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California’s ‘water cop’ urges residents to take drought seriously with mandatory restrictions

July 16, 2014 at 6:11 PM EST
California is now in the third year of its worst drought since the 1970s. Despite a drought emergency, consumption actually rose in May. But under new rules starting August 1, people who waste water on lawns and car washing could be fined up to $500 a day. Judy Woodruff talks to Craig Miller of KQED and Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies about the new measures.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: California officials are putting mandatory restrictions on water use in place as a result of that state’s ongoing drought. Several Western states, including Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, have large regions suffering a severe to extreme drought.

But California’s problem has lasted longer than most, and now the state says it’s time to ramp up conservation.

Dried-up lakebeds and water shortages have become depressingly familiar sights across California, and state water regulators moved Tuesday to impose new conservation rules.

State Water Board chair Felicia Marcus:

FELICIA MARCUS, Chairwoman, State Water Resources Control Board: focusing on outdoor irrigation because that’s a place where people tend to, even without realizing it, they overwater. It really behooves all of us to figure out how to use the water that we do have as wisely as we can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Starting August 1, the new rules could mean daily fines of up to $500 for people who waste water on lawns and car washing. California is now in the third year of its worst drought since the 1970s.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January, and temporarily rolled back protections for endangered fish to allow pumping from the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta. Brown also called for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use, but a state survey shows consumption actually rose by 1 percent in May.

Jay Lund at the University of California at Davis, has studied the drought. He says the state’s residents have to adjust.

JAY LUND, Director, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences: From all the climate change studies that we have done, we don’t see catastrophe if you manage it well, but we do see inconvenience and we do see costs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A large part of those costs come in the state’s agriculture sector that provides food for much of the United States. Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley already faced reduced water flows, and they are worried.

JOHN GLESS, Vice President, Gless Ranch: We’re drilling these wells, but we’re watching the production. Most of the wells that we have are down 30 percent from a year ago and we’re watching them drop by the week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.C. Davis report warns the drought will cost California $2.2 billion this year, and the loss of more than 17,000 jobs.

For more on the rationale for these rules and their likely impact, I’m joined by Timothy Quinn. He’s the director of the Association of California Water Agencies. His members will have to enforce the changes. And Craig Miller, the science editor at San Francisco’s KQED Public Media.

And we welcome you both.

To you first, Timothy Quinn.

Why were these regulations necessary right now, and if the situation is so serious, why give discretion to individual agencies on how and whether to enforce them?

TIMOTHY QUINN, Association of California Water Agencies: Well, the action was necessary because we’re going through an extraordinary drought experience in California.

Last year was the driest year on record. This year is the third driest year on record. Demands are up, our storage is down, so our member agencies believe that action was necessary right now. And, frankly, it’s happening too late. The seriousness of this drought just became apparent in the last few months.

I mean, in January, February, March, they were dry as a bone. And we started to realize we had to take this seriously. And it takes time, of course, for the public and others to move up the learning curve. I think the actions that were taken by the State Water Resources Control Board, our water cop in California, they’re basically grabbing us by the lapel and say, take this serious for the emergency that it is. And that’s what we’re going to be doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And briefly remind us what people are asked to do. It’s no water runoff when you’re watering your lawn, don’t water driveways, don’t use excess water on your cars. It’s all outdoor use; is that right?

TIMOTHY QUINN: The focus here is on outdoor, use but the State Board is ordering — and this is historically unprecedented — they’re ordering every urban water supply agency that serves more than 3,000 connections in California to go to the mandatory portions of their local drought contingency plans.

That — it’s focused on the outdoors, but I think you will find California is realizing that this is an emergency situation and they will start saving water outdoors and indoors. Maybe showers are going to be the order of the day. They have been in my house since January. You’re not going to be flushing as often, and your lawn is going to go brown and it’s just going to be kind of tough until this is over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Craig Miller, you have been reporting on this water situation for a long time for KQED. How seriously do Californians take this problem?

CRAIG MILLER, KQED: It’s kind of hard to tell right now, Judy.

