Gov. Newsom, State Water Board clamp down on water conservation

Emergency water conservation regulations are adopted by the State Water Board restricting watering to commercial, industrial and public building; it also forces cities to implement Stage 2 conservation measures

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The State Water Board is imposing water conservation mandates on cities including a ban on lawns at commercial, industrial and public buildings.

The State Water Resources Control Board, more commonly referred to as the State Water Board, adopted an emergency water conservation regulation May 24 to ensure water supplies more aggressively conserve water after customers statewide actually used more water in the second year of the current drought.

In March 2022, the state’s urban water suppliers reported average water use statewide that was nearly 19% greater than in March 2020, lowering the state’s cumulative water savings since July 2021 to 3.7%. The day before the announcement, Governor Newsom convened leaders from the state’s largest urban water suppliers imploring them to take more aggressive action to combat drought. 

“The severity of this drought requires all Californians to save water in every possible way,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board. “The regulation compels water systems and local authorities to implement a range of additional critical conservation measures as we enter the hot and dry summer months.” 

The new regulation bans irrigating ornamental grass at commercial, industrial, and institutional properties, such as lawns in front of or next to large industrial or commercial buildings. The ban does not include watering grass that is used for recreation or other community purposes, water used at residences or water to maintain trees. 

Cities are unsure how they will enforce the rule and are awaiting more detailed regulations regarding the ban from the state, according to a quick call to local city officials. City administrators say they expect the clarification soon as the rules are set to take effect on June 10.

The state has only offered the following guidance from a facts issued last week: “Water suppliers and local governments will be expected to communicate the ban on irrigation of non-function turf to their CII customers and to use their discretion when taking enforcement actions for non-compliance. The emergency regulation will make the irrigation of CII non-functional turf an infraction, so any entity, such as a water supplier or local government already authorized to enforce infractions may choose to enforce violations of the regulation.”

The regulation also requires all urban water suppliers to implement Level 2 of their water conservation ordinances. Level 2 is meant to address up to a 20% shortage of water supplies. In addition to implementing Level 2 actions, the regulation requires urban water suppliers to fast-track supply and demand assessments to plan for potential extended dry conditions or adjusting to conditions and ratcheting up to the next level of their water conservation ordinances. The State Water Board is also requiring cities to include the following in their Stage 2 implementation:

  • Limiting outdoor irrigation to two days per week and only between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
  • Increasing patrolling to identify water waste 
  • Enforcing water-use prohibitions and regulations with fines up to $500
  • Increasing communication about the importance of water conservation 

Some water suppliers have already imposed strong new restrictions on customers’ water use in accordance with local water ordinances. However, about half of the state’s 436 water suppliers (both urban water retailers and wholesalers) have not yet activated Level 2, and 36 have not submitted drought plans. The emergency regulation will require suppliers without drought plans to take certain conservation actions, such as conducting outreach to customers about conservation, restricting outdoor irrigation to two days a week and enforcing against wasteful water practices. The approved regulation will be submitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for approval, which typically occurs within 10 calendar days. The emergency regulation will automatically be in effect for at least one year unless it is modified by the State Water Board. 

Stage 2

Every city in Tulare County is already in Stage 2 of their water conservation ordinances, which limit outdoor watering to days of the week and times of day, prohibit using water to clean hard surfaces, ban refilling pools or running water features which don’t recirculate water, and require all hoses to have a shut off nozzle. 

Four local cities have gone well beyond the state’s requirements and are in Stage 4 of their water conservation ordinances. Lindsay is in the most dire water situation and may have had to consider moving into Stage 5, its most restrictive level, if it did not receive additional surface water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Lindsay gets one third of its water from the Friant Kern-Canal and one of its wells is heavily contaminated with nitrates, a chemical harmful to pregnant women and infants. At its April 26 meeting, the Lindsay City Council modified its Stage 4 ordinance by quadrupling some of its watering fines for both residential and commercial/industrial customers. For residential uses, fines went from $50 to $100 for a first offense, from $100 to $500 for a second offense and from $250 to $1,000 after the third violation. For non-residential users, fines begin at $1,000 for the first violation and jump to $10,000 after the third violation. 

Porterville, Farmersville and Woodlake are also in Stage 4 but the stages can differ from city to city. Porterville’s Stage 4 limits watering to just one day per week while Farmersville’s and Woodlake’s Stage 4 allows for two days per week for most of the year. Farmersville and Woodlake do not allow outdoor watering December through February. Woodlake will have to adjust its ordinance because its fines do not meet the $500 requirement set by the state. Currently, Woodlake charges $300 per offense after the third violation.

Tulare will have to adjust its ordinance as well. Exeter and Tulare are both in Stage 3, which limits watering to two days per week. However, Tulare’s fines are capped at $300 per offense after five violations. Exeter charges $500 after the third violation. 

Visalia and Dinuba are both in Stage 2 of their ordinances. Both charge up to $500 or more ($625 in Visalia) after the third violation and restrict watering days and times. Dinuba’s Stage 2 allows watering three days per week May through September and the city has a longer window for watering from 7 p.m. to 10 a.m., neither of which meets the minimum mandate for Level 2 restrictions under the state’s order. The city did not return calls as of press time on how it will adjust its ordinance. Even if a city has an adequate supply of water, the State Water Board said it must at least meet these requirements. 

“The drought emergency is statewide, and conservation is important to extend water supplies in the event of continuing drought,” according to a fact sheet on the new order. ‘All water suppliers have the ability to support water resilience through additional conservation.”

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