State water regulators are considering fines up to $500 to enforce emergency restrictions on urban water use like irrigating lawns and car washing due to the state’s severe drought, because conservation efforts so far aren’t producing enough results.

By Jessica Calefati and Denis Cuff, San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 07/09/14, 7:58 PM PDT | Updated: 56 secs ago

SACRAMENTO — Few Californians listened earlier this year when Gov. Jerry Brown begged them to conserve water. So now, with no end to the extreme dry weather in sight, state officials are poised to slap water wasters with unprecedented fines of up to $500 a day.

Drenching your lawn or washing your car without a nozzle on the hose would be among the violations that trigger penalties under emergency conservation rules the state Water Resources Control Board is set to consider next week. If approved, the new regulations — which would represent the first time the state has imposed mandatory statewide restrictions and fines on residential outdoor water use — would take effect Aug. 1.

“Having a dirty car and a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community,” Felicia Marcus, the board’s chairwoman, told reporters in a teleconference Wednesday. “We don’t know when it will rain again. It’s prudent to act as if it won’t.”

Marcus warned Californians to prepare for further restrictions. “What we’re proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum,” she said. “If it doesn’t rain later this fall, we certainly will consider more stringent measures.”

Mandatory and voluntary restrictions at a local level has so far resulted in a statewide water use reduction of 5 percent through May — short of the 20 percent sought by Brown.

Water regulators are hopeful the state’s residents will respond as well as they did in the last severe drought in 1976 and 1977, when Brown — who was also governor then — called for statewide conservation measures and Californians responded by reducing water consumption about 20 percent.

Although the overwhelming majority of California’s water is used to irrigate Central Valley farms, the new regulations would target urban water users. In some cities and towns, Marcus said, more than half of the water is used on landscaping.

In addition to prohibiting excessive lawn-watering and irresponsible car-washing, the new rules would block water users from power-washing hard surfaces and using potable water in decorative fountains if the water isn’t recycled. Indoor water usage for laundry, dishwashing and showering, however, will remain unrestricted.

The proposed rules also apply to urban water suppliers, who must implement plans to restrict customers’ outdoor water use if they haven’t done so already.

Agencies that fail to comply could face fines of up to $10,000 a day, but while public water utilities will be bound by the new rules if they’re adopted, private water providers like the San Jose Water Co. will be encouraged but not required to participate in the conservation plan. The reason is the water board has no authority to regulate private water usage.

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