As California’s severe drought deepens and officials look to reduce water consumption in every possible way, the state appears to be sending mixed signals as to which water-related activity is the most egregious.
The entirety of California is currently experiencing drought conditions and more than 80 percent of the state is classified as an extreme drought. Laura Whitney and her husband, Michael Korte, have been trying to conserve water in their Glendora, California home by cutting back on lawn watering, taking shorter showers, and doing larger loads of laundry. Now, they are facing a fine of up to $500 for not keeping their lawn green.
Survey results from the State Water Resources Control Board found that instead of achieving the 20 percent water reduction sought by Gov. Jerry Brown, water use actually jumped one percent this May, compared to the same period in previous years. As a result, the board voted unanimously this week to impose the first mandatory water restrictions on California residents. The regulations seek to curb water use among urban residents by banning wasteful outdoor watering, such as over-watering lawns, hosing down sidewalks or driveways, and washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose. Violators could face a fine of up to $500.
“Our goal here is to light a fire under those who aren’t yet taking the drought seriously,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus told the Associated Press after the vote.
On the same day the state approved the mandatory water restrictions, Whitney and Korte received a letter from the city threatening a fine for not sufficiently watering their brown lawn.
“Despite the water conservation efforts, we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green,” the letter reads. The couple were given 60 days to restore the lawn or be slapped with a fine ranging from $100 to $500, Reuters reported.
“My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering,” Whitney told the Associated Press. “I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”
According to the Contra Costa Water Board, lawn care is typically the single biggest water user for the average property and a 500-square-foot lawn can use more than 18,000 gallons of water per year. Among their tips for maintaining a lawn while in the midst of drought conditions: “Be willing to accept a less than lush lawn during the drought.”
Similarly, state water board Chairwoman Marcus told residents this week that “a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community.” However, Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers told Reuters that Whitney and Korte’s lawn had deteriorated so severely, the city was receiving reports of a possible abandoned property.
Gov. Brown signed an executive order in April stating homeowners associations could not punish residents for scaling back on landscaping but the Associated Press notes that neither the order nor recent legislation awaiting the governor’s signature address fines imposed by city governments.
As California endures its third straight year of drought conditions, some in the state see a slow shift away from the water-guzzling traditional lawns that were once a symbol of wealth. “We’re on the cusp of change. It’s definitely here,” Kevin Carson, Northern California president for The New Home Co., told the Sacramento Bee earlier this year. Cities like Davis are insisting on drought-tolerant landscaping for new developments and others, like Sacramento and Roseville, instituted programs that pay residents to switch from grass to plants that use less water.
And according to Lisa Brown, Roseville’s water conservation manager, the program was a big hit with residents: “We had a line outside the door the morning we started.”