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Will water-wasting penalties help California conserve?

California's efforts to get residents and businesses to voluntarily use less water have not been enough in the face of a historic and ongoing drought. Now mandatory emergency rules that come with penalties have been enacted, requiring towns and cities to cut use from 8 to 36 percent. Gwen Ifill learns more from Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

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    Drought-stricken California has been working to reduce water use by getting residents and businesses to agree to voluntary restrictions.

    So far, it's not working. And now the state water board has passed emergency rules to slash usage by 25 percent in urban areas, the first time such limits have been made mandatory with penalties attached. The new rules can require cities and towns to cut water use by as little as 8 percent to as much as 36 percent.

    Felicia Marcus is the chair of the California State Water Board and she joins me now from Sacramento.

    So, what has been achieved so far, since Governor Brown came out with these voluntary restrictions?

  • FELICIA MARCUS, Chair, California State Water Control Board:

    Well, we had voluntary restrictions. And then we had some mild mandatory orders to our local water agencies.

    And on average Californians, did step up and did save around 9 percent, which is not nothing. It's significant. It's just not enough in the face of another dry year, which we now know we're in.


    What areas of the state have been hardest hit?


    Well, agriculture in rural California have been hit the hardest through the course of this drought. We have got hundreds of thousands of acres of fallowed fields, thousands of people out of work. We have communities that are running out of water and we're delivering water in bottles and tankers and drilling wells and running pipe.

    And so we're taking this action to give our large urban communities some extra resilience in the face of what we now know is an unprecedented drought in our lifetime, in our grandparents' lifetime, but certainly not in history and certainly not in other countries. We know from the Australian experience in the 2000s, where they thought they were in a usual three-year drought cycle, just like we have been, theirs lasted for 10, 12, or 15 years, depending on where you are.

    And so their advice was, conserve early. Don't wait as long as we did.


    Is there a way to say what the biggest cause of this is? Is it agriculture's demands, is it businesses' demands or individuals? We think of car washing and lawn watering.


    Well, I think it's more complex than that.

    I think we're in a drought of unprecedented proportions. So, I wouldn't want to cast blame. We're in uncharted territory and we're having to adapt as we go. But, fortunately, we have a lot of opportunities to adapt, with conservation of course being the cheapest, smartest and fastest way to extend our water resources.

    But we also have great plans, particularly in our large — in cities, for all kinds of water recycling and storm water capture and, in appropriate cases, desalination, but those take time to get up off the ground. So this is going to buy us some time, so that we don't have to go to very harsh measures or even more expensive measures, like our friends in Australia did or our friends in Sao Paulo are doing right now, where they have to just turn the water off for hours at a time because they have gotten so low in their reserves.


    Well, assuming that you're well short of having to turn the water off, what is — with these new rules, what is the penalty for not complying? Say people just say I will water my lawn at night or I will do something else.


    Well, I think there are penalties. And I want to avoid that.

    But, generally, folks do step up when things become mandatory regulations. And we know voluntary gets you so much, regulations get you so much. There are a number of tools local agencies can use. Just public education and community spirit actually does a lot and regulations help with that, because then everybody knows that everybody is playing in the same ball field and everybody is expected to come up to the same norms.

    And, frankly, a lot of the best communication and best programs with the greatest results are where communities have stepped up and engaged the public, explained why they need to do it, and also given people some sense of what their neighbors are doing, even going so far as to do — threaten fines, but allow people to go to water conservation school, like Santa Cruz has. And they have had tremendous response from that.

    And they're the lowest gallons per capita per day residential we have in the state, and they still have a vibrant community, including their landscapes.


    Well, assuming that every community isn't as forward-thinking as that, what — doesn't a hammer about to fall on you make you act more — with more alacrity, which is to say, if there are fines, if there are penalties, if there are whistle-blowers, wouldn't that make people step up to the bat, to use the baseball metaphor?


    Yes, no, absolutely, absolutely.

    It is a piece in a continuum. It's just not the only piece. I think there are fines in the background. We early on in our early regulation gave authority to locals, up to $500 to implement the prohibitions that we enacted over the course of the last nine months, not watering, hosing down your driveway when a broom would do, not having ornamental fountains without a recirculating pump if they use potable water.

    We enacted hospitality regs that were — had hotels having to offer their customers a chance to not have their sheets and towels washed every night and restaurants need to ask if someone wants water, a number of those things that are somewhat commonsense, but actually help build the community awareness and community spirit.

    The governor met with a group of mayors last week. He will be proposing legislation to give local agencies more enforcement authority and local enforcement tools. Not all of them have the like. So, it's a very important piece of it, but it's part of a continuum that starts with and can't substitute for good communication on the part of our local water agencies with their customers.


    Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, thank you.


    Thank you so much for taking the time.

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