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Calif. water wasters face $500 a day fine as use increases

SACRAMENTO -- In one of the most drastic responses yet to California's drought, state regulators on Tuesday will consider fines up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, fountains, washing vehicles and other outdoor uses.

The rules would prohibit the watering of landscaping to the point that runoff spills onto sidewalks or streets.

Hosing down sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces would be banned along with washing vehicles without a shut-off nozzle.

Violations would be infractions punishable by the fines, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and increases for repeat violations.

The State Water Resources Control Board said it received about 100 written comments after it proposed the emergency regulations last week.

“So far, people have been pretty supportive,” board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. “I think people recognize that we're taking a moderate approach and we're sending a message as much as anything.”

The board estimates that the proposed restrictions could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year. That's enough to meet the needs of nearly nine of every 10 Los Angeles residents.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state's water, about half going outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state's consumption.

San Francisco officials worry about the prohibition on washing streets and sidewalks.

Public Works Department spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said that could interfere with the frequent cleaning of alleys to wash away human waste where there are high concentrations of homeless people.

“We feel very strongly that this is a health and safety issue for people in San Francisco,” she said.

Nor does it do much for tourism if visitors see or smell the waste. During the past 12 months, she said the city responded to about 8,000 calls to steam clean streets of human waste.

The proposed state regulations already provide exceptions when health or safety is at risk, but Gordon said San Francisco wants to make sure it doesn't run afoul of the rules even as it takes other steps to conserve water.

Some water agencies have said the proposed fines are a good way to get residents' attention, while others say the steps aren't needed to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's goal of a 20 percent reduction in water use.

Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, has seen its water use decline about 16 percent this spring without widespread fines, said Lisa Brown, the city's water conservation administrator.

City employees are sent to warn wasters and administrative fines are imposed on those who don't comply.

The city says the infractions proposed by the state board are criminal penalties that would have to be issued by sworn police officers.

A $500 fine “is excessive and could cause more problems,” Lisa Brown said in an email. “The time it would take to collect payment for a penalty would be better served educating our customer base.”

The state water board says tickets could be written by any public employee empowered to enforce laws, not just police. Marcus said there is no intent to undermine current practices by any local agency.

She said the state board could easily make technical or moderate changes to the proposed regulations during its meeting Tuesday after hearing testimony.

However, significant changes would prompt a delay while the board seeks additional public comments.

“There's no time to waste, and wasting water now will mean far greater hardship later if it doesn't rain,” Marcus said.

The proposed fines notwithstanding, the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday released updated results from a water-use survey that shows consumption has risen 1 percent, even as Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a 20 percent cutback.

The report corrected survey results released just a month ago that said use statewide had declined by 5 percent.

The earlier survey had prompted the State Water Quality Control Board to consider the most drastic response yet to California's drought -- imposing fines of up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, fountains, washing vehicles and other outdoor uses.

Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus says the increase in use underscores the need for action: “Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is.”

Farmers in pockets of California hardest hit by the drought could begin to see their wells run dry a year from now if rain and snow remain scarce in the agriculturally rich state, according to a study released Tuesday.

Richard Howitt, a University of California, Davis professor emeritus of agriculture and resource economics, urged farmers to take the lead in managing groundwater to irrigate crops and sustain California's $44.7 billion farming industry.

Farmers are accustomed to having a seeming endless supply, Howitt said.

“My message to farmers is treat groundwater like you treat your retirement account,” Howitt said. “Know how much water's in it and how fast it's being used.”

The study released by the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences, used computer modeling, NASA satellite data and estimates provided by state and federal water agencies to examine the impact on California if the next two years continue to be abnormally dry.

California leads the nation in production of more than a dozen crops, including almonds, artichokes, grapes and peaches. Howitt and his colleagues were invited to present the research at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Updating preliminary findings released in May, the study estimates that this year farmers will leave nearly 430,000 acres unplanted, or 5 percent of total irrigated cropland, costing California $2.2 billion. More than 17,000 people will be without jobs, the study says.

With less water available in the mountain snowpack that fills the state's reservoirs and canals, farmers are pumping more groundwater, and it's not being replenished.

California is the only western state that doesn't measure groundwater use, and Howitt said demanding more of wells is a short-term solution with long-term costs.

“It's very simple economics, but it's such an emotional topic,” Howitt said. “Farmers have to sit down and ask themselves... do they want their children and grandchildren to be farming?”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture requested the research.

Karen Ross, the department's secretary, said she recognizes the critical state of California's ground water and the need for local officials to manage it.

If that does not happen, Ross said the state will intervene. Millions of Californians depend on ground supplies for drinking water, she said, adding that farmers have a large role to play.

“It's not if there will be future droughts,” Ross said. “There will be future droughts, and we need to take our lessons and prepare ourselves as much as possible.”

Associated Press writer Fenit Nirappil contributed to this story.

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