Actually, some polling was done in May on that very point, and most Californians at that time, about 60 percent, I believe, said they thought the drought was pretty serious where they were. And most of them also said that they were already taking actions to save water.

But, as we have heard, the governor has asked for 20 percent water reduction across the board, and he’s not getting it. He’s not getting anywhere close to it. In fact, in some parts of the state, water use is actually up this year. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why at the state level they started to think it was time to take the bull by the horns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you were telling us earlier today, Craig Miller, that, in your — in observing what people are doing around the state, you think people are, though, taking precautions that they didn’t used to or using water in a somewhat different way.

CRAIG MILLER: Well, everything’s relative.

You know, if you look at the per capita water consumption around California, it’s all over the map, literally and figuratively, anywhere from 50 gallons a day to three, four times that, depending in large part on the size of lawns people have and what they’re doing with them.

But you also have an increased number of high-density — an increased amount of high-density housing in the urban areas. A lot of people don’t have lawns anymore and things are generally more efficient than they were. If you go back to the last really serious drought in the mid-’70s, people were told to put a brick or a gallon water jug in their toilet tank to displace the water and reduce the amount per flush.

Well, today, most toilets today are already using that lower amount of water per flush. So a lot of things have already become more efficient. And of course the less water people are using, the harder it is to squeeze more savings out of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Timothy Quinn, how do you expect these local water agencies will enforce this regulations? What will they do? Will they go around neighborhoods and see what people are doing?

TIMOTHY QUINN: That will happen.

Virtually all of the public agencies that deliver California’s water have drought contingency plans in place, so they don’t have to dream them up. They’re there. They go from voluntary measures to stronger measures to mandatory measures.

So, those plans are in place. And the public agencies in California, there have been through droughts before, as has been pointed out, and so they will go out and do those things. And it’s not easy. There’s a lot of arguments. You get complaints from your customers. But what they will do is implement plans that they already have in place, by and large.

If you don’t have a plan in place, you will be required to get one and to take specific actions. And, typically, you find a homeowner whose grass is too green or the driveway is wet, they give them a warning. That may be followed by another warning, a small fine. And, eventually, the fines get pretty big.

The action taken by the State Board yesterday authorizes fines up to $500 a day, which will certainly get a water user’s attention, although I predict you won’t see very many of those fines. Our experience is, Californians will respond.

What this is going to do is convince that we do have a true emergency, and they need to change behavior, do some extraordinary things that go beyond efficiency. They have always responded in the past, and I think they will respond this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Craig Miller, how do you see that? In your reporting, what’s your sense of how people are going to respond to this? Are they going to go ahead and comply?

CRAIG MILLER: I think the enforcement part of this is a little bit murky, Judy.

Even in the release that came out from the State Water Board, it said something about how local districts would be allowed to ask courts to impose fines. The actual linkage between the regulation they have put out and the fines themselves is pretty loose.

I agree with Tim. I don’t think we will actually see much of that happening. And districts are reacting differently. There’s — as Tim will tell you, there’s more than 400 water districts and agencies around California, and they’re all taking this with different levels of seriousness.

Some have said they are going to respond to this very aggressively, like San Francisco, for example, but others are saying they’re not going to — it’s going to be pretty much what they have been doing right along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, Timothy Quinn, a mixed picture in terms of enforcement and compliance around the state, is that what you’re looking at?

TIMOTHY QUINN: Well, with hundreds of water agencies, there’s always going to be a mix.

But let me tell you, they’re going to start looking more like, as a result of what the State Water Resources Control Board has done — the State Board has got a lot of power. The governor has declared emergency powers, which are extraordinary, in all states, including California.

You will start seeing water agencies around the state starting to behave more like each other. You will see water consumers around the state all responding to a crisis condition. They just haven’t quite got this drought before now. This is going to help them get this drought.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tim Quinn with the Association of California Water Agencies, Craig Miller with KQED, we thank you both.

TIMOTHY QUINN: Thank you.