohibit the use of fountains and other ornamental water features unless they are equipped with recirculation pumps. Residents also would be barred from washing driveways and sidewalks. Local water agencies throughout the state would need to begin enforcing outdoor restrictions, such as limiting lawn watering to certain days of the week.
Walt Disney Co.’s parks and resorts said in a letter to the board that the company recycles water when it washes equipment and public areas of its property in Orange County. The San Diego Zoo also wrote to the board saying bird droppings and animal feces need to be washed off walkways and benches every day to ensure proper sanitation.
Any municipal employee that local officials empower to do so could write a ticket for an offense.
Some towns in the state already limit use to 50 gallons a day or less per person for basic sanitation needs. The average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The drought will cost California $2.2 billion in 2014 and result in 17,000 lost farming jobs, according to a study released Tuesday by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis.