Shared from the 1/5/2022 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Water-use limits now mandatory

Violations of new state regulations could bring fines

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle 2021

An irrigation pond at Redwood Valley Vineyards, seen on Nov. 5, 2021, reflects California’s protracted dry spell.


» Irrigating a lawn or other ornamental landscape with potable water to the point at which runoff washes onto the street or sidewalk.

» Washing a car without a shutoff nozzle on the hose.

» Hosing down driveways, sidewalks, patios and other hard surfaces with potable water unless health or safety are at risk.

» Filling decorative fountains or ponds with potable water, unless it’s recirculated water.

» Watering a lawn or ornamental landscape within 48 hours of measurable rainfall.

» Using potable water for street cleaning or construction.

» Using potable supplies for watering street medians or strips between the sidewalk and street.

Californians must curb their outdoor water use under statewide regulations adopted Tuesday as a stubborn drought continues to threaten water supplies despite recent storms.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted to enact yearlong prohibitions on water uses considered wasteful, such as cleaning sidewalks or public medians with drinkable water, washing cars without an automatic shut-off nozzle and irrigating ornamental landscapes within 48 hours of measurable rain. Violations could result in $500-a-day fines.

Some local water agencies already have similar regulations in place, but many do not.

“I do think it sends a message we’re still in a drought,” said Laurel Firestone, a member of the state water board’s governing body. “It’s critical everyone does their part.”

The vote enacts the first mandatory water limits of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. Despite pressure to impose statewide rationing with water shortages mounting, Newsom last year stopped short of ordering restrictions on how much water people use, instead opting to ask Californians to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 15%.

The state, however, has not met Newsom’s target, reducing water use by just 6% between July and November, according to the water board. November, the latest month for which data was available, showed some improvement over earlier months.

Officials acknowledged the awkward timing of the new regulations, coming after significant December rainfall and historic snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. But winter storms haven’t provided enough precipitation to make up for two dry winters, said Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director of the state water board.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Oppenheimer said. “Parts of the water system are still under stress by the drought.”

Early this week, Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, contained half of the water it typically does at this time of year. Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir, contained 74% of what it averages at this point.

While a parade of winter storms has begun replenishing reservoirs and bringing much of California out of the worst of drought conditions, it’s still early in the wet season and the recent gains would mean little if the remainder of winter is dry.

“The outlook is still very uncertain,” said state climatologist Michael Anderson, with the California Department of Water Resources. And starting next week, the forecasts show “things go dry,” he said.

The 2020 and 2021 water years, when combined, mark the driest two-year spell on record for California, Anderson noted, and the state has been mired in drought conditions about 50% of the time since 2000.

While violations of the new rules could result in fines, the water board left enforcement of these limits mostly in the hands of local jurisdictions like municipal water agencies. The board Tuesday encouraged education over tough enforcement.

Oppenheimer said the limits should signal to Californians that drought conditions still prevail throughout much of the state and will worsen if the rest of the winter is dry.

Julie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @juliejohnson

MORE ONLINE: Find all of The Chronicle’s coverage of California’s drought, climate change and wildfires. SFCHRONICLE.COM/DROUGHT

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