On Tuesday the State Water Resources Control Board in California is expected to institute statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time. All of California is in some type of drought and reservoirs are precariously low in many places. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada, recently reached an all-time low. So now the impact of the enduring drought has extended beyond warning.
“Many urban Californians don’t realize how bad a drought the state is in,” board chair Felicia Marcus said last week. “It is a mistake to think that they are not at risk. What these regulations propose is not that everyone kill off their lawns, but that at a minimum, people don’t over-water.”
The restrictions would ban wasteful outdoor watering, such as sprinkler water that runs onto the sidewalk or street. Hosing down sidewalks and driveways would also be banned and washing a car would require a shut-off nozzle on the hose. Maximum penalties could reach up to $500, enforceable by any public employee empowered to enforce laws, including local water agencies. Warnings and escalating fines would likely be the more moderated approach. If the restrictions prove ineffective or the drought worsens, tougher restrictions could be considered.
The board estimates that the proposed restrictions could save enough water to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year, about nine percent of the state’s population.
Californians have been looking to the sky all year for signs of rain, and in January Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and asked for voluntary cuts by residents of 20 percent. A board survey recently found that statewide water use had declined by just five percent since then.
Of the 440 local water districts represented by the Association of California Water Agencies, about 58 have already implemented mandatory restrictions, including cities like Los Angeles. Agencies can also use tiered pricing to force heavy water users to pay higher rates.
While residents cut back, and the state’s extensive agriculture industry reels from the drought and the water reductions they’ve already taken, Nestle is trucking off water from an especially dry part of the state east of Los Angeles for its Arrowhead and Pure Life brand water. The water plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation and therefore exempt from oversight by local water agencies as well as many reporting requirements.
“The reason this particular plant is of special concern is precisely because water is so scarce in the basin,” Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, told the Desert Sun. “If you had the same bottling plant in a water-rich area, then the amount of water bottled and diverted would be a small fraction of the total water available. But this is a desert ecosystem. Surface water in the desert is exceedingly rare and has a much higher environmental value than the same amount of water somewhere else.”